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Republicans must focus on restoring reputation for competence and prudence

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

I agree with Danielle Pletka that the Romney campaign was all over the map, and nowhere convincing, on foreign policy. But I disagree that the strategic circumstances necessitate Reaganesque stances on national security. Nor do I think that is a winnable argument for Republicans with the American public.

What the public wants ought not to be the sole determinant of our national security policies -- every conservative applauds Edmund Burke's insistence that he owed his constituency his judgment, not just his vote. But public opinion does matter in every democracy, and it matters especially for the United States because the main limit on our power is our willingness to use it.

My very strong sense is that voters don't want to hear it right now; they aren't amenable to our arguments for an assertive policy to advance our values in the world. We made that case too glibly in the Bush administration, and managed it too poorly, for voters -- even Republican voters -- to trust our judgment. We will have to earn our way back into their confidence.

Pletka makes passing, critical reference to Dwight Eisenhower's unwillingness to intervene in Hungary. And she's absolutely right that Eisenhower clamped down on advocates of rolling back Soviet expansion. He understood that 1950s voters still taking solace in a willful innocence after World War II, who elected him to end the Korean War, had no stomach for liberating Hungary. And, after all, the president is the person who ultimately has to decide how much to risk and pay for what we attempt in the world.

Public indifference to how the wars are concluded -- President Obama has paid no price that I can ascertain for ending rather than winning our wars -- suggests Americans are in about the same place now. Just as the Vietnam War cast a long shadow over American willingness to take an active role in refashioning the international order, Iraq and Afghanistan are casting their pall over public support for interventions very much in our strategic interest, like Syria or Iran.

We will miss lots of opportunities to shape the world in better ways as Americans turn inward. But we Republicans ought also to acknowledge that we squandered the public trust with rosy projections of the cost of the wars and colossal mismanagement for far too long. We delegitimized our own strategy and we are still paying the price for it. President Obama's fecklessness in Iraq and Afghanistan has only added a general skepticism that wars as we now fight them are winnable at all.

It will not be enough for Republicans to argue that we know the right thing to do. We will need to demonstrate we know how to achieve it, and at a price the American people are willing to pay. I suspect it will take another decade of absorbing the consequences of allowing the world to grow more dangerous before Americans would be willing to consider another war on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan. We delay rather than hasten that time by advocating a Reaganesque assertiveness rather than an Eisenhower restraint.

Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy.

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