Jacob Heilbrunn wrote an item a couple of years ago that stuck with me, because the point is too often overlooked. He argued at the time that we were witnessing the “twilight of the wise man” and “the last gasp” of the Republican foreign policy establishment.
Two years later, I think it’s safe to say that “gasp” and passed and the GOP foreign policy establishment is no more. Jonathan Bernstein argued yesterday:
What is missing, specifically? The Republican side of “establishment” foreign policy. That is, a group of people who are certainly Republicans, but are not particularly partisan and who are comfortable working with the similar set of Democrats. Think Dick Lugar; think Colin Powell; think, perhaps more than anyone over the last 50 years, George H.W. Bush. Those Republicans, as Lugar’s defeat for re-election last year demonstrated, have been driven to the fringes of their party (or perhaps out of it; Powell is still a Republican, but supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012).
Why does that matter for Barack Obama? There just are not very many Republicans remaining who both care about foreign policy and national security and who are also inclined to work with a Democratic president as a matter of course. Those who do have virtually no clout within their party. Which means that when Obama proposes something, he starts with essentially the same zero Republican votes that he starts with on domestic-policy proposals.
In the context of the debate over U.S. policy in Syria, the point is not that a robust GOP foreign policy establishment would necessarily favor one course over another. Rather, if the Republican foreign policy establishment existed, we’d see a more constructive debate featuring GOP policymakers raising credible concerns and producing a more thoughtful dialog – perhaps even a wiser outcome.
For that matter, if the party had elder statesmen and women with credibility on these issues, other makers could take their cues from their foreign policy establishment, following their lead.
Instead we have congressional Republicans making awful, contradictory arguments, reflexively opposing everything President Obama proposes because President Obama has proposed it, and even hoping to sidestep congressional responsibilities in this area altogether.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told John Hudson this week, “If we had taken this vote, it would’ve been the most important in 10 years. The point I tried to make is if you oppose this on principle, great. But if you oppose this because it’s Barack Obama’s plan, you should really rethink what your job is.”
None of this seems to resonate with most of the contemporary GOP.
The demise of the Republican foreign policy establishment was gradual, though I’d argue it reached its zenith in late 2010, during the debate over ratification of the New START treaty.
The proposal not only had the enthusiastic backing of the international community, but it was also endorsed by Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Henry Kissinger – members in good standing of the Republican Foreign Policy Elder Statesmen Club – along with Reagan Secretary of State George Schultz, Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan Chief of Staff Howard Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice. In all, six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; seven former Strategic Command chiefs; National Security Advisers from both parties; and nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces urged Senate Republicans to ratify the treaty.
In the end, New START got the votes, but by a two-to-one margin, Senate Republicans still voted against it. GOP senators heard from the party’s establishment, and listened to the elder statesmen and women, but just didn’t care.
Since then, the GOP’s foreign policy establishment has disappeared altogether, which means treaties can’t get approval at all, and the White House can count on practically nothing from the loyal Republican opposition when there’s a national security crisis.
There was a time that the Republican Party was considered the dominant domestic party on foreign policy, and there are probably some remnants of the population that still believe this, but the fact remains that today’s GOP has no real foreign policy, no real foreign policy establishment, no real foreign policy leaders, no claim to credibility on the issue. We’ll be feeling the consequences of this for quite a while.