Ryan’s Struggles Betray Party’s Foreign Policy Rupture

The vice presidential candidate could hardly defend a foreign policy that is incoherent.

Foreign policy was once the purview of the Republican Party but since it launched two major wars in the Middle East with no exit strategy and no plan to pay for it, the party has found itself in quite the bind. Contrast this with President Barack Obama’s record of ending an unpopular war in Iraq, toppling Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya with minimal use of force and no American casualties and the much hailed “pivot” to East Asia and Mitt Romney’s task to win back his party’s advantage on the subject becomes even more of an uphill climb.

The Republican candidate has been particularly critical of Obama’s alleged “apology” tours. This focus on the incumbent’s attempts to improve America’s standing in the world may stem from Romney’s misfortune of representing a strikingly diverse constituency on foreign policy as compared to George W. Bush eight years ago.

The party’s attempt to unite a warmongering neoconservative establishment with an anti-war libertarian constituency was perhaps no more evident than at this year’s convention. Glossed over in Clint Eastwood’s “old man and a chair” performance was the actor’s call for the United States to “get out of Afghanistan!” — a call that ignited raucous cheers from the crowd. (Imagine the reaction if a speaker did that in 2004.)

But true to form, the crowd listened and cheered afterward when Mitt Romney called for more confrontation in the Middle East.

The same awkward straddling could be seen at the vice presidential debate on Thursday. Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, was pressed to give more details on the ticket’s foreign outlook beyond “not apologizing for America” and demonstrating strength. Despite wanting a break from the past, Ryan showed that Republicans still have to throw a bone to the neoconservative establishment.

The resulting inconsistency is embarrassing. Romney and Ryan agree with a transitioned handover of security in Afghanistan yet want less Afghans and more American troops fighting on the ground. They agree with the administration’s plan for withdrawal but under no circumstances should this plan have been broadcast, as though a withdrawal that’s set to take place in less than two years’ time could possibly have been kept a secret. Even if it could, how would the Afghans have felt if — surprise! — the United States just got up and left?

It’s worth pointing out that Mitt Romney’s foreign policy papers suggest a more realist approach than his rhetoric does. But on Afghanistan, the dominant issue in American foreign policy, Romney still has to step a little to the right of the president.

He has to do the same on Iran, a situation that has the potential to make Afghanistan look like a romp on the playground. The neoconservatives always have to have their foot in the door, even if just a little, and even if them having a stake in the Romney vision undercuts everything else about his politics. How else to square a proposed $2 trillion increase in defense spending the Pentagon doesn’t even want with the right’s obsessive fixation on debt and deficits?

There’s another level to the inconsistency in this “stuff,” as Vice President Joe Biden put it Thursday night, and for Democrats, the political validation borders on the sublime.

When Senator John Kerry ran for the presidency on the Democratic side in 2004, his equivocation of intervention à la Iraq was framed by some Republicans as borderline treason. Given the hardline approach taken by Republicans for eight years toward anyone who didn’t subscribe to “you’re with us or against us,” it’s difficult to characterize the party’s present foreign policy critiques as anything but demented at best.

Unlike John McCain in 2008, Romney and Ryan are not arguing for open ended conflict in the Middle East. But in moving to the center while remaining tied to the neoconservatives wing, the ticket isn’t really taking a nuanced approach. Indeed, it’s masking its foreign policy vagaries in the language of realism that, since the start of this century, has been monopolized by the Democratic Party. It’s playing a game of Twister it cannot win.

The union of neoconservatives and Republican realists during the Bush Administration seemed one of holy matrimony. By 2012, with the blood and treasure costs rising and the capital of the neoconservative movement all but spent, the alliance seems more like an awkward shotgun wedding.

Mitt Romney will have to challenge President Obama on foreign policy in the upcoming two presidential debates. But a change in tone is unlikely. Neoconservatives have dominated Republican foreign policy for more than a decade. A thorough examination of their policies is required on the right but that will take more than the four weeks that are left between now and election day. It would require an honest assessment of America’s interests and capabilities. It would require personnel changes in the ranks of Republican consultants and candidate cabinet members.

And it may even have to require an apology.