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Four More Years … in Exile

Can Republicans find their way out of the foreign-policy wilderness?

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.

While experts and pundits love to talk about "grand strategy," the nuts and bolts of successful foreign policymaking are usually far more prosaic. Yes, you need sound policies and a good strategy, but you also need senior and junior staffers who understand the inter-agency process, enjoy good working relationships with career civil servants, and know whom they can trust and whom they can't in Congress and the bureaucracy. You need, in other words, people who know which levers to pull to get things done -- and Clinton didn't have them in the early years of his administration.

For Obama, the problem was less severe, since Democrats had only been in exile for eight years. He was able to staff his foreign-policy and defense teams with a mix of people who had served in the Clinton administration -- an administration whose record on foreign policy improved dramatically after 1994 -- and his own loyalists from the campaign. He also kept a few key of Bush's top people, such as Defense Secretary Bob Gates and FBI Director Robert Mueller. As a result, there was never a sense that Obama's foreign-policy team was adrift in the Oval Office, save for a few stories about the slow pace of nominations and confirmations early in the president's first term.

So, whither the Republican foreign-policy establishment on the heels of Romney's election loss? As Obama's experience demonstrates, eight years on the sidelines need not be debilitating. The older members of Bush's team will likely drift to the sidelines, ghostwriting the occasional op-ed and haunting the hallways of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Metropolitan Club. By and large, they will behave like elder statesmen.

But what is more problematic for Republicans is that the experienced, senior-level experts who will remain in the game for 2016 carry with them the stigma of Iraq and Afghanistan -- just as some of Carter's people were hobbled by Iran. The next Republican nominee will need distance both from George W. Bush's foreign policy and from Mitt Romney's campaign. Even Jeb Bush -- particularly Jeb Bush -- would have to look like he was taking a very different approach to foreign policy than his brother.

To be fair, disasters are often highly instructive for those willing to learn from them. Most successful businesspeople went through multiple failures before they got it right. Likewise, many of the best political professionals have suffered more than one long, losing election night. But even if they can sell the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan as lessons learned, the Republicans face a double whammy in 2016. Not only will they have been out of power for at least eight years, but Bush's cadre was notoriously bad at mastering the prosaic duties of managing an effective foreign policy. Many of Bush's appointees were disdainful of career public servants, allergic to actual expertise, and fond of grand visions built on shaky foundations. It all adds up to a pretty thin bench.

So while the speakers at the Newseum will put on a good show, don't hold your breath waiting for ideas that work in the real world.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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