Home The Washington Diplomat April 2012 In GOP Race to the White House, Is Foreign Policy Mere Spectator?

In GOP Race to the White House, Is Foreign Policy Mere Spectator?

In GOP Race to the White House, Is Foreign Policy Mere Spectator?

When it comes to recalling foreign policy’s role in this Republican presidential primary, one word will stand above the rest: “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”

Former frontrunner Herman Cain eschewed the notion that foreign policy knowledge would be an important factor for voters in this election, and so when the Christian Broadcasting Network asked the rising candidate in October how he would respond to a “gotcha” question about the name of Uzbekistan’s president, Cain uttered those gibberish syllables that instantly became YouTube gold. It represented a xenophobic one-upmanship in which Cain seemed to boast that not only did he not know the name of the president who was in charge of a key stop on the supply line to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — hell, he didn’t even care to know the name of the country itself.

Since 9/11, foreign policy and national security chops have ranked among the top criteria for candidates in every presidential primary and general election — until now, that is.

With a sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment, the 2012 race is the first in recent memory that has been overwhelmingly focused inward on domestic issues, even with a war still taking place abroad. Cain’s statement is emblematic of that. (Some will argue that Cain was merely a vanity candidate, but what he said and how it was perceived is notable because it was not completely apart from the Republican field but rather represented a trend — and most importantly because his ratings actually went up after his statement about Uzbekistan.)

Credit: U.S. Navy photo /
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kitt Amaritnant
U.S. Navy Master-at-Arms Seaman Recruit Jessee Seaman stands by his machine gun during a watch as his ship transits through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital oil shipping artery and the site of recent tensions with Iran. Despite early isolationist rhetoric in the U.S. presidential primary, the remaining Republican candidates have adopted a hard line on Iran, vowing to support military intervention and regime change to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

The shift in focus for the Republican electorate and the candidates vying for its adoration stems from outside factors such as dissatisfaction with the slow economic recovery, the nature of Obama’s historic presidency, the residual pull of the so-called “culture wars,” and other events during the past four years.

But there is also a phenomenon happening within the GOP itself. No political party is static, and the modern-day Grand Old Party is no different.

This evolution has been personified by the anyone-but-Mitt-Romney schizophrenic string of GOP presidential frontrunners claiming to embody the kind of “true” conservatism that the establishment-ordained Romney apparently lacks. And it’s been driven in large part by the game-changing entrance of the tea party that has upended GOP dynamics.

Though at times their influence has been overhyped, the anti-spending tea partiers have exposed a deep rift in Republican foreign policy, with a new brand of isolationism challenging the party’s traditional hawkish posture.

A segment of GOP voters is no doubt leery of military intervention in the wake of the Iraq nation-building blunder, but the tea party, in its zeal to rein in government spending, is even targeting defense budgets, once considered sacrosanct among Republicans.

Most of the 2012 candidates, to one degree or another, have embraced elements of the tea party’s less-is-more mindset — none more so than Ron Paul, who would pretty much like to see the United States completely disengage from the world. Other one-time hopefuls such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman have all called for a shrinking of American military investment abroad, whether it was reducing troops in Europe or staying out of Libya.

Despite the enduring clout of the tea party, the rise in isolationism hasn’t drowned out the more established foreign policy wing of the GOP, which has re-emerged the more this protracted primary season drags on. Romney in particular has unequivocally declared America’s exceptionalism abroad, pressed for robust military spending, criticized troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and exhibited the streaks of hard-line ideology historically associated with the Republican Party, which for decades counted foreign policy and national security know-how among its strengths — from its anti-communist message during the Cold War to its aggressive stance against terrorism over the past decade.

Today, the latest motley crew of GOP frontrunners — Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — have been practically tripping over each other in their unfailing support for Israel and determination to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, by regime change or force if necessary.

Some of the rhetoric is convenient politics. Republicans smelled blood in the water when Obama’s relationship with Israel hit the rocks and three years of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program produced no results, seizing on the two issues to paint the president as weak.

Romney and others have also disagreed with Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq and seek a negotiated settlement to wind down the war in Afghanistan, although Romney has qualified his criticism, saying that any drawdown should be based on input from generals on the ground, and it’s not clear he would keep troops in Afghanistan past 2014 either.

Yet the notion of pouring more money into the defense budget or another prolonged military conflict — the Pentagon is still spending over $2 billion a week in Afghanistan, and planning to spend $86 billion over the next year — certainly clashes with the spendthrift mood of the nation.

Polls clearly indicate that after a decade of war, Americans have lost their appetite for foreign military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq — as more voters are preoccupied with losing their jobs and livelihoods.

This gets to a bigger dilemma Republicans face: On foreign policy, Obama consistently gets high marks. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll earlier this year showed that 56 percent of Americans trust Obama to handle international affairs better than Romney by a 19-point margin. The same number trust Obama more on terrorist matters by a 20-point margin over Romney.

Indeed, the president has robbed Republicans of their trump card: attacking Democrats for being soft on national security. Obama has clearly proven his mettle by ordering the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and waging a successful campaign of drone strikes and special ops raids that has decapitated the bulk of al-Qaeda’s leadership. He also assembled an international coalition that dislodged the regime of Col. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and imposed some of the stiffest sanctions to date on Iran, whose nuclear facilities and scientists have come under fire by a covert assault reportedly engineered by Israel and the United States.

Obama, by virtue of having simply been president for nearly four years, also has the kind of foreign policy know-how that some of his opponents clearly lack. Gaffes like Cain’s have made excellent fodder for TV comedians but shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Other than Huntsman, a former ambassador to China, and perhaps Gingrich, the GOP candidates simply don’t have much international experience.

In fairness, most presidents (many of them former state governors) don’t come into office with foreign policy credentials under their belt — rather, like Obama and Bush before him, they learn on the job (and look how far Huntsman’s international experience got him).

This time it’s all about jobs anyway. That’s precisely why Romney is banking on his business acumen to win votes. Yet just because the election will hinge on the economy, that’s not to say foreign policy won’t rear its head in the next few months. Should Israel attack Iran and oil prices surge during the busy summer travel season, Obama could have another war — and a Jimmy Carter-esque gas crisis — on his hands.

Even if Israel resists the urge to bomb Iran, the region is poised for instability, from civil war in Syria, to sectarian fighting in Iraq, to possibly yet another unforeseen upheaval inspired by the Arab Spring — all of which could easily send energy prices soaring.

A euro crisis in the European Union triggered by indebted countries such as Greece, Italy or Spain would also reverberate on this side of the Atlantic.

Politics abroad may play a role in the U.S. election landscape as well. What if the fragile civilian government in nuclear-armed Pakistan collapses? What if violence spirals out of control in Afghanistan, testing U.S. and NATO resolve? Key leadership transitions in France, Mexico and China will all take place before November.

Last but certainly not least, there has been no major terrorist attack on U.S. soil during Obama’s presidency. Of course, the administration’s foreign policy successes could quickly become moot if another 9/11-style strike occurs before November.

Regardless of what happens in the next seven months, a turbulent world awaits whoever becomes the next occupant of the White House. Once upon a time, not that long ago, most people generally knew what kind of worldview that occupant held if he or she was a Republican. But today, the party is undergoing an identity crisis of sorts.

For his part, Obama is not shying away from a fight. As James M. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations put it after the president’s 2012 State of the Union address, “Obama’s message to his Republican opponents was that he has no intention of running away from his foreign policy record. He is instead going to run on it.”

Unassailable Record?

Republican candidates have hammered Obama for being weak on national security, for not confronting foes such as Iran and Syria more forcefully, and for generally not embracing American exceptionalism in world affairs. But the exceptionalism argument may have little resonance because Obama’s international record has been, by some measures, fairly exceptional.

Indeed, a string of victories abroad has deflated this traditional line of attack. The first win came when Obama barely had taken office and became only the third sitting U.S. president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While it may have done little to convince the new president’s early critics, the honor seemed to solidify Obama’s claim on the campaign trail that he would help restore America’s standing in the world after eight divisive years of President George W. Bush and what many nations viewed as Bush’s cowboy unilateralism.

But Obama’s most tangible foreign policy achievement of course was the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound on May 2, 2011. By taking out the 9/11 mastermind, Obama accomplished what had been a prime — perhaps defining, even — pursuit of George W. Bush. The resulting success of that bold gambit became an awkward moment when Obama’s would-be Republican challengers were forced to praise the opponent whom they had planned on attacking for shortcomings in this exact arena.

Photo: Spc. Roland Hale / Department of Defense
The unmanned aerial vehicle MQ-1C Gray Eagle is silhouetted by the sunrise as it prepares for a mission at Camp Taji in Baghdad in 2010. President Obama’s aggressive campaign of drone strikes has decapitated much of al-Qaeda’s leadership, while diffusing the traditional Republican line of attack that Democrats are soft on security.

To that end, when it comes to the war against al-Qaeda, the president has a track record that’s tough to beat: 22 of the terrorist group’s top 30 leaders are dead, including influential American-Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. Most of the deaths are the result of an aggressive drone campaign that, while raising important questions of ethical and legal overreach, has undeniably put terrorists and insurgents from Afghanistan to Somalia on constant edge.

The United States also backed a NATO-led coalition in Libya that helped rebels topple longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, an archenemy of the hallowed Republican icon President Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Obama’s response to the historic revolutions of the Arab Spring has revealed a cautious yet agile approach, resorting to force selectively to keep the U.S. from getting mired in yet another war against a Muslim nation.

He vigorously defended this approach in a March 6 press conference, saying, “The one thing that we have not done is we have not launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so and explain to the American people why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”

While all of the Republican candidates have been united in warning against the spread of radical Islam, the party’s response to the Arab Spring has been more muddled, with some factions pressing for military intervention and others wanting to stay out of the fray. For instance, Republican heavyweights such as Sen. Lindsay Graham gave the president flak for not responding to Libya sooner, while on the flip side, Santorum said Obama should not have abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak so hastily.

But Republicans seemed to have coalesced around Syria, with hawks such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) arguing that the president is not throwing the full weight of the United States behind the democratic uprisings in the Arab world.

McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently became the first senator to publicly call for U.S.-led air strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt his assault on cities such as Homs and Hama.

Yet arming the Free Syrian Army and other inchoate rebel groups — or even trying to establish humanitarian corridors — is fraught with uncertainty and could snowball into a full-blown foreign military intervention. (A Pew Research Center poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans say the United States does not have a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict.)

That’s why the Obama administration warned against “the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military” and is sticking with diplomacy to galvanize international pressure against al-Assad. In Yemen, that strategy seems to have paid off for now, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down thanks to a Gulf-brokered accord that finally eased him from power after 33 years.

This has been the hallmark of Obama’s Arab Spring calculation: encouraging the revolutions without dictating their outcome, and working with other nations to help protesters but ultimately leaving them to shape their own governments.

In a similar vein, the administration has gradually pushed Iraq and Afghanistan to take responsibility for their own fates. Obama campaigned and in part won on a promise to get Americans out of Iraq and refocus attention on the “real” fight in Afghanistan, and for the most part he’s delivered on that pledge.

Obama ended all combat operations in Iraq last December and, after committing some 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in late 2009, he seems just as committed to winding down that conflict by 2014.

While candidates such as Romney have cautioned against a precipitous troop drawdown — though they haven’t offered any specifics on what they’d do differently — polls consistently show that some two-thirds of the American public favors getting out of Afghanistan. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that overall, 53 percent say Obama is removing troops from Afghanistan at about the right pace, and 22 percent say he is not removing troops quickly enough. Just 20 percent say the president is withdrawing troops too quickly. A February Washington Post-ABC News Poll also showed that more than 80 percent of those surveyed approved of the use of unmanned “drone” aircraft.

And while Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq could be in jeopardy if a bloody civil war engulfs the country, that war too has become an afterthought for most voters — a stark contrast to 2008, when Iraq and the “war on terrorism” took center stage in the presidential debates.

Moreover, by getting the support of the military brass to start reining in defense spending after a decade of explosive growth, Obama has blunted Republican warnings that he’s endangering national security by gutting the Pentagon budget.

In fact, Obama is beefing up defense resources elsewhere. His highly touted “Asian pivot” has generally received praise for redirecting U.S. attention onto a critical part of the world while taking advantage of China’s missteps in the region to reassert America as a Pacific power.

In addition to strengthening partnerships with Southeast Asian allies such as Vietnam and Indonesia, the administration’s patient carrot-stick diplomacy with neighboring adversaries has yielded tentative dividends, with the military junta in Burma opening up to the West and North Korea’s new leader willing to re-enter talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Yet these gains could easily unravel and Obama’s global outreach has not always paid off. At the start of his term, the president was derided by Republicans (and more than a few Democrats) for offering unconditional engagement — or what critics referred to as appeasement — to unsavory regimes in Iran and elsewhere.

That offer, while rebuffed, also stripped Iran of excuses and allowed Obama to build an international coalition that’s slapped the harshest sanctions to date on Tehran.

Obama has also instituted a raft of pro-Israel policies, vetoing the Palestinian Authority’s request for United Nations recognition and overseeing the largest-ever increase of military cooperation and aid to Israel. But these moves have been overshadowed by all-too-public spats with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama’s misstep early on tackling the charged issue of Israeli settlements.

The interlocking issues of Israel and Iran could indeed be the administration’s biggest vulnerability heading into November. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that only 36 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling the possibility of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, while 52 percent disapprove. Still, most campaign strategists say foreign policy and national security have generally been among Obama’s strong suits — and the real target should be the economy. In that same WashPost-ABC poll, 59 percent of Americans gave the president negative ratings on the economic front in the wake of rising gas prices.

A new book — “Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy” by policy heavyweights Martin S. Indyk, Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Michael E. O’Hanlon — points out just how unexpected this turn of events has been, asking: “Would even Obama have guessed four years ago that he would be heading into reelection with wars and foreign policy largely neutralized — at least for now — as major vulnerabilities, and that the most serious challenges to his reputation for competence would come in the arena of domestic policy?”

Tea Time

Obama was in part elected riding a wave of voter allergy to war, so it’s little surprise that the Republican Party would experience an aversion to foreign intervention after George W. Bush launched two costly wars, one on the falsehood that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

For some voters, the 2008 Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, represented a continuum of the neoconservative thinking that dominated the Bush camp, which veered furthered to the right of old-school GOP realists such as former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The rise of the tea party represented a 180-degree turn away from the Bush administration and its global ambitions to instill democracy in the Middle East. Even some past realists began looking inward, with Haass for instance advocating retrenchment in the Time magazine piece “Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home.”

The start of the 2012 election last year was clearly marked by a burst of isolationism — espoused by tea party conservatives and their unlikely breakout stars. James Traub, writing in the November 2011 issue of Foreign Policy, describes the tea party as “the faction of Less — less spending, less government, and, generally, less engagement abroad. And all the Republicans aspiring to win the 2012 nomination have responded to this powerful new voice in one way or another,” he wrote in the article “The Elephants in the Room.”

“None of the candidates save Paul can genuinely be called isolationist — and perhaps not even he. But Rep. Michele Bachmann shares the Tea Party’s suspicion of foreign interventions and foreign countries more generally; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has called for ‘nation-building at home’ rather than ‘nation-building in Afghanistan’ or elsewhere; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has warned vaguely of ‘military adventurism.’ Rick Santorum … anchors the opposite end of the foreign-policy spectrum, the pole of bristling aggression and furious denunciation (both of Obama and of Paul). And Mitt Romney falls somewhere in the middle, which seems to be where he falls whenever he is dropped.”

Ron Paul’s brand of isolationism, in fact, is precisely the reason the quirky libertarian has become such an unlikely sensation, especially among younger constituents ready for a radical rethinking of how government should work (less, much less). Steeped in libertarianism and Ayn Rand’s objectivism, Paul abhors interventionism (he has said he would not act to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon), though he cannot be called isolationist inasmuch as he favors a robust free trade policy and laissez-faire economics.

Although many of Paul’s policies mirror the tea party’s small-government orthodoxy, the group doesn’t have a cohesive foreign policy vision. Tea party hero Florida Rep. Allen West recently compared the movement to the 1958 horror film “The Blob.”

The broad tea party label can absorb both neoconservative and isolationist leanings, which otherwise would seem opposed. And at other times it just seems to stand against whatever Obama is for — often to the right of run-of-the-mill Republicans. But in general, it is deeply suspicious of the government, including foreign affairs and foreign aid.

In a straw poll taken at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, the most important conservative event in the country, 63 percent of attendees listed promoting “individual freedom by reducing the size and scope of government and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens” as their top priority. Only 12 percent said securing “American safety at home and abroad regardless of the cost or the size of government” was their chief concern.

That runs counter to the worldview of George W. Bush, who favored what he called “compassionate conservatism” and dramatically increased funds to Africa to fight AIDS and malaria. Most tea partiers dismiss such humanitarian assistance and nation building as poor uses of taxpayer dollars. But the group is hardly monolithic — nor would it eviscerate foreign policy altogether.

A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that tea party Republicans favor an assertive foreign policy, are strong backers of Israel, take a hard line against illegal immigration and China, and are more likely than other Republicans or Democrats to support the Reagan-era principle of “peace through strength” (a mantra Romney has picked up as well).

Tea party acolytes prize “fiscal responsibility,” above all else, which partly explains their dueling narrative on defense spending. On the one hand, the Pew poll found broad support among tea party Republicans, as well as non-tea party Republicans, for maintaining defense spending at current levels. Yet a majority (55 percent) also approve of reducing military commitments overseas to reduce the budget deficit and the size of the nation’s debt.

Tea party support temporarily vaulted candidates like Cain and Perry to the top of the race last year even though their foreign policy backgrounds were extremely flimsy. This seems to suggest that the tea party places an unusually low value on traditional foreign policy credentials.

But in the case of Bachmann, the picture was somewhat different. Bachmann — who helped form the Tea Party Caucus in Congress — laid the groundwork for her presidential run by seeking to boost her foreign policy credibility with an appointment to the House Intelligence Committee. As early as 2007, she joined a congressional delegation that toured Ireland, Germany, Pakistan, Kuwait and Iraq.

At times, such as in Bachmann’s recent post-candidacy speech at CPAC, she won plaudits from pundits for her cogent criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy. But much more often than not she has been known for outlandish statements, such as when she quoted a false claim that Obama’s trip to India was costing taxpayers $200 million per day.

One thing that unified all of the candidates in the beginning of the race was the rush to curry favor with tea party voters, who often howled loudest at town halls, egging on the candidates to produce the most extreme sound bites, which then drove the media’s coverage. Poll numbers among likely Republican voters solidified and amplified this pattern. When Cain’s numbers went up after his “beki-beki” remark, it sent a message to his fellow candidates that being too focused on foreign policy might imperil their own ratings and perhaps they too ought to lob a proverbial hand grenade at the longstanding presidential primary wisdom that if a candidate is deficient in foreign policy gravitas, he or she won’t survive to the general election.

The result was an inexhaustible supply of well-covered GOP debates in which foreign policy was reduced to tossing out slabs of red-meat policy statements to elicit a roaring response.

Perry — who sometimes vied with Cain, Bachmann, Paul and occasionally Gingrich in exchanges that seemed to be competitions to see who could most quickly sever America from the rest of the world — said, for example, that Turkey’s membership in NATO should be reviewed, calling it a country run by “Islamic terrorists.” (It’s worth noting that Turkey has 1,845 service members assisting NATO in Afghanistan.)

Another issue that ruffled many foreign policy observers was the contention this fall by some of the leading candidates that the U.S. should dramatically cut its distribution of foreign aid. “The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars. Zero dollars,” Perry said in a debate, a sentiment shared by Paul and Gingrich.

Foreign aid is not exactly a partisan issue. Under George W. Bush, America sent billions of dollars to Africa for pioneering programs. Giving foreign aid money to countries swept up by the Arab Spring is considered by many to be essential in ensuring the best possible transition for these countries to democracy.

As the debates progressed, GOP elites began to express concern that the candidates were damaging the party with some of their more outrageous statements.

“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush, told The New York Times.

Interestingly, there’s been a backlash against the trend toward isolationism, with the tea party’s popularity falling as well. At the same time, most of the tea party’s candidates have fallen by the wayside — and the ones who’ve survived in the roller-coaster race are hardly outliers of the Republican brand. Rather, they adhere to the party’s hawkish roots and cast Obama as abandoning America’s allies while going soft on its adversaries.

Hawks Take Flight

Romney, Santorum and Gingrich, to one degree or another, have embraced the party’s traditional belief in uncompromising national security and foreign policy. Santorum, even though he opposed U.S. intervention in Libya, is probably the most in line with George W. Bush’s neoconservatism — evidenced when he went against the pack early on and opposed slashing foreign aid or exiting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan too quickly.

The verdict is still out on Gingrich’s foreign policy, and the candidate may be too mercurial to ever get a clear sense of his presidential agenda. A laggard in the polls until the end of last year, Gingrich certainly has foreign policy experience, having served as speaker of the House. He has also advised international companies and is known as a former professor and history buff whose interests range from World War II to colonial Africa.

Gingrich is also known for espousing what he calls, sometimes generously, “big ideas,” which others have termed “grandiose.” But whether that could mean sending covert military squads to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities or a dramatic retooling of the U.S. military is unclear because he has talked about both. For a man who has been the subject of mockery for his unrelenting devotion to building a permanent U.S. settlement on the moon, it might be said, in both the best and worst sense of the phrase, that with Newt Gingrich, anything’s possible.

Meanwhile, the bloodied but still-standing frontrunner, Romney, has for the most part hewed to traditional GOP positions on America’s role in the world. Bucking tea party calls for spending cuts, he’s argued that military spending should total 4 percent of national GDP, which would boost the annual Pentagon budget to $600 billion or more.

Interestingly, Romney initially agreed with calls to completely eliminate all foreign assistance but later backtracked, saying he would only zero aid to Pakistan and other “countries that can take care of themselves or countries that oppose American interests.”

Those comments on foreign assistance, in fact, drew almost immediate anger from pro-Israel groups, many of whom have long supported the Republican Party. Loyalty to Israel has become something of a litmus test for GOP presidential candidates, and this year’s roster has pounced on the generally shoddy relations that Obama has had with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Romney has accused the president of throwing a critical ally “under the bus” and promised to visit Israel before visiting any other country if he’s elected president; Gingrich said that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the first day of his presidency.

The candidates have also latched onto the heated debate over Iran to draw bright lines between their foreign policy and that of the president’s. And history shows that isolationist leanings in any political party tend to wither when external threats like Iran begin stoking fears.

Even though Obama has spearheaded the harshest set of sanctions to date on Iran, whose economy is reeling and whose government recently agreed to resume face-to-face negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, Romney has argued that the administration hasn’t gone far enough in “crippling” the regime and making the threat of military options clearer, saying “they’re not just on the table. They are in our hand.”

“Hope is not a foreign policy,” Romney told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential lobby group, last month. “The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it. Of course, the administration’s naïve outreach to Iran gave the ayatollahs exactly what they wanted most. It gave them time. Whatever sanctions they may now belatedly impose, Iran has already gained three invaluable years.”

Substance-wise, Romney’s plan to deal with Iran differs little from Obama’s strategy (sanctions, echoing an absolute commitment to Israel’s security), but his rhetorical willingness to resort to military force is certainly greater — and not out of line with public opinion. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that nearly six in 10 Americans say they support tough measures — including the possible use of military force — to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Yet other surveys point to very different numbers, revealing the lack of a national consensus on the issue. A poll conducted by the University of Maryland and Program on International Policy Attitudes in March found that only one in four Americans favors Israel conducting a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. Seven in 10 (69 percent) favor the U.S. and other major powers continuing to pursue negotiations with Iran, a position that is supported by majorities of Republicans (58 percent), Democrats (79 percent) and Independents (67 percent).

Romney’s bellicose rhetoric on Iran could also box him into a conflict if he ever does assume office. Obama has also shot back, signaling that he’s itching to do battle on the issue. “Those folks don’t have a lot of responsibilities,” Obama said the day of the Super Tuesday primary contest. “They’re not commander in chief. When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war.

“This is not a game; there’s nothing casual about it,” he added.

The verbal sparring offers a preview of the next few months, as Romney will more than likely keep trying to portray Obama as accommodating and naïve when it comes not only to Iran, but also to Russia — he called the “reset” with Russia Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake” — and to China, which Romney said he would declare a currency manipulator his first day in office.

Above all, Romney has steadfastly proclaimed America’s “exceptionalism” abroad, a centerpiece of his campaign. “I will not and I will never apologize for America. I don’t apologize for America because I believe in America,” he has said, echoing the message of his book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.”

Of course, Obama hasn’t exactly apologized either. Rather, he’s described the United States as “the one indispensable nation in world affairs.” But he has said that his is “a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits.”

Whether that statement simply recognizes the reality of today’s economic constraints or whether it undermines American prominence on an increasingly crowded world stage will be a question for voters to decide.

Isolationists vs. Interventionists

But to say that the 2012 primary contest has pitted small-government, isolationist Republicans against the big-government, hawkish establishment oversimplifies a party with a complex genetic makeup that’s produced a field of candidates who each reveal the different DNA of the generations that preceded them.

Colin Dueck, author of the 2010 volume “Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II,” writes that “there have always been at least three main strains or schools of thought in conservative and Republican foreign policy thinking…. nationalists, hawks and realists.

“Nationalists emphasize the protection of American sovereignty,” Dueck says. “Hawks emphasize both the moral and the practical arguments for military intervention overseas. Realists emphasize the careful coordination of force and diplomacy.”

Dueck sees in each Republican figure past and present some combination of these three foreign policy traits. He argues that a successful balance results in a successful figure, and an overemphasis on any of them leads to a weakened or failed foreign policy and thus a failed political figure. As Dueck sees it, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are all examples of the former, and George W. Bush is a case of the latter.

Dueck, a professor at George Mason University, told The Diplomat that the Republican primary electorate has always attempted to strike some form of this balance, with emphasis on different attributes each year depending on the circumstances.

“The sort of median Republican primary voter right now is focused on the economy; quite conservative; wants to see Obama defeated; is actually fairly hawkish on national security; and you could say getting tired in Afghanistan — but not a Ron Paul isolationist,” Dueck said of the electorate’s desires this time around, adding that he believed the Ron-Paulists comprised only about a tenth of the party.

Dueck also explained that he sees in the tea party movement a return to the era of President Andrew Jackson. “The Jacksonian element has been very strong in the Republican Party for many years,” he said, “but what happens is that different figures come in and direct it in different channels in different periods.”

“The mentality is not looking at interventions overseas — certainly not humanitarian and nation-building projects — but at the same time there’s an unapologetic American patriotism and a determination to strike back if attacked,” Dueck said. “It’s neither isolationist strictly speaking nor is it about what George W. Bush was advocating for during the invasion of Iraq.”

Dueck said that George W. Bush’s pursuits, especially as framed in his second inaugural address, represent a very idealistic side of the party, which isn’t as strong today.

In fact, this year’s unpredictable nominating contest has in many ways put into full view the variant phenotypes of the Republican Party that have been overshadowed by the neoconservative policies that dominated the Bush years and, to a lesser extent, McCain’s 2008 candidacy.

In that contest, primary voters selected McCain — someone of almost incomparable foreign policy and national security gravitas who said he had what it takes to navigate the “dangerous world we live in.” A retired Navy captain and prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain was the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee who had led the charge in Congress to mount a troop “surge” in Iraq in 2007. He’d made frequent visits to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other geopolitical hotspots and could rightfully claim that he had developed personal relationships with world leaders over the years. One of McCain’s main selling points was that he was a “statesman in waiting” as NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell noted in 2008.

But the entire dynamics of the race changed as economic conditions at home deteriorated that summer. And then, in what can either be considered an earnest attempt to aid his country or a tactical election blunder, on Sept. 24, 2008 — less than 10 days after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and less than two months before voters cast their ballots — McCain suspended his campaign and returned to Washington to focus on fixing the economy.

It pretty much doomed him.

Earlier in the year, McCain had declared that economics wasn’t something he understood as well as he should. Now it had become the top priority in the election while McCain’s main strength, foreign affairs, receded to the background — much as it has again four years later.

And four years later, the man McCain beat to grab the 2008 nomination, Mitt Romney, now sees a new opening for himself precisely because of his business background, much in the way that McCain relied on his impeccable foreign policy and national security credentials — and much in the way Obama will be using his own international credentials to convince a domestic audience that he’s worthy of another term.

About the Authors

Luke Jerod Kummer is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.