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 ForeignPolicy.com.

Shadow Government

Selling the Republican brand will be easier once the consequences of Obama's choices are clear

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

Danielle Pletka's thought-provoking piece on the future of foreign policy in the Republican Party deserves more systematic and fulsome treatment than time and space currently allow. Some random reactions will have to suffice for now. That said, I very much look forward to the debate that Pletka invites. It's indeed an important one. The intra-GOP divisions to which she alludes are in some cases deep and wide. Moreover, they frequently appear to touch on matters of first principle that not long ago seemed largely settled -- an apparent shattering of the Reagan-era consensus, the long-term consequences of which I sense may trouble me somewhat more than they do her.

Pletka suggests that the GOP must be a party that believes there are things worth fighting for. Agreed. But what, exactly? Elsewhere, she makes the case for America's "obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society." What's the connection, if any, between those two important thoughts? And doesn't that go to the heart of the larger problem that seems to be bothering a lot of Americans when it comes to the Republican Party? Not that they don't think we'll use force, but that we've been all too eager to pull the trigger? What's the limiting principle? Where won't we fight and why?

Pletka of course understands this well. She notes the importance of Republicans explaining to the American people "how much can be done consistent with America's deepest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank." That seems to me an essential task going forward: to restore the public's faith that the GOP is not only the party most willing to stand up and defend America's vital interests in a dangerous world, but also the one that will do so employing the most creative, competent, and forward-looking strategies -- a national security policy that makes the use of force not just the last resort, but almost always unnecessary because of what Pletka calls the exercise of "genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats."

In this regard, perhaps more than Pletka, I tend to think that the GOP will need to engage in a more thorough-going reckoning with the Bush-Cheney years, particularly the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Not, as she correctly warns, for the purposes of "killing" that legacy, but rather for an honest accounting of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the lessons learned. It's necessary for its own sake of course. But it's also important, I think, as part of the task of rebuilding the public's overall confidence in the Republican foreign policy brand.

A few odds and ends. I don't think Pletka mentions free trade and energy policy. The Republicans should own these issues, especially the impending American oil and gas boom. The impact on America's economic strength at home and strategic flexibility abroad promise to be revolutionary if properly and comprehensively exploited.

Finally, it's worth noting that the speed of the GOP comeback will at least in part be determined by what happens in the world between now and 2016. Pletka is harshly critical of President Obama's foreign-policy record. I generally don't disagree. But the fact is that Obama has not suffered some of the mega-disasters that so obviously plagued the administration of Jimmy Carter and made Reagan's critique so innately compelling for the American people. No Iranian hostage crisis. No Desert One fiasco. No hollow military on display. No Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it's clear to Pletka and me that Obama's policies are sowing the seeds of expanding international instability, chaos and violence, the fact is that the day of reckoning has not yet come -- when the price for "leading from behind" will really come due in much higher sacrifices of American blood, treasure, and honor. Benghazi was but the canary in the coal mine, a foreshadowing of the super storm yet to hit.

But for now, it must be said that Obama has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst, in kicking the can down the road. Can it go on for another four years? I would guess not. But I could be wrong. If I am, if Obama's luck continues to hold, if the world is such in 2016 that a plausible case can still be made that the Democrats have been responsible stewards of America's national security, then whatever the Republicans do in opposition to get their foreign policy house in order (as necessary and essential a task as that no doubt is) may not be enough to make an electoral difference.

John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009.