When most of us hear "George W. Bush" and "foreign policy" in the same sentence today, the word that most quickly comes to mind is "neoconservative" (well, perhaps after "ill-fated"). Yet, when Bush first ran for president in 2000, his foreign-policy agenda was something else altogether. He bemoaned Clinton-era nation-building and pledged to focus as president on promoting a more "modest" foreign policy. His chief foreign-policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, even wrote a lengthy realpolitik tract for Foreign Affairs magazine titled "Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest."
Of course, as we now know, that talk barely survived the campaign trail. As president, Bush's embrace of neoconservatism came to define not only his foreign-policy vision, but also the foreign-policy vision of the Republican Party. So it's perhaps a bit of a surprise that on Monday, June 13, at the first Republican primary debate, the protagonists seemed to channel not President Bush, but instead candidate Bush.
Republican realism made an unexpected comeback at the debate as the GOP field sought to offer an alternative to President Barack Obama's military escalations amid growing public concerns about the costs of U.S. global leadership. If anyone three years ago had predicted that this would be the emerging division on foreign policy for Obama's reelection campaign they would have been laughed out of the room.
Are we seeing a newly realist Republican Party? Or is this a momentary search for political opportunity? Only time will tell, but if Monday's debate is any indication, the fault lines for Campaign 2012 might not be as predictable as once imagined.
Perhaps the most surprising foreign-policy moment of the night came when Mitt Romney, channeling his inner Dennis Kucinich circa 2003, said on Afghanistan, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can," adding, "We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban." (Less surprisingly, Ron Paul was also in favor of U.S. troop withdrawals, though he suggested a far more immediate timetable.) It's worth noting that just this past January, Romney was speaking of the need for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and his desire "not to leave" the fight there.
Libya gave the Republican wannabes a chance to go even further in a realist direction. When asked whether the war there was in the "vital national interest of the United States," Michele Bachmann said, "No, I don't believe so." She was seconded by Herman Cain and to a lesser extent by Newt Gingrich, though in fairness he seemingly has had more positions on Libya than he now has campaign staff. Had former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman been at the debate he likely would have been speaking in similar terms, as he has been the one GOP candidate to offer the greatest skepticism of Obama's military campaigns in Libya and Afghanistan, citing spiraling costs and the lack of national interest.