Shadow Government

Why foreign policy still unites conservatives

Several of my Shadow Government colleagues have already responded to Jacob Heilbrunn's obituary for the Republican foreign policy establishment. Most of the comments have focused on the diversity present on the Right on foreign policy and I agree with those assessments.

However, these responses perhaps take Heilbrunn too seriously because a close reading of his article reveals that his pining for "pragmatic Republican internationalism after the neoconservative domination of the past decade" is little more what has become his bread and butter in recent years: neocon bashing.

Heilbrunn fails to accurately characterize neoconservative views of the Obama administration's foreign policy and he neglects to mention the real reason that traditional realism has failed to take hold on the Right.

The problem begins with choosing New START as the litmus test. A close reading of the Congressional testimony of the "eminences" listed by Heilbrunn leads one finding few outright calls for ratification of New START and instead a series of concerns that the Senate should address during the ratification process. Many of them, oddly enough, are the same concerns laid out by Gov. Romney in his op-ed in the Washington Post and most recently his piece on National Review Online.

Heilbrunn also lumps together criticism by William Kristol and Liz Cheney of Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele's recent comments on Afghanistan with the debate over New START to somehow argue that the neocons have a stranglehold on the party. But he neglects to point to any "neocon" position on New START -- perhaps because there isn't one. In fact, the bulk of the opposition has come from groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which anyone who has been around Washington for any length of time would know is no hotbed of neoconservative fervor.

 But the thrust of Heilbrunn's argument, in a nutshell, is that conservatives have turned to criticism of Obama on all issues and forgone cooperation. He writes, "Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama's domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries."

This is of course nonsense, given that Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have remained supportive of President Obama's strategy in Afghanistan, even as casualties have mounted, and the president has lost much of his own base. Similarly, many conservatives praised the president's decision, several months into his term, to extend his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

It is true that many conservatives have been critical of the president's foreign policy on other issues, especially his continued emphasis on engagement with rogue regimes despite any evidence that engagement has worked, but also his reliance on Great Power politics and his seeming willingness to overlook the concerns of allies. Gov. Romney, oddly enough, laid out this very critique at an event my organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, hosted last year. After eight years of Democratic criticism of a supposedly unilateral Bush administration, this administration has taken unilateralism to new heights.

Regardless of how many grandees such as Kissinger, Scowcroft, Baker, and Powell may support aspects of President Obama's foreign policy, even traditional realists have expressed concern about clumsiness with which Team Obama has implemented what some have called a realist strategy. As much as they may support the "reset" with Russia, this crowd most likely did not support how the president's decision to abandon Bush-era missile defense sites was implemented, and would likely have some critiques about how the administration has engaged China. Obama's deft diplomacy with Beijing, after all, has little more to show for it than a weak U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and an embarrassingly weak Security Council president's statement in response to North Korea's recent act of war against South Korea.

Just as Heilbrunn recasts the Republican establishment, he creates a neocon straw man. The neocons, like all conservatives supporting the president on Afghanistan, are the real internationalists of today's Republican Party. The fact is that those on the right and left questioning the current strategy in Afghanistan are the ones who would have us tread down the path toward isolationism. Just the psychological impact alone of a withdrawal from Afghanistan in defeat would haunt American foreign policy for decades. It would also damage a whole series of relationships with key current, as well as future, U.S. allies in the region.

What Heilbrunn fails to grasp is that his desired foreign policy (and President Obama's) is at odds with the views of the American public. Americans don't accept that the United States is in decline. They like the idea that there is something exceptional about their country. They have no problem with cutting deals with countries like China and Russia, but they want their President to make sure that we get the best deal possible and only cede as much as necessary. They want their president to speak out in support of those fighting for democracy and human rights. And they don't like to see their government neglect democratic allies while negotiating with repressive regimes. 

Americans want a values-based foreign policy, not a cold, calculating one. This, not a neocon sponsored coup, is why there is a broad foreign policy consensus on the Right today.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Lots of leaks -- but where are the bombshells?

Another week, and another Big Bombshell Story in the national security press, this time a series of stories based on the leak by Wikileaks of over 90,000 classified cables and reports from the Afghan theater. (A sidebar: The word "leak" just doesn't seem adequate for a data dump and security breach of this magnitude. This is not so much a leak as a gusher.)

After reading the stories, my reaction is similar to FP colleague Tom Ricks: There does not appear to be any bombshell revelation here. Perhaps the more interesting and damning revelations are to come, but presumably the newspapers led with their best stuff.

If so, I would go a step further: The bombshell is that, with 90,000 classified documents from which to cherry-pick, the reporters were obliged to conclude, "Over all, the documents do not contradict official accounts of the war." That is pretty significant, given the layers of distrust and skeptical reporting that have accumulated over the years. (By contrast, a few days of reporting from a very different kind of data dump, the archives of JournoList, seems to have generated far more damning revelations.)

In other words, the general understanding of the overall arc of the Afghan war thus far that an attentive public audience would develop by staying abreast of the information already in the public domain is what one would glean if one digested 90,000 classified documents from the same period. That is a big story, but it is not the one the editors are hyping.

Instead, they are hyping a few items that seem less significant upon closer inspection:

  • Did the Taliban use heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft?Although this has been a concern from the earliest days of the Afghan war, apparently neither NATO nor U.S. commanders have publicly and officially confirmed an incident. The newspapers culling the Wikileaks trove found a few tactical reports where some officers suspected an attack might have used a heat-seeking Stinger missile, and the Guardian story in particular trumpets this as evidence of an official cover-up.


    But,as anyone who has read tactical reports knows, there are always contradictions and uncertainties in raw reports. If the newspapers had evidence that the chain of command ignored these reports and did not investigate them further, that would be a story. But that is not what is reported (not yet, anyway). Rather, what is reported is that there are a few tactical sitreps that differ from the official/public account. That may indicate that the original tactical reports did not prove out under further investigation. Given the way the New York Times downplays the issue, I suspect that may be what happened here.
  • Secret commando raids against top insurgent leaders have had "notable successes" but "have sometimes gone wrong, killing civilians and stoking Afghan resentment." I have no doubt whatsoever that this is all true. I just don't see this as new news.
  • Drones do not work perfectly. Ditto.
  • The CIA has been extensively deployed in Afghanistan. Ditto.
  • Pakistan has been an uncertain ally, sometimes helping and sometimes hurting the war effort. Ditto.

Of course, this doesn't mean the leaks are without consequence. As Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued, the leaks further undermine the classification system on which sensitive national security collection, analysis, and decision-making depends. Moreover, the leaks -- and especially the hyped air-of-scandal coverage (see especially the way the sensationalized British press are covering the story) -- fuel public despair about the war and provide fodder for well-established anti-war arguments. This appears to be the reason why anti-war activists collected and disseminated the classified documents in the first place.

The leaked documents may even have put in jeopardy coalition troops and military missions. The editors at the New York Times assure us that they took every necessary step to ensure that the safety of the troops and their missions were not compromised by this leak. President Obama's National Security Advisor says otherwise, warning that the leaks could "put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security."

One doesn't have to be a knee-jerk partisan supporter of the Obama administration to think that it is a better judge of how to preserve American national security than newspaper editors and anti-war activists.