As the race for the Republican presidential nomination heats up, the GOP is once again faced with much soul-searching as it comes to grips with an issue that has split the party for decades: war and foreign policy.
What is the foreign policy of the GOP? Although a split between doves and hawks is a good thing for public debate and discourse, it would be wise for the GOP to offer a change from President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in order to achieve electoral success.
For example, among 18-29 year olds, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) are neck and neck. Yet these two candidates’ foreign policies couldn’t be further apart.
In his first major foreign policy speech, Romney vowed to reverse Obama’s “massive defense cuts” and deploy U.S. ships to the Persian Gulf to “deter Iran.” The only problem, of course, is that Obama has increased the military budget every year in office and there are already U.S. destroyers off of Iran’s borders. Paul, on the other hand, wants to drastically scale back U.S. military presence across the globe and slash the military budget.
This split among conservatives is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back to the conservative renaissance of the 1950s.
One side was headed by legendary conservative columnist William F. Buckley, who founded National Review magazine. Buckley said that in order to deal with the Soviet menace, conservatives must put up with a “totalitarian bureaucracy” here at home and advance an aggressive foreign policy.
The other faction, led by Russel Kirk and Frank Meyer, argued for a more prudent and restrained foreign policy as the best way to promote and protect American liberty and interests.
Since then, conservatives and Republicans have been divided on the role of the U.S. government overseas. Even at the end of the Clinton administration there were many conservatives who were very critical of U.S. interventions in the Balkans. However, after 9/11, the non-interventionist wing of the Republican Party has tended to be ignored and discarded. But as the U.S. finds itself involved in three major wars and many smaller conflicts with a struggling economy, a change in foreign policy and a concern for domestic problems is gaining more and more conservative ears.
This is where the next GOP debate tonight, as well as the first primaries in January, should become very interesting. What foreign policy message will appeal to conservative voters and give them a shot at the White House?
Nearly every Republican electoral success has been the result of advocating a hard-headed, prudent foreign policy over the grandiose, liberal interventions of the Democrats. In 1952, President Dwight Eisenhower ended the Korean War. Although portrayed as a hawk by his modern conservative supporters, President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was actually very restrained and calculated. In 2000, George W. Bush criticized President Bill Clinton’s “nation-building” and pushed for a “humble foreign policy.” All three of them, coincidentally, served two terms.
Obama ran on a similar platform as Bush 2000, and although he has expanded and started new wars, his campaign rhetoric is just more proof of the electoral success of a modest foreign policy. And given that the U.S. is trillions of dollars in debt, spread thinly across the globe, and with little prospect of victory in sight, foreign policy will likely be a major issue for voters and is a great area of vulnerability for Obama.
With barely a few months before the primaries, foreign policy will be the issue that defines the soul of conservatism, Republicans, and of the entire country. For the best chances of electoral success and the future of American prosperity, here’s hoping the GOP remembers why voters chose them in the past: to end costly wars, not to start new ones.
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