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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Second GOP debate exposes foreign-policy divide

The Republican presidential candidates stand together before a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif. (Photo: AP/Chris Carlson)

It flew largely under the radar and notice of most people analyzing the GOP debate Wednesday night, but an important dialogue is being articulated within the Republican Party about foreign policy. It’s a doozy: What is America’s proper role in the world?

When asked about the 11 or so active military engagements the United States is currently pursuing, Governor Rick Perry said, “I don’t believe in military adventurism.” He elaborated, “We should never put our young men and women’s lives at risk when America’s interests are not clearly defined by the president of the United States.”

Perry’s comments reflected the purported worldview of the last Texas governor that ran for President: George W. Bush. At the second presidential debate in 2000, then-Governor Bush said, “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s got to be.'” He also called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. This sort of isolationism obviously did not pan out — apart from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which did involve the U.S. telling them “this is the way it’s got to be,” there remain about 2,000 U.S. troops in Kosovo — 12 years after that intervention ended.

Congresswoman Bachmann echoed Perry’s sentiments when she expressed her opposition to the intervention in Libya. The United States does not have a vital interest in Libya, she argued, echoing then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “If there is no vital interest, she said, “That doesn’t even meet the threshold of the first test for military involvement.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum disagreed with both. “I’m hearing from at least a couple of people on this panel a very isolationist view of where the Republican Party should be headed,” he said. Invoking Reagan (as all the Republicans did Wednesday night), Santorum argued America, as a force for good, should not shy away from disseminating its values around the world.

Just last week, at a speech to the VFW in San Antonio, Texas, Mitt Romney characterized President Obama’s foreign policy as “the belief that America should become a lesser power.” In contrast to President Obama’s “Harvard faculty approach,” which Romney derisively defined as “if we could just talk more, engage more, pass more U.N. resolutions, that peace will bill break out.” Romney continued, “That’s not what they know on the battlefield.”

For a party so preoccupied with national security, there is no unified GOP message on foreign policy. Some think our foreign policy over the last 10 years has been too costly and ineffective; others equate any attempt to end the current engagements or preempt future missions with weakness and pacifism. Considering President Obama’s foreign policy is difficult to pin down — he has been cast as an apologist for American over-reach even after starting a new war, expanding another and killing Osama bin Laden — the rhetorical dissonance from the Republicans isn’t too surprising.

The conservative message on foreign policy has been fluctuating for a while now. The was a reason President Bush campaigned in 2000 on a message of fewer interventions abroad: it remains a popular thing for politicians to say, and on the right, in particular, there is a long intellectual history opposing wars of choice abroad. At the same time, the Republican party, for lack of a better term, “owned” the war on terror under the Bush administration — by pushing so hard for the invasion of Iraq, and by arguing so forcefully for remaining in Afghanistan for years to come, many prominent figures on the Right have invested far too much intellectual capital in defending military adventurism.

The reality is that the GOP is currently divided over what America’s place in the world should be. On one side, we have Greatness Evangelists who think America is a “shining light on a hill” (to borrow yet another phrase from Reagan) and that we must shine that American light in the world’s darkest places. On the other hand, however, are the Realpolitik Evangelists who think wars of choice are too costly and gain us too little benefit to justify. They come in a range of flavors, from Ron Paul’s angry isolationism to Jon Huntsman’s considered pragmatism, but they stem from the same belief that American doesn’t actually have to flex its military might to remain a powerful and prosperous country.

Unfortunately, Wednesday’s debate didn’t focus on foreign policy at all. The topic definitely looms smaller in the public’s mind than domestic issues like the economy. But it’s also where the Republicans remain very unsettled, and haven’t yet figured out how best to either attack President Obama or to advance their own counter-narrative for how our foreign policy should be defined.

The battle for the Republican soul, if you will, is being fought on multiple fronts. But while there is consensus among the Republican contenders that President Obama’s economic policies have been bad for America (along with his healthcare plan and the debt-ceiling deal), there is no shared vision about how to recalibrate this country’s foreign policy. Some conservative thinkers like Max Boot, have written approvingly of Obama’s foreign policy decisions  (decisions that affirm, rather than repudiate, many of George W. Bush’s foreign policy initiatives helps that a bit). Some Republicans are reacting to the extreme costs such a policy incurs — granted, only after a Democrat is in the White House but it’s opposition nevertheless.

Until the Republicans can figure out a unified message for foreign policy, we can expect continued confusion and inconsistency at the debates. There is no set foreign policy philosophy in the GOP, which means the current primary represents a genuine choice for the Republican party: What will their foreign policy ideas really be? How do they want to represent America to the world? It’s difficult to remember in recent memory when the Republicans disagreed on so fundamental a question in foreign policy, which makes this primary season especially exciting.