"The Republicans and Democrats Are the Same on Foreign Policy."
Not deep down. The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. And Republicans have a problem. Ask the average American voter what the difference was between Obama and Romney on national security, and he's likely to struggle for answers. After all, who wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon? Who thinks China's massive investment in its military is a good thing? Who is really going to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Answer: no one.
During the campaign, perhaps the area of greatest difference was defense spending. Romney wanted to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense -- an estimated $2 trillion more than Obama would over the next 10 years. But that difference was as much about American power writ large as it was about dollars. Without a commitment to restoring America's defense capabilities, Romney's insistence that he would be a more credible interlocutor with the country's adversaries would have been little more than posturing. Indeed, during the Cold War, it was Republicans who were by and large more committed to providing ample resources for the U.S. military, ensuring it was equipped with a decisive strategic advantage and facing adversaries with sufficient deterrent to maintain the peace. Romney's knock on Obama's credibility is rooted in the widespread assumption (in the United States, throughout the Middle East, and most particularly in Iran) that Obama will not launch a military strike to halt Tehran's nuclear program. It is a rare fool who fears a paper tiger. Real ones get more respect.
But there's a deeper difference here as well. Republicans are more willing to upset the global status quo. Not always, to be sure. President Dwight Eisenhower stood by with only murmurs of protest as the people of Hungary were trampled in 1956; President George H.W. Bush did the same decades later after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But Reagan stirred the pot and worked with like-minded allies to oust communist dictators. Republicans today, I have little doubt, will be more supportive in the event of an Israeli military strike on Iran, more willing to heed the counsel of military commanders in Afghanistan about the timeline for victory and withdrawal, and less willing to show flexibility in the face of Russia's slide back to authoritarianism.
In the simplest terms, values are what divide us from them and them from us. There are those who believe that American values form a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world -- that because U.S. democracy is among the world's most durable and just, the United States has an obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society. That is what Republicans have stood for abroad and the distinction they must now again draw with their Democratic counterparts.
There are plenty, many on the left, who oppose the idea of American moral leadership. This is not because they are unpatriotic, self-hating commies (to coin a phrase). Rather, it is because they believe in neither the uniqueness of the American experience nor the superiority of the American system. As Obama so memorably limned, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Obama and those who agree with him just don't think America is so great, so without fault, that it should claim the right, much less the duty, to mold the world in its image.
Some Republicans might also agree -- think Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma or Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. But to move beyond last year's debacle, the Republican Party must convince the dissenters in its ranks -- and of course the American people -- that this is an enduring truth. It must forge a new Republican foreign policy recommitted to the idea that where the United States is able to identify a strategic and moral imperative -- as in the fight against the Soviet Union or the battle against Islamic extremism -- it is in America's interests to use its power to help shape a safer world.
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