Republicans and the Obama Foreign Policy

Congressional Republicans are all but united in their opposition to President Obama's domestic program. But on foreign policy, where the Obama White House has taken a number of dramatic steps, Republicans have said virtually nothing, as Spencer Ackerman reports in The Washington Independent.

So what exactly is going on? Ackerman offers a number of possibilities, and he draws on a number of interviews with leading Republican foreign policy thinkers, including Mario Loyola and Christian Brose. One key conflict is between those Loyola calls "Alamo Conservatives," who intend to oppose Obama on every issue, and those in Brose's circle who hope to constructively engage the Obama administration.

For conservatives, the dramatic turnaround of the American military effort in Iraq might be the central achievement of the Bush years. As Thomas Ricks tells the story in The Gamble, the surge strategy began when a small coterie of junior officers, retired generals, and conservative defense intellectuals, many of them based at the American Enterprise Institute, formed their own "Team B" to press the Bush administration for a new approach, one that forcefully rejected the growing consensus that the U.S. should accelerate the withdrawal of military forces. Though Obama has now announced a timetable for withdrawal, it is mostly in keeping with plans made during the waning days of the Bush administration. As Ackerman notes in his article,

With Iraq, some on the right have explained the broader lack of criticism of Obama's withdrawal strategy by considering the approach coterminous with Bush's policies.

Many conservatives expected that the 2008 presidential election, like the 2006 midterms, would essentially be a referendum on the Iraq war, only this time they'd have a far stronger case, given John McCain's role as a critic of the Bush White House and Barack Obama's strong opposition to the surge strategy. The irony, for pro-surge conservatives, is that the relative success of the surge -- or rather, the relative success of the broader shift in U.S. strategy -- neutralized Iraq as a political question, focusing the campaign on domestic policy issues on which Democrats had an advantage. Though this advantage remains, Republicans seem keen on articulating a more coherent, focused domestic message. And on foreign policy, Obama has been scrupulously bipartisan, reaching out to the Republican realist establishment as embodied in Defense Secretary Robert Gates. On the key foreign policy faultline of the moment, the future of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Republicans find themselves by and large aligned with Obama against his critics on the left.

But it's worth noting that as recently as the late 1990s Congressional Republicans forcefully opposed what they saw Bill Clinton's hyperactive foreign policy. Then House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was a scathing critic of the Kosovo campaign, and presidential candidate George W. Bush won the allegiance of many conservatives by deriding nation-building. At the time, conservatives like Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan who advocated a robust American role in promoting democracy and opposing rogue regimes found themselves aligned with Clinton and Al Gore against many of their fellow Republicans.

During the Bush years, the pro-military nationalism of the Republican base led to strong support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this grassroots enthusiasm took a form very different from that of Republican foreign policy elites, as Rich Lowry argued in a 2006 essay on "The 'To Hell with Them' Hawks."

These are conservatives who are comfortable using force abroad, but have little patience for a deep entanglement with the Muslim world, which they consider unredeemable, or at least not worth the strenuous effort of trying to redeem. To put their departure from Bush in terms associated with foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, they want to detach Bush's Jacksonianism (the hardheaded, somewhat bloody-minded nationalism) from his Wilsonianism (the crusading democratic idealism).

As any number of anti-neoconservative jeremiads suggest, the democratic idealism of much of the Republican foreign policy establishment is very much in tension with the nationalism of the base. Insofar as Obama's efforts to improve the security situation in Afghanistan become identified with democratic idealism or the cause of humanitarian intervention, there is a real risk that some Republicans will, like DeLay on Kosovo, try to capitalize on anti-war sentiment.