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.