Shadow Government

A Republican foreign policy must read history and the present with clear eyes

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

It is not the best of times for Republicans on foreign policy. Having just lost another presidential election and being the minority party in the Senate (the congressional branch with the most involvement on foreign policy), the GOP finds its center of gravity relegated to the House of Representatives and state governors' mansions, where foreign policy ranges from a secondary (the House) to non-existent (governorships) issue. Exit polls from the 2012 election show that the GOP has lost its historic advantage on national security to Democrats in the minds of the American people. It is an appropriate time for Republicans to take stock of where we stand on foreign policy, and Danielle Pletka's article is a welcome spur to this effort.

A meaningful debate within the party is the logical next step. Here I would remind my fellow Republicans that our more partisan critics in places like the media and the Democratic Party have favored attack lines they will employ no matter what path we pursue. If the GOP unites around a particular national security platform, we will be derided for "squelching dissent" and "being hijacked by ideological extremists." Whereas if the GOP has a substantive internal debate on foreign policy and multiple camps emerge, we can expect stories about "the GOP in disarray" and "internal feuding and incoherence." The lesson in this? Have the debate because it is a constructive and needful thing to do; just don't enlist persistent critics of the GOP as referees.

So what should a GOP foreign policy look like? An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history. Past Republican successes have come in part from enduring principles and competent implementation, but also from a proper appreciation for the state of the international system and America's capabilities at that particular historical moment. Thus Teddy Roosevelt at the dawn of the 20th century accurately saw the opportunity for the United States to look beyond its continental preoccupations and assert itself as an emerging global power. Dwight Eisenhower at mid-century realized the need for America as a global superpower to build a Cold War strategy based on balancing domestic economic growth and national security needs with a prudential but still assertive international posture. Richard Nixon, taking office during a time of overextension and strategic vulnerability, perceived the imperative to reconfigure the global chessboard in ways more favorable to America's diminished hand. Ronald Reagan, who won election amidst national decline and global diminishment, abandoned the conventional wisdom in pursuing a strategy of renewal at home simultaneously with a more assertive posture abroad. George H.W. Bush inherited a strong nation and presided over the end of the Cold War and restructuring of the international order while avoiding overreach. George W. Bush realized that the Sept. 11th attacks demanded a new counterterrorism paradigm, of both tools and doctrines. The twin facts that the United States has not been attacked since and that the Obama administration has maintained this paradigm testify to the success of this strategy.

Mindful of this history, the question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values. Like many other Republicans, I share Pletka's reverence for Reagan's presidency and agree that his values offer a good starting point for foreign policy today. But updating the Reagan legacy for the 21st century means appreciating how Reagan's day differed from our own even as his principles endure.

This does not mean abandoning our critique of where the other party gets things wrong. Judging from recent trends, I suspect the Obama administration's second term might present some particular opportunities for the GOP to offer a compelling alternative, especially leading up to 2016. As Peter Feaver and I have pointed out before, the Obama administration's successes in the first term largely came when following the Bush playbook, such as preserving the policy and legal framework for the war against jihadist terrorism or a dual-track strategic posture in Asia of both balancing and engaging with China. The Obama administration's failures in the first term, however, were generally sui generis, reflecting either poor judgment or deferred action on hard issues, and sometimes both.

Unfortunately, those hard issues are only getting harder. To take just one example, the White House should realize it has a serious problem with its Syria policy when senior French officials disparage its posture as "waiting from behind." Nor do other places look good: Iran, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea are all situations where the Obama administration's current policy lines and assumptions are not promising. Republicans have a chance to say how we think these things could be handled better.

William Inboden is a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law and an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He previously served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at

Shadow Government

Foreign policy with the commander-in-chief we have

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

The most important thing Republicans need to understand about U.S. foreign policy today is that Republicans are out of power and Barack Obama is in power.

That may seem obvious, but much Republican commentary seems to ignore it. Much of the post-election commentary seems divorced from the political reality that, especially in the area of national security policy, Democrats hold not just an advantage, but a decisive one (politically, that is, not substantively). Yes, Republicans hold the House, and Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But Obama has a much stronger political position than, say, George W. Bush enjoyed in 2005 (let alone 2007), and while second-term Bush faced great constraints on what he could do domestically, he was able to overcome those constraints in the national security arena. Obama will likely be able to prevail at least as often as Bush did.

Republicans will be able to influence foreign and national security policy, but only on the margins. We can and should make the case for key priorities -- restoring U.S. leverage in the Middle East, thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions, matching resources to goals in the Asia-Pacific, etc. -- but we should recognize that Obama will have his way, and his way will likely increasingly diverge from what Republicans would wish him to do.

If the dominant theme of Obama's first term was continuity -- despite campaigning against Bush foreign policy, Obama continued far more of it than either side would like to admit -- the dominant theme of the second term may well be change. In the coming years if not months, Obama will likely face pivotal decisions on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense cuts, and on each one he is showing signs that he will decide in ways quite different from how a President Mitt Romney might have done. I am not sure what Republicans can do to change that trajectory.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once observed that you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had. The same logic applies to the commander-in-chief: Republicans need to recognize that we wage foreign policy with the commander-in-chief we have, not the one Republicans wish we had.

The dominant feature of this commander-in-chief is that he is so determined to avoid errors of commission that he risks comparable errors of omission. For example, he is so determined to avoid starting another Iraq war by U.S. action that he has allowed a strategically analogous problem -- a sectarian civil war spiraling out of control -- to arise in Syria by U.S. inaction.

Obama's distinctive risk calculus sets limits on what kind of American foreign policy is viable in the next four years. How plausible is it to recommend a more muscular approach to Syria or Iran when this president has been loath to mobilize public support for the very military escalations in Afghanistan that he campaigned on? How realistic is it to talk about defense spending at 4 percent of GDP when the president seemed willing to stomach defense cuts amounting to $1.4 trillion through 2023 (if we sum the cuts he has already authorized and credit him as willing to trigger the defense sequester to protect his apparent red lines forbidding cuts to entitlements).

It is fine for Republicans to hold the administration accountable in the public square for its choices, but Republicans also have to recognize that a Republican playbook implemented by the Obama team would likely not produce the kind of results Republicans want.

Of course, this approach sidesteps a larger and ultimately more important issue: What ought to be America's role in the world, and how can Republicans persuade the voters to embrace that role in 2016? Danielle Pletka makes a very useful contribution to that larger effort, and in coming blog posts I hope to make mine, too. But before we can get that right, we have to acknowledge where we are and where we aren't.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at