Opinion polling shows the American public groping for an approach to foreign policy that protects U.S. interests and values without bankrupting our nation financially, militarily or morally. An extreme version of this debate is playing out around the 2012 Republican primary. While Representative Ron Paul gives full voice to the tradition of American isolationism, Governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have taken tentative steps away from GOP orthodoxy by calling for significant troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. This isolationism-minded position has also found some support from Republicans in both houses of Congress. That has garnered strong pushback from Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the dominant conservative national security voices in Congress, as well as the party’s neoconservative intellectuals. Poll numbers suggest the public is looking for a sober, pragmatic, collaborative approach. With tempers getting heated – this weekend Senator Graham suggested that Congress should “sorta shut up” and former White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen described the 2012 candidates’ views as “flirtation with retreat” – they don’t seem likely to get it from the conservative political debate.
With Congress heading home to their constituencies this weekend, conservatives are continuing their attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy. These attacks have followed a familiar pattern – conservatives reflexively attack Obama in every way possible in the hopes that one of their claims stick – even if the attacks contradict each other. For example, neoconservative Elliot Cohen argued yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that Obama’s foreign policy is the same as the Bush administration’s, even as former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, assert that Obama is dismantling Bush-era policies that protect America. These arguments are incoherent and baseless.
A clear and striking split has emerged amongst conservatives in response to the situation in Iran. Moderates, realists and GOP foreign policy leaders have all come out in support of the Administration’s approach and attacked neoconservative calls for meddling more in Iran. On the other hand, neoconservatives and the party’s political leadership have taken to the op-ed pages and the airwaves to denounce Obama’s approach and have called for more direct intervention in Iran.