Republicans in the United States long enjoyed an advantage in popularity and trust on national security issues. Conservatives were seen as more capable to conduct defense and foreign policy whereas Democrats preferred to campaign on domestic issues like education and health care.
In the 2012 election, Republicans could be losing that advantage. Whereas the party’s presidential candidate Mitt Romney hardly mentioned defense and foreign policy in his acceptance speech last week, instead focusing on improving the economy, speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina hammered their opponents on their perceived failures in the recent past.
Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who ran against Republican George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and lost, reminded his audience of the “disaster and disarray” that President Barack Obama inherited from his predecessor: “A war of choice in Iraq had become a war without end and a war of necessity in Afghanistan had become a war of neglect.”
Obama ended the war in Iraq and has set a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, one that Romney has criticized but hardly ever brings up, realizing that the vast majority of voters would rather the United States pull forces out of the Central Asian country sooner.
“Our alliances were shredded,” added Kerry. “America was isolated in the world.” Many countries, including European allies France and Germany, vocally opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq while Britain supported it.
Kerry accused the last Bush Administration of allowing Iran to march toward a nuclear weapon while “Osama Bin Laden was still plotting.” In reality, intelligence services continued their search for the terrorist leader who orchestrated the attacks of September 11, 2001 unabated until he was killed by American special forces last year. President Obama’s efforts to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program haven’t been markedly different from George W. Bush’s nor particularly successful.
The president himself, who formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination on Thursday night, argued that Republicans “want take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly.”
Kerry mentioned Romney’s “neocon advisors who know all the wrong things about foreign policy” as evidence that he would revert to the Bush era. Unlike them, Obama “proceeds in a steady and thoughtful manner.”
Like Teddy Roosevelt, he walks softly but carries a big stick in contrast to those in the opposition who rely on slogans and empty rhetoric as a weak substitute for real policy initiatives. Theirs is a Potemkin foreign policy of all façade and no substance.
Kerry held up last year’s intervention in Libya as an example of the president’s more “thoughtful” foreign policy. He shunned unilateralism in favor of building a coalition of Arab and Western nations in which, at least publicly, France and the United Kingdom took to the lead.
Republicans were divided in their opinion of the Libya campaign. Some argued the president’s policy of “leading from behind” was misguided and detrimental to American prestige. Others criticized the mission altogether, noting that the United States had no interest in toppling the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Romney’s foreign policy team reflects these divisions. There are neoconservatives among them, who are usually more prone to advocating intervention, even if the United States cannot find allies, including former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. But it also includes former World Bank president Bob Zoellick as head of the candidate’s national security transition team whom neoconservatives have criticized as an “old school Republican,” i.e., a realist.
The Romney campaign’s foreign policy white paper, though written by a neoconservative, reads, “Skillful leadership requires an ability to recognize that sometimes our interests and our values will be in tension and to figure out how to live with that ambiguity, without forsaking either”—not a very neoconservative position which usually maintains that American interests and values are not in tension.
After the George W. Bush years, which saw the neoconservative wing take over national security policy, the Republican Party is a bit in disarray. Kerry has a point when he argues in Foreign Policy magazine that a “problem with the Republican opposition is that it doesn’t know what its policy is.”
Some want to aggressively pursue the situation in Syria and others don’t. Some want us to be more aggressive in Afghanistan and others want us out tomorrow while still others want to withdraw from all global commitments. Their budget preserves at all costs defense spending but recommends cuts to the foreign assistance and State Department budgets to the point that, if enacted, there would be nothing left.
If the Republican Party is to reclaim its national security mantle, it has first to decide what ideology informs its national security views. Neoconservatism and realism are irreconcilable. Either Romney returns to the policy of George W. Bush—or that of the former president’s father.