National Security Network

Should Congress “Shut Up”?: 2012 and the Foreign Policy Debate

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Report 20 June 2011

Diplomacy Diplomacy congress Foreign Policy GOP Republican Primary

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.

Senators McCain and Graham attack Mitt Romney and GOP Congressional leadership, re-exposing fundamental rift in the party. The LA Times reports, "Republicans are facing a widening fissure over the U.S. role on the world stage as party leaders decide whether to confront President Obama this week over his policy toward Libya. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other congressional Republican leaders have said that U.S. involvement in NATO's bombing campaign, which hit the 90-day mark Sunday, violates the War Powers Act... Several of the party's potential presidential candidates have called for the U.S. to quit the fight in Libya and questioned the depth of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

"Other Republicans have begun pushing back, criticizing what they see as a growing isolationist agenda within the party. The result is that Republicans, once relatively unified on foreign policy issues, now have a division that parallels the long-standing split in Democratic ranks. The debate was on public display Sunday as two of the GOP's leading figures on defense and foreign policy, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, criticized Republican presidential hopefuls and congressional leaders who question the country's military intervention around the world. ‘There has always been an isolationist strain in the Republican Party,' McCain said on ABC's ‘This Week,' ‘but now it seems to have moved more center stage.... That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people all over the world.' Graham said on NBC's ‘Meet the Press' that any debate over cutting funding for the Libya war would encourage resistance by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi. ‘Congress should sort of shut up,' he said." [LA Times, 6/20/11]

Extreme positions - isolationism and endless war - dominate public debate among conservatives. Conservative columnist Ross Douthat writes, "For the first time in a decade, it seems, the Republican Party doesn't know where it stands on foreign policy. Instead of being united around George W. Bush's vision of democratic revolution, conservatives are increasingly divided over what lessons to draw from America's post-9/11 interventions." Douthat makes freshmen Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) stand for the larger divisions in the conservative movement. "Rubio is the great neoconservative hope, the champion of a foreign policy that boldly goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy. In the Senate, he's constantly pressed for a more hawkish line against the Mideast's bad actors... Paul, on the other hand, has smoothed the crankish edges off his famous father's antiwar conservatism, reframing it in the language of constitutionalism, the national interest and the budget deficit."

Last fall Pat Buchanan ramped up the rhetoric, writing, "The neocons are nervous the Tea Party may not sign up to soldier on for the empire. Writing in The Washington Post, Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly of AEI have sniffed out the unmistakable scent of ‘isolationism' among Tea Party favorites. They are warning that the old right and Tea Party might unite in a ‘combination of Ebenezer Scrooge and George McGovern, withdrawing from the world to a countinghouse America.' Sorry, but the old neocon name-calling won't cut it this time." Last week neoconservative columnist Marc Thiessen fired back in similar terms, calling the positions of the 2012 candidates "GOP flirtation with retreat." [Ross Douthat, 6/19/11. Pat Buchanan, 10/1/10. Marc Thiessen, 6/15/11]

Public seeks a middle way. The American public does not fall into simplistic categories.  A recent CBS News poll found that, "As attention turns to drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, 64% of Americans think the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be decreased -- something the Obama administration has scheduled to begin next month. The percentage of Americans that thinks the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be decreased has risen 16 percentage points since last month to 64% -- a record number in the CBS News Poll."  However, a recent survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that,  "They [the American public] support a strong global military posture and are committed to alliances, international treaties and agreements, humanitarian interventions, and multilateral approaches to many problems. Americans also support many direct U.S. actions to address critical threats to U.S. vital interests." In particular there is "support for multilateral actions through the United Nations." [CBS News, 6/8/11. Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 6/11]

What We're Reading

President Bashar al Assad of Syria promised not to bow to pressure from what he called "saboteurs," but offered a national dialogue that he said could bring change to a country where the ruling party and a single family have monopolized power for more than four decades.

NATO admitted that a missile hit a civilian home in Tripoli, Libya, killing innocent civilians.

From blimps to bugs, an explosion in the use of drones is transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars.

Eurozone finance ministers postponed their decision on a 12-billion euro loan to Greece, awaiting further austerity measures.

Senior officials say that al Qaeda's original network in Afghanistan has been crippled, providing a rationale for an accelerated reduction of troops.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said he wants a second term but will not stand against Vladimir Putin, his former mentor and the current prime minister.

More than five million people are believed to have been affected by severe floods in eastern China, amid predictions of further heavy rains in the coming days.

First Lady Michelle Obama left for Africa, promoting U.S. policies on education, health and democracy.

Authorities in Venezuela are fighting to regain control of a prison complex where armed inmates and troops have clashed for days.

Commentary of the Day

Irena L. Sargsyan argues that moderate Islamists must have a role in the new Mideast, so that they can share responsibility for their country's successes and failures in governance, defense and foreign affairs.

Joseph S. Nye asks whether economic power has replaced military might in today's world.

The Independent writes that talks with the Taliban will be a condition of any Afghanistan endgame.