When Mitt Romney denounced the new START treaty in the Washington Post last week, he didn't simply demonstrate that he's determined not to allow Sarah Palin to outflank him on the right. He also affirmed something else -- the decline and fall of the Republican foreign-policy establishment.
Of all the potential contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, Romney, who was a moderate governor of the state that once was the bastion of what the legendary Washington journalist and snob Joseph Alsop referred to as the "WASP ascendancy," might seem like the most logical candidate to restore the traditions of pragmatic Republican internationalism after the neoconservative domination of the past decade. Instead, he has offered a potent reminder that anyone serious about seeking the nomination of today's Republican Party has to establish his or her right-wing bona fides on foreign policy by acting as though Russia -- not to mention the State Department and the CIA -- remains an enemy of the United States. No sooner did Romney attack new START than the National Review effusively praised him in an editorial: "For anyone who can truly calculate our interests, it's a travesty. All honor to Mitt Romney for setting out the case against the treaty so cogently. We hope Senate Republicans are listening."
Perhaps Romney truly thinks that the new START is a sellout to Moscow, but he appears to be less an avatar of the right than its most prominent hostage. He might even be suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The treaty, after all, has won the enthusiastic endorsement of a host of Republican foreign-policy eminences, including Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Baker. Much of President Barack Obama's foreign policy, in fact, adheres to the prescriptions laid out by that generation of Republican realists -- relying on diplomacy in dealing with Russia and Iran, cultivating good relations with China, and recognizing the limits of U.S. power. But these moderate conservatives all have one big thing in common: They're in their dotage. Nor is there a successor generation in sight to uphold their legacy. The result is that despite the bungled Iraq war, the right remains on the offensive. An insurrectionist movement, it not only opposes liberal elites, but also the quisling patricians in its own ranks.
Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama's domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele's comment that Afghanistan is "Obama's war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America's defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama's "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world."
Add the welter of other conservative and neoconservative organizations dedicated to propagating the message that only a return to the principles enunciated by Ronald Reagan can restore American security and, by extension, the GOP's electoral dominance, and it becomes clear that the traditional Republican establishment isn't on the defensive; it's in danger of extinction. By moving solidly to the right, Romney underscores its decline and the rise of something else -- what Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state and a prime target of right-wing obloquy in the early 1950s, called "the primitives."