Now that the post-election blaming and bloodletting has mostly subsided, the Republican foreign-policy establishment is doing what it inevitably does in the wake of electoral disappointment -- starting to regroup.
This week, many of the leading lights of Republican foreign policy are gathering at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. for a forum titled, "The Price of Greatness: The Next Four Years of Foreign Policy." The conference is hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank that is essentially the love child of the earlier Project for the New American Century, the conservative assemblage that, before it disappeared from the map, was a primary cheerleader for invading Iraq.
One need not be clairvoyant to guess the primary themes of the conference. Speakers like Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl will decry sequestration, the automatic budget cuts scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 2, 2012, as hobbling the U.S. military, but they will almost certainly fail to mention that military spending has doubled over the last decade. Likewise, conservative commentators Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan will wring their hands over what President Barack Obama's reelection means for the millions of people around the world waiting to be liberated by American troops. And featured speaker Bernard-Henri Lévy will decry U.S. inaction in Syria. (We know that Republicans are in regrouping mode when they invite French intellectuals as speakers rather than simply dismissing them "cheese-eating surrender monkeys.")
Despite the stirring rhetoric, most of the speakers will miss the real threat to Republican foreign-policy dominance: a very thin bench for 2016. To better understanding the looming internal problem facing Republicans, it is useful to turn back to the early days of Bill Clinton's administration -- though Republicans, by their nature, will hate being compared to anything Clintonian.
By almost any measure, 1993 and 1994 were ugly years for the Clinton foreign-policy team. The president and his advisers stumbled from crisis to crisis: American peacekeepers killed in the infamous Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia; a handful of thugs scaring off an American warship in Haiti; Bosnia's slow slide into chaos; the horror of the Rwandan genocide. Some of this reflected President Clinton's initial unease with the use of force, and some was the result of pure ineptitude.
But there was also a deeper and more systemic cause of those early fumbles. Democratic foreign-policy experts had been in the wilderness for a very long time. Indeed, the last foreign-policy experts to work in a Democratic administration had served way back in the Carter days. And a good number of Carter hands had a tough time finding work because they had been forever tarred by the Iranian hostage debacle. As a result, when Clinton took office, there were virtually no Democrats under the age of 35 who had occupied the hallways of the State Department, Pentagon, or USAID. Democratic foreign-policy graybeards were very gray beards, and there was little in the way of a clear plan for translating their criticism of the first Bush administration's foreign-policy into a superior alternative.