Dan Drezner has written a lengthy and widely-linked piece for Foreign Affairs on what’s wrong with Republican foreign policy. There are a great many things wrong with Republican foreign policy, so this ought to be verdant territory for smart criticism. But Drezner’s piece seems designed to congratulate readers who think the right sucks generally without offering any particular solutions of note, and it engages in some particularly twisted logic at points.
Drezner’s problem is that Republican foreign policy has largely become bipartisan, so the critique is one that is more of tone than policy details: the grandstanding of the Romney campaign, its single-minded endorsement of unrestricted Pentagon spending, and the simplicity of its bullet point approach to issues. But these are critiques of a campaign and a candidate who wished to contrast without offending in every policy arena, not simply the foreign policy space – it’s unfair to assign this as due to an entire party’s approach to foreign policy.
Most winning presidential candidates are governors, and therefore not experienced in foreign policy – their background is in state and federal politics, not foreign – and most voters care little about foreign policy beyond the issue of security. This means foreign policy issues on the campaign trail are necessarily simplified to the point of uselessness, and using them as the basis for a sweeping critique strikes me as unfair. I personally doubt Mitt Romney’s foreign policy would’ve been all that different from Obama’s – a bit more defense spending, a tad tougher stance on China, a few less big speeches overseas, that’s about it. This is a sign of the victory of mainstream Republican approaches in both parties, not their diminishment.
I just don’t think Drezner has a clear idea what he’s advocating for. He is correct that there’s a steady decline in experienced leaders on the right with strong foreign policy resumes. But this is in part the natural outcome of being out of power. And is the Democratic advantage in this space really that great when the long-in-the-tooth John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and Partition Joe are your potential leading policy figures in the second Obama term?
Drezner criticizes Republicans for too quickly favoring military solutions to global challenges, but then praises the last Republican president for his non-military foreign policy solutions. Did I miss the point where Republicans turned against PEPFAR? Drezner longs for the halcyon days of Bush 41 – but did George H.W.’s approach, which involved far different challenges, tilt all that much more toward non-military solutions than either of the last two presidents? What exactly has President Obama accomplished thus far which represents a non-military foreign policy success? Wasn’t the absence of a sufficient military presence in Libya in part the cause of Benghazi?
The need to seem like a cuddly and helpful superpower has to be balanced against the need to protect our people – whether at consulates and embassies or through drone-based terrorist-killing – and Obama’s approach in both arenas seems highly questionable. Drezner seems to believe that voters trust Obama on foreign policy because he’s got more Vulcans – this seems a silly assumption in an election where foreign policy barely registered, thanks not to Vulcans, but to the death of Osama bin Laden and more significant domestic concerns.
Drezner also critiques the push for democracy in the Middle East, a longer-term strategy which has been part of Republican policy priorities now for a longer period. I share many of his concerns in this arena. But you can’t simply disagree with democracy promotion without offering an alternative. Drezner undermines his argument by not just coming out and saying that he thinks the Republican Party ought to return to a doctrine of “keep the Saddams and Mubaraks in place, because Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are worse now than they were before”, the upshot of his approach. The problem is that this may no longer be an applicable strategy in an era of internet technology and rapid coordination among opposition groups. In such a new arena, where dictators are less stable and must engage in greater crackdowns on their citizenry in order to rule, it seems wiser for the United States to promote people from within, an approach which demands a great deal of care and is not the sort of thing to be discussed seriously in the context of a political campaign.
One last nit to pick: someone please explain to Drezner what the word “tactical” means. As far as I can tell, every instance he cites as a “tactical” decision is in reality an operational one.
This post was adapted from today's edition of The Transom, Ben Domenech's indispensable daily news round up and commentary email. Subscribe here.