So, as of late, the Obama administration's foreign policy ain't been looking so hot. Edward Snowden's revelations regarding foreign surveillance have proven unsurprising but nevertheless embarrassing. Egypt is a mess. President Obama's relations with Hamid Karzai have deteriorated so much that the U.S. is now contemplating a complete withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan... which sounds awfully similar to how the endgame in Iraq played out.
It's at moments like these that one turns to the opposition party to see if they have any bright ideas. But as I noted late last year, the GOP state of foreign policy thinking has allowed the Obama administration to get away with an awful lot of screw-ups:
I find the whole situation remarkably depressing. Democracies do not function terribly well when one of the two major parties either doesn't know or doesn't care what it says on matters of foreign policy. It basically gives a pass to the other guys because they sound... well.... less crazy. I've been thoroughly underwhelmed by the Obama administration's foreign policy machinations as of late -- but because I don't see a viable alternative being put forward by the GOP, it's tough to be too critical.
To refresh your memory on why I've been so down on the state of the GOP's foreign policy thinking:
[H]ow did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess? Simply put, GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach. Since the fall of Baghdad, moreover, this approach has produced at least as much failure as success, leading the American public to be increasingly skeptical of the bellicosity that now defines the party's foreign policy....
Republicans need to start taking international relations more seriously, addressing the true complexities and requirements of the issues rather than allowing the subject to be a plaything for right-wing interest groups.
I bring all of this up because Stuart Reid has a long, fascinating read in the Washington Monthly on Rand Paul's foreign policy thinking and the inroads it has made in the Republican Party. The key sections:
[T]he Paul phenomenon is largely the party’s own doing, the consequence of the GOP’s hawkish wing having long ago displaced its moderate one. For decades, moderates ruled the party’s foreign policy establishment, from President Dwight Eisenhower, who was unafraid to issue nuclear threats to end the Korean War yet inveighed against the military-industrial complex, to President George H. W. Bush, who called for a “new world order” yet resisted the temptation to depose Saddam Hussein in the final days of the Persian Gulf War.
As the GOP turned right on domestic issues, however, the moderates got squeezed out. (Their last elected ally, Senator Richard Lugar, lost his Indiana primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate in 2012.) Taking their place after 9/11 was a new group of Republican foreign policy hands: the neoconservatives, idealists who saw the application of U.S. military power as the answer to many of the world’s problems. Yet as their project ran aground in Iraq and Afghanistan, they lost the trust of the American public. Strangely, though, neoconservatism never lost its grip on Republican politicians. During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, the candidates tried to outdo each other on keeping troops in Afghanistan and confronting Iran.
With a war-weary public concerned more about unemployment and debt than foreign affairs, the Republican elite’s hawkish consensus has created an opening for someone offering a more restrained alternative, and Paul has seized the opportunity. More than any other Republican politician in recent memory, he is challenging the party’s foreign policy elite.
Read the whole thing. On the one hand, one could conclude that greater competition within the GOP on foreign policy ideas is a good thing. On some significant dimensions, Paul is taking positions that are forcing more hawkish GOP foreign policy activists to, at a minimum, hone and defend their arguments better than they have in the past.
On the other hand... one of the points I was trying to make in my Foreign Affairs essay was that the GOP needed to take the topic seriously as a substantive policy issue -- not just as an opportunity to posture for domestic interests. Based on Reid's article, it's not entirely clear to me that Paul is doing that. Rather, he just seems to be playing to a different base -- the Alex Jones-listening, UN-black-helicopter, the-amero-is-coming conspiracy theorists.
Then there's his foreign policy staffers - or lack thereof:
Republican foreign policy experts are quick to question Paul’s credentials—anonymously, at least. One Capitol Hill staffer I talked to said, “I have yet to see any evidence that this guy’s anything more than someone who’s read up on a handful of issues as opposed to someone who’s traveled widely and thought deeply about the world.” Whereas Rubio has added Jamie Fly, the former director of the Foreign Policy Institute, to his team, Paul has made no equivalent national security hire. On foreign policy, Paul listens to a group of political advisers that includes Doug Stafford, his former chief of staff who now works on his reelection campaign; Trygve Olson, a consultant who has worked on democracy promotion efforts in eastern Europe and who described himself to me as “a political guy who ended up doing a lot of foreign policy”; and Jack Hunter, a radio talk show host now working for Paul who calls himself “the southern avenger.” “I think this is a work in progress,” Elliott Abrams said of Paul’s foreign policy.
Yeah... relying on Jack Hunter for foreign policy thinking is not exactly a ringing endorsement for taking the topic seriously.
If I see Paul hiring someone like, say, Justin Logan or Christopher Preble, then I'll see it as a signal that he's taking the topic seriously. Until then, I'm just gonna remind myself that even if U.S. foreign policy doesn't look so hot right now, there is less reason to despair than many in Washington think.