Monday, February 16, 2015

What is the GOP's Foreign Policy?

Doyle McManus recently observed in The Los Angeles Times that "Republicans haven't quite worked out what their foreign policy ought to be, beyond "not Obama."
That's partly because it's still early in the campaign and the GOP boasts a bumper crop of potential candidates, some of them governors who never needed a foreign policy until now.

It's also because one probable GOP candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), has already broken from the pack and argued for a minimalist foreign policy with lower defense spending and fewer military commitments. Some of Paul's opponents have charged that his views add up to isolationism; the senator prefers "conservative realism."

But the debate isn't only about Paul. Ever since President George W. Bush's long misadventure in Iraq, his Republican successors have been struggling to refashion conservative foreign policy in a way most voters would embrace.

Divisions have emerged over many issues (sanctions in Iran, arms for Ukraine, trade with Cuba) but the crucial question in the campaign will probably be military intervention in the Middle East, the terrain on which the last Republican administration came to grief. If airstrikes alone aren't enough to defeat Islamic State, should ground troops be deployed? And should the United States do more to dislodge the government of President Bashar Assad in Syria, including aid to Syrian rebels, airstrikes and ground troops?

Three rough camps among potential Republican candidates can be discerned. There are interventionists, who want the United States to do more. There's the lone anti-interventionist, Paul. And, in between, there's a big group of straddlers who say they would be tougher than Obama but, when pressed, don't offer much in the way of specifics.
And there is the rub--policy specifics. This issue relates to the larger criticism leveled at GOP figures as far back as the McCain campaign in 2008 that they are "all tactics and no strategy." Completely focused on playing politics to win the 24 hour news cycle, the Republicans lack substance when it comes to policy. Leaving politics (and political attacks) aside, what policies do they advocate and why? The answers to these question are the essence of mounting a coherent and convincing argument as to why a politician is deserving of votes. Yes, we know you think Obama is a disaster and that government itself is bad. But, what will you do in office with the power of government if you win?

House Speaker John Boehner's (R-IN) recent antics with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and leading conservative writer Bill Kristol's comments on them do not leave us with much hope for a competent, coherent Republican approach to the thorny problem of dealing with Iran and its nuclear program. With negotiations for temporary cessation of Iran's nuclear program apparently headed in a positive direction, Boehner's political stunt of going around the White House to invite a foreign head of state known to be against the deal as well as Obama generally is as reckless as it is unprecedented.

Kristol's comments cheer these errors on. There is, of course, the inevitable comparison of Obama to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with his infamous "appeasement" of Hitler before the Second World War. This is very revealing of the fundamentalist neoconservative view of foreign policy, apparently shared by Kristol and Netanyahu, in which there are only two choices of action: either swaggering hegemonic bullying or "appeasement." Negotiation, since its goal is problem-solving rather than dominance, is considered "appeasement" by definition.

Josh Marshall finds some other aspects of Kristol's piece disturbing as well on Talking Points Memo.
It is an amazing, short piece of writing for its emotional heat, its historical grandiosity and what can only be called its denigrating, fulminating rage toward Barack Obama, the President of the United States. Kristol contrasts Obama, as a lifelong loafer, to Netanyahu, a lifelong warrior. (Netanyahu did serve in one of Israel's most elite commando units. But unlike Rabin, Sharon, Barak, Mofaz et al., he is a career politician, not a career soldier.)

He ends with a call for Netanyahu to use his speech to "Speak for the West" since Obama will not. So the American President with the striking complexion and the Arabic name does not speak for "the West" but the Prime Minister of Israel, a country of "the East", does speak for "the West." Indeed, oddly enough, all the heads of state of Europe also fail to speak for the West. I suspect there are some unlovely sentiments lurking behind this contrast.

But let me touch on another point, one that seems central to this fusillade. What makes Netanyahu Netanyahu (not the one who is and alas looks likely to remain the Prime Minister of Israel but the American media figure) is this ability to serve as the collective id of a certain strain of hard-right, manichean aggression within American conservatism that can only feel in balance if every moment of our lives is actually a world historical moment.
Kristol's prescription for GOP (and presumably American) foreign policy is clear: bash Obama in bombastic terms and cast reckless aggression as the only way to "stand up" for America, Israel and the West. There is no surprise in this. Kristol has yet to utter one public word of acknowledgement of the utter failure of the Iraq war that he championed so aggressively. If the Republicans do Kristol's bidding and fail so spectacularly to learn the lessons of past failures, they will lose big in 2016 and deservedly so.

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