"The Romney Campaign Couldn't Get Its Act Together on Foreign Policy."
True. To the extent that Americans remember anything about foreign policy from the 2012 campaign, it may be the third presidential debate, in which Republican challenger Mitt Romney -- who, on domestic issues, presented a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama -- suddenly morphed into his opponent's doppelgänger. Obama resisted the notion of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities or arming the Syrian rebels, and Romney showed doubt too. Obama talked tough on China, and so did Romney. Obama framed putting America's fiscal house in order as a national security imperative; ditto Romney. In fact, Romney explicitly said some half-dozen times that he supported the president's policies. As Daily Show host Jon Stewart exclaimed the next day, "What the hell was that!?" What the hell, indeed.
It's a question the Republican Party needs to answer, and urgently, if it is going to reclaim its traditional place as the United States' leading voice on national security. To do so, however, the GOP will first have to settle dissension within its own ranks and recognize that the path back from its 2012 election drubbing lies in embracing the boldness and moral authority that has made it so successful in the past.
Ironically, the ideological battles within the campaign so often reported were far from real. Yes, Romney surrounded himself with everyone from neocons to realists, Bush retreads to fresh faces, but national security never rose to a level of importance that merited a serious fight. And the conventional wisdom that insider bickering produced Romney's muddled foreign-policy narrative is just tripe.
The real trouble was lack of interest and vision. Since the early Cold War, the Republican Party has been the bedrock of U.S. defense and vice versa. Yet none of the key players within the campaign -- other than the candidate himself -- was actually interested in national security. Sure, Romney had an impressive roster of foreign-policy advisors, but most were relegated to useless conference calls. The belief that the election would be won on the economy and the economy alone resulted in painful, often incoherent, attempts to take advantage of Obama's national security shortcomings.
Over the course of the long campaign, Romney at one point said that he wanted all troops out of Afghanistan, but later insisted that he would defer to commanders in the field. He asserted (in what we can only assume was a silly slip of the tongue) that Russia was America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe." He routinely harped on Chinese currency manipulation, when in fact the major threat Beijing poses is military. He quickly criticized the president's handling of the Sept. 11 killings of U.S. officials in Benghazi, Libya, only to inexplicably drop the subject entirely.
Instead of articulating a clear foreign-policy doctrine, the campaign relied on clichés ("I will not apologize for America") to hint that, somehow, Romney would lead more capably than Obama and the Democrats. This failure to define a vision suggested to voters that the Republican Party, for decades reliably dominant on national security, no longer knew how best to protect Americans at home and advance their values and interests abroad. Voters told exit pollsters by a significant margin that the Democrats were stronger. The fact that, presented with a target as fat as the Obama administration's foreign policy, Republicans not only lost the election but lost the confidence of the American people on the party's once-defining issue is a travesty.
But now the election -- and Romney's brief tenure as GOP mascot -- is over. The good news, for those looking for signs that an assertive Republican foreign policy wasn't buried along with his candidacy, is that the apathy of the 2012 campaign is unlikely to persist. Within days of the election, Sen. John McCain and many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill resumed their attacks on the administration's response to the Benghazi killings. At the same time, the ideological divisions buried during the campaign have already resurfaced and must be dealt with. Realists who opposed the Iraq war will have to confront neoconservatives who think that American power can still accomplish a lot -- in Syria and elsewhere. Tea Party stalwarts will clash with hawks and interventionists over defense spending and the need for robust engagement in places like Afghanistan. McCain has said that the debate "between the isolationists and those who believe we have a role to play in the world ... will rage between now and the next elections."
I say: Let it rage on. Competition over ideas is nothing new for Republicans. In the 1970s, the neoconservatives clashed with Kissingerian realpolitik. The outcome of that fight was not fragmentation, but rather Ronald Reagan's presidency, which still serves as the right's guiding star and strategic vision for America's role in the world. Reagan not only looked back to the country's founding principles of individual freedom, but he also invoked the fight against an oppressor to secure American liberties. That model, as well as a willingness to promote American ideals globally, has been at the heart of the GOP for decades. Now is not the time for the party to toss its moral compass onto the ash heap of history.
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