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Republicans' New Foreign Policy Debates

Tags: Libya , United States , Foreign Policy , International Affairs , Congress

Saunders, Paul J.

June 30, 2011

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Changing public opinion in the United States is increasingly shaping the role that foreign policy issues will play in the 2012 presidential campaign. What remains unclear is whether and how it will affect US international conduct after the election.

In the last few weeks—since the killing of Osama bin Laden—the percentage of Americans supporting the removal of US troops from Afghanistan “as soon as possible” has increased dramatically, to 56%. Particularly significant politically is growing opposition to the mission in Afghanistan among Republicans, who have been turning away from the war, and from foreign interventions in general, more slowly but no less steadily than Democrats and independents. And perhaps most important for Republican candidates is the fact that 66% those who identify themselves as “conservatives” now want the US to withdraw some or all US troops.

Recognizing the changes in public opinion, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently stated that “sustainability at home” was a factor in decisions on Afghanistan and noted that Americans are “tired of a decade of war.” President Barack Obama acknowledged this indirectly in his remarks announcing planned withdrawals on June 22, stating that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home” and substantially narrowing the US mission in Afghanistan to focus solely on denying a “safe haven” there to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In parallel, discussion of the Libya intervention has intensified in Congress, where members of the House of Representatives refused to pass a measure authorizing the war in Libya; also failing to pass was a bill cutting funding for offensive operations there.

Shifting public attitudes have been a particular challenge for Republican politicians because Republicans are more divided than Democrats over Afghanistan and Libya. As a result, some Republican presidential candidates are struggling to define positions that will not alienate either those who still support former President George W. Bush’s expansive global aims or those who want to limit or end US military interventions.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has been one of the most courageous and specific in this regard, arguing for a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan than President Obama has outlined, suggesting that no vital US interests are at stake in Libya, and calling for a foreign policy “that makes sense for our security as well as our budget.” Huntsman’s view appears to align with the perspectives of fiscal conservatives, libertarian-leaning Tea Party voters, and many foreign policy realists who believe that the United States should focus its resources on domestic economic challenges and avoid unnecessary and expensive wars. Representative Ron Paul—quite popular among Tea Party supporters—has taken a broadly similar view.

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and apparent front-runner in the emerging race for the Republican nomination, has taken what is perhaps the safest position, straddling the two poles in the intra-party debate on Afghanistan by stating that “it’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can” but “based on conditions on the ground determined by the generals.”

Michelle Bachmann—a Minnesota House member who, like Paul, is popular with Tea Party voters—says that she understands “why people are frustrated” with the war in Afghanistan, Bachmann nevertheless added that “we’ve got to stay the course” and that “I trust General Petraeus,” the general leading the US Central Command, soon likely to be confirmed by the Senate as the new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Bachmann is somewhat confused on Libya, however, attacking the president for becoming involved but also for failing to lead.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has gone even further than Bachmann on Afghanistan, criticizing both President Obama’s decision to pull out troops and “the drift of the Republican Party toward what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism.” Two prominent non-candidates, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have also attacked fellow Republicans for their skepticism toward prolonging the wars in Afghanistan and Libya.

The breadth of views among the Republican candidates demonstrates that the parameters of the Republican foreign policy debate are much wider than in either 2004 or 2008, when few in the GOP were prepared to criticize President George W. Bush either explicitly or implicitly by repudiating his policies. The absence of a clear leader in the Republican Party also facilitates debate, in that there is no central figure providing strong foreign policy cues to state and local party leaders who may have little background in international affairs. As a result, Republican activists from top to bottom are more able to express their perspectives and instincts—and many have had enough of what they see as a big-government foreign policy that vastly expands the size and scope of government in defense, foreign assistance, and domestic security.

Nevertheless, while the current Republican foreign policy debates are unprecedented during the last decade, their longer-term impact remains unclear. First, of course, it is far from certain when America will next have a Republican president to set the country’s foreign policy direction and who it could be. And as a practical matter, economic growth and the unemployment rate will be considerably more significant campaign issues once the Republican Party selects its nominee. Second, and no less important, is to what extent any possible Republican president would be bound by his or her campaign statements. After all, as a candidate, Governor Bush called for humility in US conduct and decried nation-building.

Whoever is elected, whether President Obama or one of his Republican challengers, it seems likely that a substantial number of Republicans will increasingly consider the costs of foreign policy proposals as an important decision-making criterion, in the same way that costs are a key factor in domestic matters. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine that Republicans will continue to see the defense budget as sacrosanct when across-the-board cuts will be required in other areas. If these two ideas indeed reemerge as important Republican principles, the consequences could be far-reaching.

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