The Coming Foreign Policy Vacuum

When the sun rises on November 7th (or 8th, I suppose, depending on how close a state like Ohio or Florida ends up), Democrats will have traded the reelection of Barack Obama for the mantle of foreign policy restraint that they have tried to carry since the tail end of the Vietnam War. Republicans, still holding grudges from Cindy Sheehan and Code Pink, will (or at least should) do a double take, realizing that the party they associate with unshowered peaceniks just won an election after launching wars without even pretending to ask permission from Congress and running a global, ungoverned, illegal robot war against anyone (including American citizens) unlucky enough to end up on the President’s Stalinist kill list disposition matrix.

In other words, in the four short years since the end of the Bush presidency, the Democrats will have flanked the GOP.

But politics abhors a vacuum even more than nature. Contrary to what they’d like you to believe, the two parties are a lot less about any well-defined set of ideals and a lot more about opposing each other in ways that will win elections (when they oppose each other at all). Any Republican with a brain should look at the awkwardness of the third and final “debate” in which the President had run so far to what has recently been the foreign policy “right” that Mitt Romney could do nothing but awkwardly high five him. If the “less strident” position on the foreign policy spectrum is available, Republicans should – and likely will – take it, for several reasons:

  • Because it’s there for the taking. No, really, it’s that simple.
  • Because the seeds are already being planted by the likes of Rand Paul and Gary Johnson (now a Libertarian Party candidate, sure, but once a participant in the GOP primary). I mean, even though none of Mitt Romney’s positions actually reflect it, even he couldn’t help but counter the President with “we can’t kill our way out of this” at the third debate.
  • Because at some point, you need to walk the walk on spending reductions. Everybody sees through your “we’re not touching the military because…battleships” dodge, Paul Ryan.
  • Because of all the places where the Republicans could actually be serious about reducing government’s size and role, this is probably the most palatable to their existing base. You can sell “If we’re going to govern with fiscal responsibility, we should start being more responsible with our most valuable assets – our sons and daughters in the military” a lot easier than “You know what? If government is an inefficient troublemaker in your place of business, it’s likely one in your bedroom, too.”

And really, this wouldn’t be an oddity. After all, the last Republican president not named Bush to take America to war was William McKinley. That’s right – every single time we went to war in the 20th Century, with the exception of the Gulf War, a Democrat was at the helm. The Republicans are the party of Bob LaFollette, who battled Woodrow Wilson so fiercely on the dubiousness of America’s entry into World War I that he was subjected to charges of espionage and petitions were circulated to expel him from the Senate. His speech in October of 1917 – questioning the direction of a nation that was, you know, attempting to lock up “disloyal” Senators- is eerily relevant today:

I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But sir, the right to control their own government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war.

Rather in time of war the citizen must be more alert to the preservation of his right to control his government. He must be most watchful of the encroachment of the military upon the civil power. He must beware of those precedents in support of arbitrary action by administrative officials, which excused on the plea of necessity in wartime, become the fixed rule when the necessity has passed and normal conditions have been restored.

This is the party of Robert Taft, who opposed FDR’s attempts to jump into World War II before Pearl Harbor, who denounced Korea as unconstitutional and who devised an approach to foreign policy described by journalist Nicholas von Hoffman as “a way to defend the country without destroying it, a way to be part of the world without running it.”  From the book (yes, he wrote a book on this, in 1951) I linked above (bold mine):

In the long run, the question which the country must decide involves vitally not only the freedom of the people of the United States but the peace of the people of the United States. More and more, as the world grows smaller, we are involved in problems of foreign policy. If in the great field of foreign policy the President has the arbitrary and unlimited powers he now claims, then there is an end to freedom in the United States not only in the foreign field but in the great realm of domestic activity which necessarily follows any foreign commitments. The area of freedom at home becomes very circumscribed indeed.

If the President has unlimited power to involve us in war, then I believe that the consensus of opinion is that war is more likely. History shows that when the people have the opportunity to speak they as a rule decide for peace if possible. It shows that arbitrary rulers are more inclined to favor war than are the people at any time.

Wow. Where do I sign up for this? There is a demand for this type of thinking (at least I hope there is – the odds have to go up with every TSA groping, right?), and that means there are votes to be had. To my second bullet above, maybe that demand is already growing among the mainstream GOP – check out this transcript and clip from “Morning Joe” (H/T Glenn Greenwald), in which Joe Scarborough – not exactly some fringe libertarian ideologue – questions the administration’s drone policy and noted Obama enthusiast Joe Klein of TIME responds with “we need to kill their children before they kill ours.” Here’s the key passage:

SCARBOROUGH: “This is offensive to me, though. Because you do it with a joystick in California – and it seems so antiseptic – it seems so clean – and yet you have 4-year-old girls being blown to bits because we have a policy that now says: ‘you know what? Instead of trying to go in and take the risk and get the terrorists out of hiding in a Karachi suburb, we’re just going to blow up everyone around them.’

“This is what bothers me. . . . We don’t detain people any more: we kill them, and we kill everyone around them. . . . I hate to sound like a Code Pink guy here. I’m telling you this quote ‘collateral damage’ – it seems so clean with a joystick from California – this is going to cause the US problems in the future.”

KLEIN: “If it is misused, and there is a really major possibility of abuse if you have the wrong people running the government. But: the bottom line in the end is – whose 4-year-old get killed? What we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.”

Now this is a foreign policy dichotomy. If the Republicans are the shrewd, single-minded electioneers their opponents make them out to be, the return to positions they have already established and defended in years past should be an easy move to get a second look from younger voters, or you know, people who find a race to the finish line of toddler-killing a little off-putting.

3 thoughts on “The Coming Foreign Policy Vacuum

  1. Pingback: We’re Having a Moment Here | pro se

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