While the outcome of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections is, of course, uncertain, the Republican Party is poised to attract a constant stream of attention, analysis and speculation in the run-up to the closely watched race, from which it could emerge in a strengthened political position. It’s quite possible Republicans will control both the House and Senate after the next election, and a Republican candidate will mount a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, especially if the economy founders.
But there’s no shortage of “ifs” heading into the 2012 election, and it’s just as possible that Obama will emerge victorious and the political winds will shift back in Democrats’ favor.
Whatever the case, the GOP has managed to define much of the national debate with its singular focus on deficit reduction and ambitious plans to slash government spending. It also has a natural edge in generating public and media interest as the riveting contest over who will ultimately lead the party plays out over the next year.
But beyond the fascination — some say obsession — with figures such as Sarah Palin and the all-consuming budget battle lie lesser-publicized elements of Republican thinking, namely the party’s historic approach to foreign policy and its likely future policy stances.
Those wishing to learn more about how Republicans view the world and America’s place in it should read “Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II,” by Colin Dueck. Clear, balanced and comprehensive, the book provides an interesting perspective on how Republicans develop and implement their foreign policy vision.
Dueck, a professor at George Mason University, says the book is written from a “conservative point of view,” but his primary objective is to describe the GOP’s foreign policy record rather than advocate for Republican electoral hegemony.
His central argument is that Republican foreign policies have been basically hawkish since 1950s, hence the book’s title, “Hard Line.” He describes the GOP as the “party of hawkish nationalism,” adding that there have been policy oscillations among Republican leaders over the decades — including a divide between realists and idealists during and after the Cold War — but there’s also been great continuity.
“The most important such continuity is a consistent, hard-line American nationalism. Republicans believe in American exceptionalism, have sought to preserve their country’s freedom of action in world affairs, and have tried to avoid what they view as excessive accommodation toward hostile or threatening nations,” he writes.
Dueck says the Republican Party has been the conservative voice in U.S. politics for many decades. In his view, conservatives are skeptical about what government can accomplish; they oppose revolutionary political change; and they support the rule of law, respect for private property, reverence for the past, the importance of religion, and the necessity of public and private virtue.
As it pertains to foreign policy, Dueck says conservatives tend to be pessimistic about transforming the international system and doubt that international organizations or treaties can preserve the peace. They focus instead on protecting the nation’s interests and are deeply reluctant to relinquish sovereignty to international or transnational organizations. They are also typically cautious about using force with the intention of transforming the domestic arrangements of other nations, although in recent years this point has been seriously questioned given the Republican-launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet Dueck sees four distinct conservatives foreign policy archetypes that span the gamut of interventionist beliefs: “realists” who support the prudent use of force and diplomacy to advance carefully defined political interests; “hawks” who believe in the utility of military power and at times support armed interventions overseas; “nationalists” who seek to preserve the nation’s sovereignty and independence while avoiding diplomatic concessions to adversaries; and “anti-interventionists” who try to avoid military entanglements abroad.
With this foundation established, “Hard Line” dissects the careers and convictions of eight GOP foreign policy leaders. These case studies provide an excellent primer on the most consequential Republican leaders of the last 70 years and the policy debates they led.
For example, Dueck describes two Republican senators who shaped the GOP foreign policy agenda despite their failure to win the presidency. Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio embodied the doctrine of conservative anti-interventionism. Serving in the Senate from 1939 to 1953, Taft believed that extensive military entanglements abroad would endanger American traditions of limited government. An impressive senator, Taft tried unsuccessfully several times to win the Republican presidential nomination, although his anti-interventionist views resonated with a large number of Republicans and still have adherents today.
Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who served in the Senate from 1953 to 1965 and then from 1969 to 1987, was a less consequential lawmaker than Taft but succeeded in winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. Although he was drubbed by Lyndon Johnson in that election, his campaign catalyzed insurgent Republicans, primarily based in the South and West, who were conservative on economic issues and hawkish on foreign policy.
Dueck argues that Goldwater launched a grassroots conservative coalition and political network that came to dominate American politics nearly two decades later, articulating themes that resurfaced in later Republican campaigns. Goldwater derided containment, arms control and diplomatic engagement with the Soviet Union. He called for an assertive foreign policy of anti-communist rollback and prodded Republicans to become the chief advocates for robust defense spending and unapologetic military intervention.
Dueck believes the GOP’s foreign policy has also been profoundly shaped by several important Republican presidents. In particular, he sees President Dwight Eisenhower, who was in office from 1953 to 1961, as one of the most successful foreign policy presidents of the 20th century. Eisenhower’s central goal was to contain communism and to preserve America’s global leadership without bankrupting the government. A celebrated World War II general, Eisenhower had the standing to challenge the nation’s military establishment and cut the defense budget. He may also have been the last U.S. president to carefully weigh the nation’s overseas commitments with its fiscal limitations.
Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, was defeated by John Kennedy in 1960, but would win the presidency eight years later. In Dueck’s view, Nixon, working closely with his top foreign policy aide, Henry Kissinger, epitomized Republican realism. From 1969 to 1974, Nixon and Kissinger presided over a shrewd reorientation of U.S. foreign policy that emphasized great power relations and geopolitics. They slowly extracted the United States from the Vietnam War, opened up ties with China, consolidated America’s position worldwide, and implemented a sophisticated policy of detente with the Soviet Union, although the Watergate scandal drove Nixon from the presidency and badly tarnished his legacy.
Dueck is plainly intrigued by the last three Republican presidents. He describes Ronald Reagan, who served from 1981 to 1989, as the leading conservative Republican leader of the past 70 years. In his view, Reagan redefined the image of the American right, ushered in conservative dominance of the Republican Party, and left the GOP stronger and more coherent than at any time since the 1920s.
In foreign policy, Dueck says Reagan pushed a “fundamentally daring, ideologically charged strategy” that challenged the Soviet Union militarily, politically and culturally. Blending force with tactical skill, Reagan always seemed to negotiate from a position of strength. Despite occasionally bellicose rhetoric, he avoided protracted military intervention and was careful not to overreach either domestically or internationally.
Reagan, Dueck argues, had a greater impact on U.S. politics than any American president since Franklin Roosevelt. He was forceful and pragmatic and made conservatism the dominant force in the American political discourse. “Most presidents seem to shrink in significance as their tenure recedes in time. Reagan only looms larger; sunny, single-minded and remote,” he writes.
Dueck believes that George H.W. Bush was an underrated president who conducted a highly competent foreign policy that emphasized caution, stability and prudence. Serving as president from 1989 to 1993, he guided U.S. foreign policy with considerable skill, encouraging German unification, quietly supporting political revolutions in Eastern Europe, and calmly observing the implosion of the Soviet Union. He supported arms control, democracy and international trade and built an impressive international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.
Dueck sees the elder president’s son, George W. Bush, as a good politician who articulated conservative foreign policy themes during his 2000 campaign but dramatically shifted course after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bush then launched a foreign policy of regime change, aggressive democracy promotion and preventive war.
On this front, Dueck unleashes withering criticisms of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, arguing it was a risky venture that stood in opposition to conservative principles. “Under Bush’s ultimate guidance, the invasion and early occupation of Iraq were conducted with boundless optimism, inattention to local circumstance, and a serious lack of preparation for postwar reconstruction, counterinsurgency and stability operations,” he writes.
There is no evidence, he declares, that Bush “presided over or insisted on a truly searching analysis among his leading advisors over how to successfully occupy Iraq, much less whether or not to invade.”
However, Dueck notes that Bush accomplished important achievements during his presidency that extended from 2001 to 2009. He improved America’s relationships with China, India, Japan and much of Africa. He also credits the Bush administration for securing an arms control agreement with Russia, building a generous global HIV/AIDS program, uncovering the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network, and securing an agreement with Libya to abandon its nuclear program.
But he argues that Bush’s record on Iraq will dominate the historical assessment of his presidency and that the war is likely to be judged as “ill considered not only in terms of implementation but in terms of conception.” Dueck concludes that even if Iraq emerges as a stable and democratic nation, Bush’s handling of the war’s chaotic aftermath “cannot be a model for Republicans” to follow. And he notes that when Bush left office in January of 2009, Democrats were in control of both the White House and Congress. This, he says, is “no great legacy from a conservative point of view.”
As for the present day, Dueck believes the GOP is now dominated by what he calls a hawk-nationalist alliance that is skeptical of arms control agreements, the United Nations, and the efficacy of negotiations with North Korea, Cuba and Iran. This group strongly supports Israel, Taiwan, NATO expansion, missile defense, and a fierce war on terrorists. It sees China and Russia as strategic competitors, not partners, believes in a global mission for the United States, and deplores President Obama as weak.
This hawk-nationalist worldview prevails in conservative interest groups, think tanks, and among Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “They offer clear, bold arguments that resonate with popular feeling regarding American exceptionalism and strong national defense. They believe in what they are doing. Finally, they operate within a party that is basically hawkish and nationalistic, as they are, on foreign policy matters, and has been for several decades. This gives them a natural influence and a natural audience, regardless of temporary setbacks,” he writes.
Dueck says the central challenge for the GOP is to find a new foreign policy agenda that adjusts for the policy and political failings of the Bush years and is more traditionally conservative. A greater emphasis on conservative realism would be consistent with the actual practices of successful Republican presidents such as Reagan, Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt, Dueck argues.
In addition, a revived conservative realism would focus on America’s major alliances with Europe and Japan while de-emphasizing involvement in the internal politics of relatively small countries such as Somalia and Iraq. The overarching goal would be to safeguard American primacy on the world stage. “The preservation of American primacy and the effective management of great power politics ought to come first when thinking about U.S. foreign policy,” he writes.
It would also recognize that the country’s most pressing challenge is defeating terrorists who want to use weapons of mass destruction on the United States and its allies, according to Dueck. On that note, the author turns to a common Republican refrain that American defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan would embolden its enemies, so the United States must win these wars. Notably, however, he does not explain what constitutes victory in either of these wars.
The conservative realism that Dueck supports regards diplomacy as neither inherently good nor bad, but as a potentially useful tool that should be wielded skillfully. The United States should work with international organizations such as the United Nations, but not expect too much from them.
However, Dueck insists that the United States cannot be solely responsible for keeping the peace around the world and argues that military interventions should be undertaken only when there is a vital American interest at stake and a strong likelihood of success. “On the whole, American military interventions should be rarer and more carefully prepared than was the case under either the Clinton or Bush administrations. Picking fights in highly unpromising locations only encourages the impression of weakness when these fights go badly,” he writes.
Finally, the United States should support democracy, but be wary of democracy promotion that is divorced from local political and cultural realities. Dueck argues that it makes far more sense for the United States to support democracies that now exist rather than try to create them.
“Hard Line” is an impressive book that sheds considerable light on the Republican Party and its vision of American foreign policy. Dueck writes clearly and forcefully, and for the most part, the book is a model of fair-minded scholarship. However, there are a few quibbles.
I found his comments on Democratic presidents and foreign policies to be less persuasive than his central thesis on the GOP. His dismissal of President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy seemed reflexive and even a touch glib.
And some of his criticisms of the Obama administration are too sweeping and lack necessary context. For example, Dueck accuses Obama of “endless spending, regulation and domestic economic experiments” without discussing the scope of the economic calamity he inherited — fueled in large part by the Bush administration’s decision to cut taxes while launching two costly wars. With the United States facing the prospect of a catastrophic depression in 2009, it hardly seems credible that traditional GOP policies of cutting taxes and easing regulation would have been the preferred way to revive a collapsing economy.
I also wish Dueck would have explored more deeply why so few Republicans challenged President George W. Bush as he contemplated war with Iraq in 2003 and pondered remaking Iraqi society, even while another war was being waged in Afghanistan. As Dueck points out, with this initiative, Bush’s foreign policy agenda departed from the central tenants of conservatism and more nearly resembled Wilsonian idealism. But very few Republican leaders challenged Bush’s risky venture. Why? Perhaps Dueck does not dwell on this question because there are no very good answers apart from unfailing GOP loyalty to a Republican president.
Dueck largely refrains from commenting on what might happen in 2012, or the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, but “Hard Line” does lay a strong historical basis for how Republican foreign policy has been shaped over the decades — one that he hopes will serve as a guide to future conservative leaders.
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.