One of the (admittedly abstract) virtues that accompanies a party not holding the White House is that it faces far less pressure to close ideological ranks. To govern, as the old saw has it, is to decide, and the energy inherent in the presidency creates a partisan groundswell when employed in the service of all but the most divisive issues.
As an instructive example, consider two of the most salient initiatives of the George W. Bush administration: the War in Iraq and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. While conservatives of good will and upstanding intentions broke ranks with President Bush on both topics, it seems safe to say that there would have been far more opposition from the right had either policy come out of an Al Gore Administration. A president, especially when he’s popular, can often persuade members of his own party who would otherwise be recalcitrant on ideological grounds. And if you doubt the importance of a president’s popularity in determining this influence, you need only look to President Bush’s failures to win over Republicans on immigration reform and TARP in the final quarter of his presidency.
I mention all this because the reaction of the conservative establishment to the Obama Administration’s intervention in Libya – free of any pressures to close ranks behind the executive – seems to me illustrative of a broader debate over foreign policy that will (if the primaries serve any intellectual purpose whatsoever – a debatable premise) play out as we head into the next presidential cycle.
On one end of the spectrum, we have the hard-core non-interventionists like Ron Paul. Of course, these folks are opposed to this action abroad, as they are generally opposed to military reactions to all but the most immediate, direct threats to American national security. That this position is reflexive doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it uninteresting for our purposes here. It’s a philosophy so parsimonious that it doesn’t benefit much from further examination.
Somewhere on the other end we have what are most conveniently referred to as the “neoconservatives”, though I hesitate to use that term because its undeserved employment as an epithet doesn’t seem to have ended quite yet. This group (best exemplified by the editorial voice of the Weekly Standard) consists of enthusiastic proponents of challenging Middle East despotism head on and of healing the region through a long-term investment in liberal democracy. They are also prone to give greater weight to international human rights abuses as legitimate national security interests of the United States.
To the extent that the neoconservatives are critical of the intervention in Libya, it has more to do with means than ends. They blanche at the increased weight given to U.N. approval; the administration’s promise of a quick, limited and cosmetic conflict; and the ambivalence as to whether or not regime change is an explicit goal of the coalition’s efforts. They are the non-interventionist’s opposites in nearly every way.
What’s most interesting, however, is the maturation (or restoration, depending on your point of view) of a third foreign policy mindset within the party. The temptation is to call this group “realists”, but that isn’t quite right because (1) it weighs them down with a lot of the baggage of others who have appropriated that label in the past and (2) it’s simply too self-congratulatory a term to be taken seriously as an ideological marker.
This group (think of its members as skeptical hawks) represents an interesting synthesis of the other two. Like the neocons, they don’t feel backwards about the use of American power; yet their circumscribed definition of our national interests lies closer on the continuum to the non-interventionists (though its still a considerable distance away). More than anything, this group embodies a foreign policy of doubt – doubt at America’s ability to fundamentally reshape alien cultures and governments, doubt at the notion of democracy promotion and nation building as unalloyed goods, and doubt about the integrity of military adventures that have amorphous goals from day one.
A good representation of this philosophy comes from the Hoover Institution’s Bruce Thornton, who writes on Hoover’s Advancing a Free Society website:
So what are the national and security interests of the United States in this intervention? The received wisdom of Republican and Democratic foreign policy alike is that support for brutal dictators in the long run tarnishes our prestige and harms our interests by squelching the democratic aspirations of the oppressed. In the Middle East particularly, this “democracy deficit” has empowered the jihadists who turn to a debased form of Islam in compensation for a lack of freedom. Removing these oppressive autocrats thus will clear space for incipient democratic movements to create regimes founded on liberal democratic principles of freedom, tolerance, human rights, and the rest. And our efforts to liberate oppressed Muslims will buy us their affection and support, further eroding the appeal of jihadism and making us more secure from terror.
But this dogma begs any number of questions and looks more like wishful thinking rather than a sober understanding of reality. In the past we have liberated oppressed Muslims in the Balkans, oppressed Muslims in Kuwait, oppressed Muslims in Afghanistan, oppressed Muslims in Iraq, and now we’re going to liberate (maybe) oppressed Muslims in Libya. And how much goodwill has that bought us in the Muslim world? Did liberating millions of Shiites from a murderous tyrant in Iraq make Shiite Iran stop regarding us as the Great Satan? Of course not. We have to free ourselves from this curiously arrogant assumption that the whole world determines its policies and beliefs simply in reaction to what we do. Muslims have a religious world-view and sensibility that condition their actions and interests, and we must understand those spiritual beliefs in their own terms rather than reducing them to the materialist determinism that dominates our thinking. As the Ayatollah Khomeini said, he didn’t start an Islamist revolution to lower the price of melons.
The Thornton view, now ascendant, in the GOP, is in many ways a refutation of the Bush Doctrine. Which will become dominant in the Republican Party of the future? That’s a question that will depend heavily on who becomes the next GOP standard-bearer.