There is a fine American tradition that holds that politics stops at the water's edge, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg once said. The dirty little secret, of course, is that it doesn't. And it shouldn't. Politics is how decisions are made in a democracy -- not by bureaucrats, or the military, or the clergy, but by the elected representatives of the American people. Decisions about national security and foreign policy are no different. And when it comes to the politics of those critical issues, my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do.
Our last election was not primarily, or even secondarily, about national security and foreign policy. But to the extent that a referendum was held on those issues, polls show that most Americans gave their vote to the Democrats. This was a sea change, and there are many reasons for it, but a major one is clearly the legacy of the Iraq war. As Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security has written, "The Republicans' mismanagement of the war allowed Democrats to reclaim an issue lost to them since the Truman administration." He is right, of course. And the result is that Republicans are now engaged in a fight for the soul of our party on matters of national security and foreign policy.
This current debate is only the latest chapter in a long-running argument among Republicans about America's role in the world. We can go all the way back to the debates that brought Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft together, and then drove them apart. Later, we Republicans argued over the isolationism of William Borah and Charles Lindbergh. We argued after World War II whether we should contain communism or roll it back. We argued over détente toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. And we argued in the 1990s about the conflicting visions for the party offered by Republicans such as Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Indeed, Republican unity on foreign policy is more the exception than the rule -- the product of a charismatic leader, such as Ronald Reagan, or unique events, such as the September 11 attacks. And these arguments are often most contentious when the U.S. economy is weak.
Not only is this debate among Republicans not new, it is not at all bad. Indeed, it is a good thing. What Republicans need now is a vigorous contest of ideas on national security and foreign policy. This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something that even an old whacko-bird like me must remember from time to time.
Of course, the stakes of this contest could not be more serious, as we were reminded last week by the terrorist attack in Boston. We are debating matters of life and death. And that is far more important than the future of any political party.
I cannot recall another time when our international challenges have been more complex or more uncertain. The project of European integration is facing existential pressures. The global economy continues its rapid shift toward the Pacific. The rise of China, India, and other great powers is shifting the balance of power in Asia and the world. North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear and missile capabilities that constitute a direct threat to the United States and our allies. The old geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa continues to collapse and an epic struggle is underway to define what takes its place. Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists are on the march across the region. And with each passing day, Syria is becoming a failed state with possibly tons of chemical weapons and thousands of al Qaeda-backed fighters.
For all of the threats we face, however, the opportunities that exist in our world are far, far greater. No one benefits more from America's global leadership than Americans ourselves. That is why, for our own economic interests, we must seize the tremendous opportunities before us to expand free and open trade. For our own geopolitical interests, we must deepen the peace between the major powers of the world. And for our own national security interests, we must support friends and potential friends who want to embrace the cause of freedom and democracy.