Ready to Lead? NSN Policy Paper Explores the 2012 Candidates and Foreign Policy

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Ready to Lead? NSN Policy Paper Explores the 2012 Candidates and Foreign Policy

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THE TUMULT OF THE LAST YEAR reminds us that the president is not only legislator-in-chief and chief executive. He or she is also commander-in-chief, head of state and lead diplomat. Those roles require a facility with the complexity of world affairs, a vision for America’s role in the world that squares with global realities and a capacity to exert leadership that advances our national interest.

The conservative candidates running for president are, as a group, characterized by a lack of knowledge, vision and experience on foreign policy. From a failure to learn basic facts to a larger failure to examine the roots of recent foreign policy blunders and understand the sources of American power, the 2012 conservative candidates have jettisoned a tradition of nonpartisan leadership in foreign affairs. In place of leadership, they have tried to turn ignorance on foreign policy issues into an asset or simply adopted party-line positions aimed more at rallying the faithful than laying a foundation for steady, strategic leadership once in office.

As candidates have explained their views more fully and chosen campaign advisors, they have sought to blend two traditions of conservative thought – an inward-looking isolationism and muscular unilateralism – not always in logical ways. Muscular unilateralism seems to be winning the day, as candidates look to the neoconservative foreign policy establishment for advice, support and legitimacy.[1] That dynamic portends a return to the George W. Bush era of foreign policy, as many shapers and acolytes of the neoconservative policies that characterized the Bush 43 presidency have begun to advise conservative candidates.  It also marks the further decline of the realist establishment that dominated conservative foreign policy for a generation, and with it, apparently, the possibility of viewing policy issues through a bipartisan lens.


The Challenge: “Build the Sources of American Strength”

The U.S. National Security Strategy states the goal broadly: “At the dawn of the 21st century, the United States of America faces a broad and complex array of challenges to our national security. Just as America helped to determine the course of the 20th century, we must now build the sources of American strength and influence, and shape an international order capable of overcoming the challenges of the 21st century.”[2] Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes summed up the practical challenges facing the country when the Obama administration took office in 2009: “Wind down these two wars, re-establish American standing and leadership in the world, and focus on a broader set of priorities, from Asia and the global economy to a nuclear-nonproliferation regime.”[3]

Opinion polls suggest that Americans broadly support the Obama administration’s strategy and its results, as well as the ideas about marrying strength, cooperation and burden-sharing that underlie it. [4]

Over the last three years Americans have seen the deaths of Osama bin Laden and more than three dozen other key figures weaken but not destroy the terrorists who would threaten us. They have seen success in locking down nuclear materials around the world and in reducing both the U.S. and Russian arsenals. At the same time, concerns persist about nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. Americans cheered the struggle for freedom in the Arab Spring and watched with concern as the region’s political dynamics have grown more complex. Washington successfully led an effort to stop a meltdown of the global economy but has not yet seen recovery at home – nor has Congress yet risen to the challenge of tending the domestic foundations of our global power through education, infrastructure and economic revitalization.

The public continues to seek above all leadership that reinvigorates the U.S. economy by boosting America’s role in the global economy; keeps the country safe from terrorism and war; and plays a role, with U.S. allies and partners, on global issues that is commensurate with our interests and values.

Even as the U.S. economic recovery continues to lag, a Gallup poll from earlier this year showed that by a 2-to-1 margin, 66% to 32%, Americans prefer that the United States be a major rather than a minor player on the world stage in trying to solve international problems.[5] There’s also strong support for diplomacy before resorting to military force. According to a Pew poll from earlier this month, 58% of Americans say the best way to ensure peace is through good diplomacy, versus 31% who say military strength is the best way to achieve peace. That Pew poll also showed that 53% of the public said that in foreign policy the U.S. should take allies’ interests into account even if it means making compromises, versus 36% who said America should follow its own interests no matter how it affects allies.[6]

Ideology Over Policy:  “Bad Analysis and Worse Solutions”

Against that backdrop, a growing chorus has looked to the 2012 contest for fresh thinking about the challenges we face – and come away disappointed. Recently, the New York Times editorial board wrote that, “Certainly, the Republican hopefuls have put to rest any lingering notion that their party is the one to trust with the nation’s security.” In a time of persistent, complex global challenges, the Times opined, “the candidates offer largely bad analysis and worse solutions, nothing that suggests real understanding or new ideas.”[7] Even conservative columnist Marc Thiessen bemoaned that, “You would not know it from the GOP debates so far, but the next president of the United States will also be the next leader of the free world.”[8]

Front-runner Governor Mitt Romney disappointed on October 7 in what his own campaign billed as a major foreign policy speech at the Citadel. Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast/Newsweek called it “not a serious speech. It was all rhetoric and buzz words and politics.”[9] James Fallows of The Atlantic called the speech “a bunch of nothing.” Fallows wondered at the time:

[I]f there is going to be a “big” policy speech, shouldn’t it contain some actual policy? Check out this one and see what you can detect, apart from the “we should be greater” theme, plus “we are Israel’s friend.” The name “al Qaeda” does not appear in the speech. (Hmm, I wonder why.) The name “Pakistan” appears, but not with the slightest suggestion of what to do about it. “Iraq” does not appear at all, other than to acknowledge Citadel alums for their service there. “Israel,” for benchmarking purposes, appears six times.[10]

The rest of the field has not demonstrated a consistent knowledge of basic facts about world affairs. Conservative Washington Post columnist George Will has chided the candidates, saying they “have some explaining to do” on foreign policy issues.[11]

Some embrace this shortcoming. Pizza baron Herman Cain’s joke about his lack of knowledge about world leaders – that he didn’t know the leader of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”[12] – is now infamous. Michele Bachmann has insisted that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is setting up shop in Cuba, and Rick Perry argued for selling F-16 fighter jets to India in the case of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the hands of militant groups. Attempting to one-up Perry, Rick Santorum suggested allying ourselves with former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf.[13] The single-digit poll numbers of Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s former ambassador to China, make him the exception that proves the rule.

Results Versus Rhetoric: Opposition as a Guiding Principle

The contenders’ failure to mount a substantive critique of the Obama administration foreign policy reflects a lack of ideas and experience. In response, the field has tried to build agreement where it can: on reflexive opposition to the administration’s policies. In the parlance of Herman Cain, it is the strategy of asserting that all the president’s policies are “dumb.”[14] Often that requires adhering to ideological positions that have little support or basis in fact and run counter to the advice of military and national security experts.

The debate among the candidates on five issues specifically illustrates this trend:

New START Treaty. Mitt Romney chose to oppose the New START treaty with Russia, which enjoyed a level of bipartisan support from experts and experienced national security figures that is practically unheard-of in today’s politics.[15] Nuclear weapons expert and Slate magazine columnist Fred Kaplan excoriated Romney’s column on the subject, saying, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and – let’s not mince words – thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”[16] No less than Brent Scowcroft, a staunch Republican who was national security advisor for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, called the opposition “baffling” and noted that “to play politics with what is in the fundamental national interest is pretty scary stuff.”[17]

The “Apology Tour.” The notion of Obama’s alleged “apology tour” serves as a meta narrative for the conservative movement. Romney relies on this argument most heavily, going so far as to title his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” In a September debate, Romney said President Obama “went around the world and apologized for America.” Candidates continue to use this argument despite the fact that the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, in his The Fact Checker column, gave the claim “four Pinocchios,” a rating reserved for “whoppers.” The apology tour, Kessler finds, “never happened.”[18] The Pulitzer Prize-winning group Politifact seconded Kessler’s finding, giving the claim a rating of “pants on fire.”[19]

Afghanistan. The contenders, save for Huntsman and Congressman Ron Paul, have swung between criticizing the scope of the mission and – after condemnation from neoconservative commentators – criticizing the president for “failing to listen to the generals” on Afghanistan drawdown. Such criticism distorts the positions of military leaders – both then-commander Gen. David Petraeus and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said that risks posed by the strategy were manageable.[20] It also fails to grasp the essence of the commander-in-chief role: balancing different perspectives for the greater national interest. This includes military views, broader security experts’ perspective, economic necessity and public opinion.[21]

Libya. The current administration’s strategy in Libya, although not perfect, largely succeeded in averting imminent atrocities and aiding the Libyan people in their campaign to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. Ronald Reagan called Qaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East.”[22] But the current group of contenders has no clear position on the issue. By the count of ABC’s Jake Tapper, Romney’s view of the action in Libya has changed five times.[23] Newt Gingrich argued for a no-fly zone, then said he would not have intervened.[24]

Defense Spending. Candidates have conspicuously exempted military spending from their anti-tax and small-government rhetoric, decrying defense “cuts” which are in fact reductions in the rate of growth.[25] Candidates have also tried to argue that reductions in military spending eliminates jobs at a time of high unemployment, even though they reject the notion that government spending can create jobs in other sectors of the economy, and economists have shown that defense spending programs are not efficient at job-creation per dollar spent.[26]

Back to the Future: George W. Bush Revisited

The conventional wisdom on foreign policy in the 2012 cycle is that the views of the conservative field will split between an isolationist Tea Party wing and a unilateral, interventionist neoconservative wing of the party – or what Pat Buchanan has called the “Tea Party” versus the “War Party.”[27] But that construct overstates Tea Party concern with foreign policy and candidates’ willingness to stray from neoconservative norms.

The prevailing narrative holds that the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party endorses a largely isolationist view of U.S. foreign policy. Ideological consistency would suggest as much. But it is more accurate to say that the movement holds few unified views. As the New York Times’ Peter Baker noted last fall, “When nearly half a million Tea Party supporters voted online to define their campaign agenda, not a single one of the 10 planks they agreed on had anything to do with the world beyond America’s borders.”[28] What agreement there is has been described by Jacob Heilbrunn of the Center for the National Interest as “bash international organizations and champion unilateralism.”[29]

The result is a hybrid policy of retreat from diplomatic engagement with the world combined with an appetitive for military adventurism. Those positions are becoming clearer as the candidates turn to experienced conservative foreign policy hands, many of whom are former members of the Bush administration and Republican members of Congress who are closely aligned with neoconservatives.

In this way, as in many others, Mitt Romney serves a harbinger of trends within the party. As foreign policy writer James Traub explains, “On foreign affairs, as on domestic policy, Romney serves as a faithful gauge of party orthodoxy, as well as of shifts in that orthodoxy.”[30] Romney has filled his campaign with former Bush officials, including Eliot Cohen, Michael Hayden and Dan Senor.[31] Others have also said that they turn to neoconservatives and other hawks for guidance and advice, including Herman Cain, who cited Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer as an influence and hired a former Bush administration Pentagon spokesman as his foreign policy adviser, and Rick Perry, who said he looks to never-confirmed UN ambassador and neoconservative John Bolton.[32]

In other words, neoconservatism is still the dominant foreign policy paradigm in the conservative movement. As Robert Merry and Robert Golan-Vilella of the National Interest conclude after a comprehensive study of the candidates’ positions:

What this review suggests is that, to the extent there is a guiding Republican foreign-policy philosophy, it is essentially the neoconservative philosophy-the same outlook that guided Bush during his post-9/11 presidency and fueled John McCain’s 2008 White House quest. There are a few minor departures and nuances along the way, but none of much significance, and the few candidates who are most strongly opposed to the neocon view have gained little political traction so far.[33]

Despite the veneer of anti-establishment sentiment in this year’s field, on foreign policy the positions are likely to amount to a return of the militaristic unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration’s first term.

Abandoning Pragmatism

The candidates’ foreign policy positions stand in stark contrast to a pragmatic tradition in the Republican Party that has all but disappeared. As Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, USA (ret.), wrote last year, a tradition of restraint abroad and forward-looking leadership of the global system is on the wane:

[T]he establishment and tea party conservatives’ recent lurch to the right has distanced Republicans from the more sober foreign policies of Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush. From the War Party’s John McCain to the Tea Party’s Rand Paul, the right has moved away from the hardheaded pragmatism that helped America win the Cold War and, instead, is pushing us toward a policy of endless, unilateral war.[34]

That abandoning of pragmatism in favor of viewpoints driven primarily by ideology and/or politics coincided with the end of an internecine battle within the Republican Party between the old-line establishment and neoconservative thinkers. As Heilbrunn writes, traditional realist Republican foreign policy has its roots in the wealthy Northeastern establishment that formed the backbone of the party in its early years. They were “a class that saw itself as essentially above politics, particularly when it came to foreign affairs. The Republican elites of the day were conservatives, but not reactionaries; they believed in American power but also in international law and free trade.”[35] But as journalist Eli Lake explains, the presidency of George W. Bush saw the last gasp of that “wise man” tradition in Republican foreign policy:

[Y]ou have to back up to the 1970s, when neoconservatives launched an insurgent campaign against the Republican foreign policy establishment, which at the time was largely composed of realists. For a generation, the two groups tussled; but, by 2008, the neocons had more or less won control of the party. Many realists, from Colin Powell to Brent Scowcroft, began openly distancing themselves from the Bush administration. The neocons were now the establishment.[36]

Heilbrunn summarizes: “Whatever its past shortcomings and foibles, the demise of the wise-man tradition in the GOP should evoke apprehension in anyone who thinks that America’s leading role in the world has, by and large, been a force for good.”[37] Indeed, the primary debate thus far has seen several taboos of U.S. foreign policy broken: a candidate appearing with a foreign government official to criticize the incumbent[38]; candidates standing silent as an audience booed an active-duty soldier[39]; and a top-tier candidate whose ignorance extended to uncertainty about China’s nuclear status.[40]

A Shrinking Margin for Error

In the world beyond the campaign, the competition for global leadership grows fiercer by the day. A host of complex challenges will test America’s ability to lead in the 21st century: economically, diplomatically, technologically and militarily. The stakes are high. As Tufts University Professor Daniel Drezner puts it, “We have a smaller margin to screw up royally than we are used to.”[41]

There will be real costs for failing to understand and adapt to changes in the international landscape. Politics stands as the principle stumbling block to progress. As Nina Hachigian of the Center for American Progress writes, “As long as policy-makers refuse to absorb domestic and international realities, then we’ll continue to tread water, not making the changes needed to transition into our new role, where what is exceptional about America is not just its might, but the opportunities and protection that it provides to its own people and to those around the world.”[42] A new century demands forward-looking policies. No matter how little the next president knows or cares about foreign affairs, the world won’t wait. ■


Jacob Stokes is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.


[1] This paper uses the term “neoconservative” as shorthand for the viewpoints and policies of the George W. Bush administration and its intellectual forebears. Peter Scoblic lays out the history and nuance of the term here: J. Peter Scoblic, interview, Fresh Air, accessed from “U.S. Versus Them;” The Cost of Hawkishness, NPR, July 29, 2008,

[2] White House National Security Council, National Security Strategy, May 2010, .

[3] Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy,” The New Yorker, 88 (11), pp. 44-55,

[4] Gerald Seib, “Domestic Woes Sideline Foreign Policy,” The Wall Street Journal Online, November 1, 2011,

[5] Lydia Saad, “Growing Minority Wants Minimal U.S. Role in World Affairs,” Gallup, February 21, 2011,

[6] “The Generational Gap and the 2012 Election: Angry Silents, Disengaged Millennials,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, November 3, 2011,

[7] New York Times Editorial Board, “Republicans and Foreign Policy,” New York Times, October 17, 2011,

[8] Marc Thiessen, “A Romney-Perry Foreign Policy Debate?”, Washington Post, September 19, 2011,

[9] Michael Tomasky, “Romney’s Shallow Speech,” The Daily Beast, October 7, 2011,

[10] James Fallows, “Mitt Romney’s Swiss-Cheese-Like Foreign Policy ‘Strategy,'” The Atlantic, October 7, 2011,

[11] George Will, “This time, how about a debate of substance?”, The Washington Post, November 4, 2011,

[12] Sarah Huisenga, “Cain Says He’s Ready for Questions About ‘Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,'” National Journal, October 10, 2011,–20111010.

[13] Max Fisher, “13 Biggest Foreign Policy Blunders of the GOP Field,” The Atlantic, October 13, 2011,

[14] John McCormack, “Cain Rips Obama’s ‘Dumb’ Foreign Policy,” Weekly Standard, October 15, 2011,

[15] “Now Is the Time to Ratify New START,” National Security Network, December 7, 2010,

[16] Fred Kaplan, “Mitt Romney’s Dumb Critique of Obama’s New START Nuke Treaty,” Slate, July 7, 2010,

[17] Z. Byron Wolf, “‘Frustrated’ Brent Scowcroft on GOP Opposition to START Treaty: ‘It’s Baffling,'” ABC News, December 20, 2010,

[18] Glenn Kessler, “Obama’s ‘Apology Tour,'” Washington Post, February 22, 2011,

[19] “Mitt Romney repeats claim that Obama went around the world apologizing for the United States,” Politifact, September 22, 2011,

[20] Jacob Stokes, “On Afghanistan, Should Obama Have Deferred to the Generals?” Democracy Arsenal, August 11, 2011,

[21] “The Consensus for Substantial Troop Reductions in Afghanistan,” National Security Network, June 15, 2011,

[22] Mark Memmot, “Flashback: Reagan Calls Gadhafi The ‘Mad Dog Of The Middle East,'” National Public Radio, February 22, 2011,

[23] Jake Tapper, “Where Is Mitt Romney on Libya?” ABC News, October 20, 2011,

[24] Fisher, “13 Biggest Foreign Policy Blunders of the GOP Field.”

[25] Mark Thompson, “House GOP Issues Video Arguing Against Cuts in Defense Budget,” TIME, September 8, 2011,

[26] “Economists Debunk Military Jobs Argument,” National Security Network, October 27, 2011,

[27] Patrick Buchanan, “Tea Party Vs. War Party,” The American Conservative, September 30, 2011,

[28] Peter Baker, “Strange Brew,” Foreign Policy, August 16, 2010,

[29] Jacob Heilbrunn, “The Tea Party and the Neocon Triumph,” National Interest, October 12, 2011,

[30] James Traub, “The Elephants in the Room,” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011,

[31] “Bush aides a-plenty in Romney foreign policy team.” Agence France-Press, October 6, 2011,

[32] Josh Rogin, “Exclusive: Inside Herman Cain’s New Foreign Policy Team,” Foreign Policy, October 26, 2011,; Ben Smith, “Bolton in the Mix,” POLITICO Blog: Ben Smith on Politics and Media, September 22, 2011,

[33] Robert W. Merry and Robert Golan-Vilella, “The Neocon GOP: By Design or Default?” National Interest, October 12, 2011,

[34] Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul Eaton, “The Conservative Defense Myth,” AOL News, November 1, 2010,

[35] Jacob Heilbrunn, “Twilight of the Wise Man,” Foreign Policy, October 12, 2011,

[36] Eli Lake, “All Over the Map,” The New Republic, July 28, 2011,,0.

[37] Heilbrunn, “Twilight of the Wise Man.”

[38] Joel Rose, “Perry to Israel: ‘Help Is On the Way,'” NPR, September 20, 2011,

[39] Z. Byron Wolfe, “Debate Crowd Booed Gay Soldier,” ABC News, September 23, 2011,

[40] Stephanie Condon, “Herman Cain Incorrectly Suggests China Doesn’t Have Nuclear Capability,” CBS News, November 2, 2011,

[41] Daniel Drezner, “Does the American President Need to Know Anything about World Politics?” Foreign Policy, October 17, 2011,

[42] Nina Hachigan, “After Hegemony,” Democracy Journal, Winter 2011,

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