Think Again

Think Again: The Muslim Brotherhood

How did so many Western analysts get Egypt's Islamist movement so wrong?

"They're democrats."

Don't kid yourself. Long before the Jan. 25 revolution that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, many academics and policymakers argued that his main adversary -- the Muslim Brotherhood -- had made its peace with democracy. This was based on the assumption that, since the Muslim Brotherhood participated in virtually every election under Mubarak, it was committed to the rule of the people as a matter of principle.

It was also based on what typically sympathetic Western researchers heard from Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and what I heard as well. "Democracy is shura," Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater told me during a March 2011 interview, referring to the Islamic jurisprudential tool of "consultation." The implication was that the Brotherhood accepted a political system that encouraged open debate.

Yet since the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsy, was elected president in June, the exact opposite has been true. The Brotherhood's only real "consultation" has been with the Egyptian military, which the Brotherhood persuaded to leave power by ceding substantial autonomy to it under the new constitution. Among other undemocratic provisions, this backroom deal yielded constitutional protection for the military's separate court system, under which civilians can be prosecuted for the vague crime of "damaging the armed forces."

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood has embraced many of the Mubarak regime's autocratic excesses: Editors who are critical of the Brotherhood have lost their jobs, and more journalists have been prosecuted for insulting the president during Morsy's six months in office than during Mubarak's 30-year reign. And much as Mubarak's ruling party once did, the Brotherhood is using its newfound access to state resources as a political tool: It reportedly received below-market food commodities from the Ministry of Supply and Social Affairs, which it is redistributing to drum up votes in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

The Brotherhood's most blatantly undemocratic act, however, was Morsy's Nov. 22 "constitutional declaration," through which he placed his presidential edicts above judicial scrutiny and asserted the far-reaching power to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." When this power grab catalyzed mass protests, Morsy responded by ramming a new constitution through the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, and the Brotherhood later mobilized its cadres to attack the anti-Morsy protesters, and subsequently extract confessions from their captured fellow citizens. So much for promises of "consultation."

As the Brotherhood's first year in power has demonstrated, elections do not, by themselves, yield a democracy. Democratic values of inclusion are also vital. And the Muslim Brotherhood -- which has deployed violence against protesters, prosecuted its critics, and leveraged state resources for its own political gain -- clearly lacks these values.


"They're Egypt's evangelicals."

False. While it is certainly true that Muslim Brothers, like America's Christian evangelicals, are religious people, the Brotherhood's religiosity isn't its most salient feature. Whereas Christian evangelicals (as well as devout Catholics, orthodox Jews, committed Hindus, and so on) are primarily defined by their piety, the Muslim Brotherhood is first and foremost a political organization -- a power-seeking entity that uses religion as a mobilizing tool. As a result, the political diversity within the evangelical community, including its quietist trend, cannot exist within the Muslim Brotherhood, which strives for political uniformity among its hundreds of thousands of members.

The Brotherhood achieves this internal uniformity by subjecting its members to a rigorous five- to eight-year process of internal promotion, during which time a rising Muslim Brother ascends through four membership ranks before finally becoming a full-fledged "active brother." At each level, Brothers are tested on their completion of a standardized Brotherhood curriculum, which emphasizes rote memorization of the Quran as well as the teachings of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and radical Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb. Rising Muslim Brothers are also vetted for their willingness to follow the leadership's orders, and Muslim Brothers ultimately take an oath to "listen and obey" to the organization's edicts.

The Brotherhood's 20-member executive Guidance Office, meanwhile, deploys its well-indoctrinated foot soldiers for maximum political effect. The movement's pyramid-shaped hierarchy quickly disseminates directives down to thousands of five- to 20-member "families" -- local Brotherhood cells spread throughout Egypt. These "families" execute the top leaders' orders, which may include providing local social services, organizing mass demonstrations, mobilizing voters for political campaigns, or more grimly, coordinating violent assaults on anti-Brotherhood protesters.

By channeling deeply committed members through an institutionalized chain of command, the Brotherhood has discovered the key ingredients for winning elections in a country where practically everyone else is deeply divided. For this reason, it is extremely protective of its internal unity: Its current leaders have largely dodged ideological questions -- such as explaining what "instituting the sharia [Islamic law]" means in practice -- to prevent fissures from emerging.

The Brotherhood has further maintained internal unity by banishing anyone who disagrees with its strategy. It excommunicated a former top official, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, when he declared his presidential candidacy in mid-2011 despite the Brotherhood's policy at the time against nominating a presidential candidate -- and even after the Brotherhood reversed its own decision, Aboul Fotouh remained persona non grata. It similarly ousted top Brotherhood youths who opposed the establishment of a single Brotherhood party and called on the Brotherhood to remain politically neutral.

To be sure, the Brotherhood's long-term vision is religious: It calls for "instituting God's sharia and developing the Islamic nation's renaissance on the basis of Islam." But the Brotherhood views itself the key vehicle for achieving this vision, which is why it places such a priority on protecting its organizational strength and internal unity. Indeed, far from approximating a devout religious group akin to evangelical Christians, the Muslim Brotherhood's disciplined pursuit of power -- which includes indoctrinating members and using force against detractors -- makes it most similar to Russia's Bolsheviks.

Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images

"They're essentially free-market capitalists."

Not really. In the aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood's rapid emergence as Egypt's new ruling party, the existence of wealthy businessmen within the organization's top ranks was taken as a sign that it was a capitalist organization that would put Egypt's economic interests first and thus steer a moderate course. The Brotherhood's supposed capitalism was also taken as a sign that it would seek cooperation with the West as it pursued foreign direct investment.

But just as electoral participation doesn't necessarily make an organization democratic, being led by wealthy businessmen doesn't make the Brotherhood capitalist.

Not that the Muslim Brotherhood claims to be capitalist anyway. "It is not," Ashraf Serry, a member of the Brotherhood's economic policy-focused "Renaissance Project" team, told me during a June 2012 interview. The Brotherhood, he explained, believed in striking a balance between "the right to capture ... treasure" and "the ethics and values that secure the society" -- whatever that means.

The text of the "Renaissance Project" is similarly ambivalent. On one hand, the platform emphasizes capitalist ideas such as ending monopolistic practices, encouraging foreign trade, reducing Egypt's deficit, and cutting many of the bureaucratic regulations that inhibit the emergence of new businesses. Yet it also envisions a large role for the state in managing Egypt's economy, including price controls for commodities, "strict oversight" of markets, "reconsideration" of the Mubarak-era privatizations of state-owned enterprises, and governmental support for farmers. And of course, there's a substantial Islamist component to the Brotherhood's economic agenda, which calls for establishing governmental Islamic financial institutions and using zakat (religiously mandated charity) and waqf (Islamic endowments) as tools for combating poverty.

What this hodgepodge of economic ideas means in practice remains unclear, because the Brotherhood has been rather skittish about making economic decisions since assuming power. While the Brotherhood has seemingly overcome its initial objections to accepting an interest-bearing loan from the International Monetary Fund (interest is forbidden in many interpretations of Islam), it has nonetheless postponed signing off on the loan repeatedly. And while Morsy has tried to implement certain policies for cutting government spending and raising revenue -- such as instituting a 10 p.m. curfew for restaurants and shops and increasing taxes on certain goods -- he has immediately backtracked on each occasion under pressure from his own Brotherhood colleagues.

If anything, the Brotherhood's economic policy is ultimately characterized by indecision -- both because of its contradictory economic ideas and the political challenges it faces. As Egypt enters a fiscal tailspin, with cash reserves falling from $36 billion in February 2011 to approximately $15 billion today, that isn't going to be good enough.


"They accept the treaty with Israel."

They never will. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration took comfort from Morsy's handling of the November Gaza war: From Washington's viewpoint, the Egyptian president resisted using the conflict as a pretext to break relations with Israel, and instead authorized negotiations with the Jewish state to achieve a relatively speedy ceasefire.

From the Muslim Brotherhood's perspective, however, Morsy preserved the movement's anti-Israel agenda. He stood by his refusal to meet with Israelis by outsourcing those negotiations to Egyptian intelligence officials; the ceasefire strengthened Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood; and the Egyptian government accepted no new responsibilities to stem the flow of weapons into Gaza. Far from yielding to the reality of Egyptian-Israeli relations, Morsy simply deferred their reassessment so that he could focus on his more immediate goal -- consolidating the Muslim Brotherhood's control at home. Indeed, one day after the Gaza ceasefire, Morsy issued his power-grabbing constitutional declaration, and rammed through a new Islamist constitution shortly thereafter.

This is, in fact, the very order of events that the Muslim Brotherhood envisions in its long-term program. As Shater explained during his April 2011 unveiling of the Brotherhood's "Renaissance Project," building an "Islamic government" at home must precede the establishment of a "global Islamic state," which is the final stage in achieving "the empowerment of God's religion." To be sure, consolidating power at home could take years, and the fact that the Brotherhood doesn't totally control Egypt's foreign-policy apparatus will also prevent it from scrapping the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty -- for now.

But the Muslim Brotherhood does aim to scrap the treaty, which simply cannot be reconciled with the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred in which every Muslim Brother is thoroughly indoctrinated. This vitriol was perhaps most apparent in Morsy's now-infamous 2010 remarks, in which he called Jews "the descendants of apes and pigs." Even as president, Morsy's blatant bigotry remains irrepressible: In a meeting with a U.S. Senate delegation in Cairo, Morsy implied that the U.S. media was controlled by the Jews.

And while the Brotherhood's apologists claim that these are idle words on which the movement won't act, its leaders have repeatedly signaled the opposite. In recent months, the Brotherhood's political party drafted legislation to unilaterally amend the treaty, a Brotherhood foreign policy official told a private salon that Morsy was working to "gradually" end normalization with Israel, and Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie has twice called for Muslims to wage a "holy jihad" to retake Jerusalem.

Washington should stop deluding itself: It will not be able to change the Brotherhood's ideology on Israel. Instead, it should focus squarely on constraining the Brotherhood's behavior in order to prevent it from acting on its beliefs anytime soon. As the Brotherhood makes quite clear on its Arabic media platforms, it has no intention of reconciling itself to the reality of either the peace treaty or the very existence of Israel.


"They can't lose."

Expect the unexpected. In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak's ouster, many Egypt analysts took the Brotherhood at its word when it promised not to run for a majority of Egypt's first post-revolutionary Parliament, and many predicted that the Brotherhood would only win 20 to 30 percent of the seats. The Brotherhood's impressive succession of electoral victories and quick assumption of executive authority, however, has led to the rise of a new conventional wisdom: When it comes to the ballot box, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot lose.

Yet the lesson of the Arab Spring is that what appears to be stable at one moment can be toppled at another -- especially if people are frustrated enough with the status quo. The conditions that sparked Egypt's 2011 uprising have only worsened in the past two years: The country's declining economy has intensified popular frustrations, and the constant labor strikes and street-closing protests indicate that the Brotherhood's rule is far less stable than it might appear on the surface. Meanwhile, Morsy's dictatorial maneuvers have forced an anti-Brotherhood opposition to form much more quickly than previously imagined.

Most importantly, a close look at voting data suggests non-Islamists are making critical gains among the Egyptian public. 57 percent of Egyptians voted for non-Islamist candidates during the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, and non-Islamist candidate Ahmed Shafiq won more than 48 percent in the second round -- despite being very unattractive to many Egyptians for having served as Mubarak's last prime minister. Moreover, though the Brotherhood successfully campaigned for the December constitutional referendum and won nearly 64 percent of the vote, turnout was only 33 percent -- meaning that the movement was only able to mobilize, at most, about 21 percent of the voting public.

To be sure, the Brotherhood is exceedingly likely to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections, and it may rule Egypt for some time. It is, after all, uniquely well organized, while its opponents are deeply divided: To the Brotherhood's theocratic right, the Salafists are split among a handful of competing organizations and, to its left, the field is even more fragmented among communists, socialists, Nasserists, old ruling party members, and a smattering of liberals. Perhaps most dangerously, the Brotherhood's quick ascent has empowered it to shape Egypt's new political institutions, and it will likely tailor these institutions to perpetuate its reign.

But the Brotherhood's support isn't strong enough to preclude the emergence of a challenger. For that reason, the United States must ensure that it avoids the impression that it is putting all of its eggs in the Brotherhood's basket. Already, non-Islamists are asking why the United States has been loath to squeeze a new ruling party that is neither democratic nor, in the long run, likely to cooperate in promoting U.S. interests. Whether or not these non-Islamists can effectively challenge the Brotherhood right now -- and I am dubious -- they are right in challenging the Washington conventional wisdom that fails to see the Brotherhood for what it is: a deeply undemocratic movement concerned above all else with enhancing and perpetuating its own power.

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Think Again

Think Again: The Republican Party

The future of the GOP -- after the debacle.

"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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"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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"Republicans Have to Kill the Bush-Cheney Legacy to Move Forward."

Really? The past need not be prologue, but it shouldn't be forbidden territory either.

One of the Democrats' favorite criticisms of Romney was that his foreign policy represented a return to the days of President George W. Bush and his emissary to the Dark Side, Dick Cheney. When Romney insisted he would do more to bring American leadership to the battle for Syria and be a more credible interlocutor on Iran, Obama told 60 Minutes that "if Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so," knowing full well he was tapping into the anti-Bush "endless war" meme. Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden didn't hesitate to reach even further back, accusing Romney of a "Cold War mindset."

Regardless of whether the charge was true (it was not), Democrats clearly thought that linking Romney to the past was an effective strategy. Just as clearly, the Romney campaign and the Republican Party as a whole agreed. Romney did not use Bush or Cheney as surrogates on the campaign trail, and neither spoke at -- or even attended -- the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. Indeed, many members of Congress elected in the anti-Obama wave of 2010 would just as soon forget the Bush years, and green-eyeshade types in the party consider greater defense spending and global leadership as luxuries of an earlier era.

But letting Obama off scot-free for allowing anti-Bush derangement to color his policymaking was a mistake. Romney was so afraid of being labeled a warmonger that he failed to articulate how the United States might affect the conflict in Syria; he was so fearful of being tarred with the Cheney brush that he never mentioned that Osama bin Laden was found as a result of intelligence gleaned in part from Bush-era interrogations. In truth, there are ample lessons to be found in both the Bush administration and the Cold War years.

Reagan's military buildup was an object lesson in the power of deterrence -- in many ways the threat that tipped the Soviet Union over the edge. The Soviets' desperate and failed attempts at military parity forced Moscow toward the reforms that ended the Evil Empire. Reagan's use of proxies during the Cold War remains an example of how to leverage shared ideas against a common enemy. Bush's first-term commitment to democratic transformation sowed the first seeds of change in the Middle East and began a process that arguably ended in the Arab Spring.

Republicans need to find new leaders who can apply those lessons to the problems we face today and carry them into the future. They don't need to trot out Bush or mention Reagan in every foreign-policy speech, but they do need to recognize that the same principles that animated past Republican presidents will reanimate the party. Spending less may be a vital element of responsible governance, but it's not a moral purpose and it's no vision for America in the world.

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"Americans Just Want to Come Home."

Nope. One of the most substantial roadblocks to revitalizing Republican liberal internationalism is the financial and physical fatigue that naturally flows from a decade of war and a corrosive recession. We're tired; we've done too much; we've spent too much in blood and treasure; it's someone else's turn; let's rebuild here at home. Every candidate said it, I have said it, and the American people say it too. Support among independents for an active foreign policy has declined by 15 percentage points in the past decade, according to a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and a recent Pew Research Center study found that most Americans think the United States should share global leadership with others.

Of course, Obama tried to take advantage of such attitudes. That is where his repeated emphasis on "nation-building here at home" came from. Obama made it clear that education, infrastructure, and manufacturing had to be the priorities going forward. Thus foreign policy was cleverly transformed into a domestic issue: For the United States to be strong abroad, he argued, Americans had to put their own house in order first.

Yet weariness remains one of the great shibboleths of U.S. foreign policy. In reality, Americans continue to support, usually with significant majorities, overseas military operations, at least at their outset. Support for Obama's 2011 decision to intervene in Libya was thinner, but still 10 percentage points above opposition. Even after more than 11 years of conflict, poll after poll finds that Americans support the notion of a U.S. strike to prevent Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A February 2012 poll had supporters beating opponents by 18 percentage points.

And it's not just Iran. Obama may want to focus on nation-building at home, but the slow-motion train wreck of the European Union, the fading of democracy in Russia, the war in Syria, the rise of China, North Korean weapons proliferation, the spread of al Qaeda, the continued strength of Chavismo in South America, the war in Afghanistan, and the failure of Pakistan still constitute major security threats.

Republicans understand that those problems aren't going to go away on their own, and so do most Americans.

But it's up to the Republican Party -- and particularly its leadership -- to articulate how it would do better than Obama, how a robust American presence can make a difference in the Middle East, how victory should be the goal in Afghanistan, and how U.S. leadership in the Pacific can constrain Chinese predations. Republicans need to explain how much can be done consistent with America's dearest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank. They need to work to bring along the many even within the party who doubt the imperative of success against al Qaeda, who doubt the value of friendly governments, and for whom each penny spent on a new fighter for the Air Force or aircraft carrier for the Navy is a penny wasted. You cannot hope to persuade the country if you cannot persuade your own party.


"America Can No Longer Afford to Be the World's Policeman."

It's a choice. The other objection, of course, is that the last decade of war has drained not only Americans' emotional reserves but their country's treasury, giving America little choice but to retrench. Recognizing the "limits of our power" has been one of the resurgent themes of the post-Bush years. But where has it left the country? Leading from behind -- an absurd notion that itself must be left behind. After all, neither France, whose presidents have led on both Libya and Syria, nor the U.N. Security Council can solve the thorny problems we now face. As Reagan put it, "Leadership is a great burden. We grow weary of it at times.... But if we are not to shoulder the burdens of leadership in the free world, then who will?"

The truth is the United States spends remarkably little on defense. The Pentagon's budget now represents about 4 percent of GDP, close to the lowest proportion in modern history. It is eminently affordable. Yet the country is on track to cut more than $1 trillion in military spending over the next decade. The lion's share of spending is not on operations or weapons systems, as some believe; nearly 50 percent of spending goes to veterans' benefits and uniformed and civilian personnel. So what can be cut? A better question is: What would America like to stop doing?

If the country chooses to subcontract the Pacific to China, it can begin to slash the Navy. If it decides that neither lift nor air power is key to fighting in Afghanistan or farther-flung reaches of the globe, then who needs the Air Force? And if, as then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested, the United States never fights another land war in Asia, then why have much of an Army?

Americans have benefited tremendously from their involvement abroad. The United States has produced a broader peace at a decreasing cost to the country. Think of it this way: In the first 50 years of the 20th century, more than half a million Americans died in two world wars. In the second 50 years, the number was 95,000 because of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. And after Vietnam? Not even 1,000. In the two wars of the 21st century, Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have lost just over 6,500 service members. Continental war in Europe is today almost inconceivable. Eastern Europe is free. Trade has skyrocketed because of, among other things, peace on the high seas -- largely due to the U.S. Navy.

The United States has a powerhouse economy and military might second to none for the moment. Both are at risk because of untrammeled debt and entitlement spending -- not defense expenditures. The country can choose to usher out the era of American power, but it will be a choice. And it will be a choice that is not easily undone. There will simply not be enough money to rebuild the military if it's allowed to decay.

Republicans are still deciding where they stand on the question. Among those who understand budgets, few believe military expenditures are contributing to America's economic woes. But far too many don't understand and haven't troubled themselves to do so. Are there savings around the margins? Of course. Senator Coburn is right when he says the Army doesn't need its own brand of beef jerky. But sustained and serious savings can only come from genuine cuts to the muscle of U.S. military might. Honest libertarians like those at the Cato Institute admit freely that they wish to cut defense in order to constrain U.S. foreign policy. Others hide behind the budget to cover their isolationist impulse. But the vast mass simply doesn't know. It's time for the Republican Party to remind the country what it gets for the money it spends and what it will mean for the country when it stops.


"Democrats Are as Screwed Up as Republicans."

Yes. Republicans aren't the only ones who have some soul-searching to do in the coming years. The growing chasm between classical liberal internationalists and ardent realpolitikniks affects both parties these days.

The Arab Spring brought into high definition the difference between those who believed the overthrow of the Middle East's sclerotic dictators was a hopeful sign for the evolution of a region almost untouched by reform, and those who saw the devil we don't know as a far greater menace than the stability with which we have grown comfortable. A nasty spat erupted within the Democratic administration over the Libya intervention in which "harpies" -- coincidentally, three senior female Obama officials -- were accused of dragging a reluctant president into an unnecessary war in which America had few interests. Obama found allies on the right, and plenty of opponents on the left. The opposite is true as well.

Now, the question of what to do about the war in Syria has divided those who think the humanitarian and strategic imperatives for greater U.S. involvement are clear from those who believe Syria is a maelstrom that will suck the United States into an Iraq-like war. Senior scholars from the centrist Brookings Institution find themselves agreeing with my colleagues at the conservative American Enterprise Institute that America must do more to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad; the libertarian Cato Institute has climbed under the ideological covers with the liberal Center for American Progress to oppose greater U.S. involvement.

Ditto the battle over the Muslim Brotherhood's coming to power in Egypt and the question of U.S. support for "moderate" Islamist governments there and elsewhere. Is Obama facilitating the rise of Islamist extremists, an al Qaeda-lite, that will result in a new era of hostility toward Americans, Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims? Or is he patiently waiting through the inevitable rocky transition that all countries make from dictatorship to democracy? Suffice it to say, those who see the former rather than the latter are not all to be found in the Republican Party. Far from it.

It is less heralded than the GOP's struggles, but a battle is going on for the soul of the Democratic Party as well. It's unclear whether the future will be driven by the party's internationalist wing or by the protectionism and America-first instincts of labor unions and groups like Code Pink. Yes, Republicans need to get their act together. But so do Democrats.


"The GOP Is Leaderless on Foreign Policy."

Yes, but... So Romney failed to win the presidency and the GOP has no obvious foreign-policy leader. There's still an opportunity to articulate strategy for America's place in the world in the absence of clear ideas from the White House. Indeed, Republican stewardship of foreign policy was a hallmark of Bill Clinton's years, when the country had a Democratic president seemingly content to allow the Taliban's rise in Afghanistan, slaughter in the Balkans, genocide in Africa, terrorism against the United States in Africa and the Middle East, and clear steps toward a nuclear program in Iran. Back then, Congress led where the White House would not, articulating policy on issues like NATO enlargement. Can it happen again? What should Republican priorities be?

Let's start with American leadership. It is sheer malpractice to subcontract foreign policy to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as the United States did in Libya, allowing those countries to choose whom to arm and whom to marginalize among various Libyan groups. The same is now happening in Syria. If America cannot arm the rebels, having waited so long that their ranks are now riddled with terrorists, it can surely identify who the terrorists are and work to marginalize them. It can set benchmarks for aid to Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen to ensure that it's supporting only those who are committed to free people and free markets. It can yet again force the president to tighten the embargo on Iran, as Congress has done multiple times.

The United States can provide its allies in Asia with the aid and military support they need to face challenges from China, while agreeing that everyone has a shared interest in Chinese prosperity. It can revive its lagging partnership with India and incentivize further economic reforms in New Delhi, recommitting to a long-term economic and strategic relationship. It can push the president to rationalize his strategy in Afghanistan and better explain his decisions about how many troops should remain and when the rest should leave. America can double down on Russia's neighbors, supporting genuine democracy in Georgia and providing a clearer path to integration with the West to Eastern and Central European countries that still fear Russian domination and manipulation. The United States can help allies like Taiwan and Israel defend themselves with aid, intelligence, and arms if need be.

Congress alone is capable of pushing each of these priorities. It will fail in some cases and succeed in others. But for the Republican leadership in the House and the powerful Senate GOP minority, now is a chance to reinvest in genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats, asserts priorities with allies before they despair of America's leadership, and most importantly, reverses the catastrophic cuts to defense before the United States becomes a country that cannot adequately defend itself or deter enemies.

That is the right path forward not only for the country and for the world, but for the Republican Party. If the GOP is to stand for something more than lower taxes and smaller government, it must return to the moral vision of a world in which the United States helps others achieve the freedoms it holds so dear. There are some without a compass for whom America's moral purpose and strategic direction are a matter of continual course correction. But if there's no vision America stands for, then there's nothing worth fighting for. America can indeed nation-build at home -- and abandon the world it has shaped and led. It's up to Republicans to make sure that doesn't happen. Let's get to work.

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