The Coming Realist-Neocon War
One concern rising about a possible Romney foreign policy is that it might prove incapable of a grand strategic concept. Not because a President Romney would decline to consider one, but because a Romney administration would represent an effective replay of Bush 43’s first term: A war between Republican realist-traditionalists and neocon-hawks, without any coherent vision emerging from the scrum.
This worrisome trend is already cropping up in the foreign policy advisory feuds brewing in the Romney camp—as in the whisper (and sometimes shouting) campaign against transition-chief-in-waiting Robert Zoellick. Jennifer Rubin, the Post’s designated Right-wing blogger, fulminated that for hard-liners, “Zoellick acquired a reputation as ‘soft’ on China, weak on pressuring the Soviet Union at the close of the Cold War, opposed to the first Gulf War and unsupportive of the Jewish state.” Partly in a hoped attempt to sideline this perceived moderate (gads!), hawkish opponents claimed that Zoellick’s role was purely “ministerial” and would not include a policy role—strange for a man who has held more policy jobs in DC than just about any other living Republican.
In fact Zoellick was hardly opposed to the Gulf War; and to pragmatists, his positions on everything else are viewed as pretty much common sense. (How many times need we be reminded: The “pressure” we put on the USSR at the end of the Cold War, as it was—including NATO enlargement—has played a notable role in generating the sense of grievance and humiliation that fires the right-wing nationalism in Russia today. We pay a price for shoving our power into the faces of other countries.) But the attacks, and the neocon/hard line pressure for Romney to take a belligerent stance, had grown so strong that Jim Baker had to roll out to say some words in Zoellick’s defense—and that of good ol’ fashioned realism.
Romney has laid out a couple of key hawk planks—tough on China and pro-Israel. Both dig the U.S. deeper into pits that it needs to climb out of, not double down on in the name of ideology. A new administration could use a spate of programs to show China America is not determined to contain them. But you can be sure the neocon hawks who will be liberally sprinkled throughout a Romney administration will be fighting for anti-China policies right and left.
From among the list of advisors announced by the campaign, the hard-liners who’ll sign memos to that effect likely include such stalwarts as Bob Joseph, Kim Holmes, Bob Kagan, and Dan Senor. (And don’t forget John Bolton, a Romney advisor who appears to have some influence and might end up in a White House job of some sort.) And they’ll be opposed by the likes of Zoellick and perhaps some others announced as Romney advisors who might serve in a new administration and who are not thoroughgoing hawks: Eliot Cohen, hawkish and tough but more than capable of nuance; Aaron Friedberg and Evan Feigenbaum, tough and realistic about China but hardly alarmist, serious thinkers who’ll insist on balance.
So you’ll get these warring camps sending conflicting advice to a president who in the campaign has tilted generally toward a hard-line approach—though whether for political reasons or out of conviction it cannot be known—and the debate, and bureaucratic warfare, will be on. Whether Romney has the sense to appoint a national security advisor with the iron grip to tamp all of this down isn’t clear; but that would presume a unity of vision—a realist sensibility under a Kissinger or a Scowcroft, for example—that doesn’t appear to exist. Absent that it’ll be left the president himself to impose a strategic concept and keep order among the factions, something that, once such internecine wars begin, just doesn’t happen, especially when the president has little foreign policy experience or expertise and no clear preferences to impose.
So we’ll get portions of the Reagan administration, or Bush 43 Term I: Bitter infighting, inability to determine clear priorities, no clear decisions, implementation that’s a mess; NSC staffers grabbing draft negotiating instructions before they get sent to ambassadors to impose their view of an issue, ambassadors calling back to secretaries of state to go over their heads, NSC directors then appealing to vice presidential aides, and so forth.
Which was all sort of funny, when massive surpluses of American power could just wash over issues and make up the difference. Now the surpluses are gone. America needs to tackle issues efficiently. It needs foreign policy teams that run like clockwork, not bicker like the Hatfields and McCoys. It needs presidents with a clear vision for their global strategy, a concept of how they aim to achieve the goals they set for themselves, and a plan to staff their administration to ably administer that concept.
Trouble is, the American people don’t hold their presidents accountable to all that happy-sounding stuff. They hold them accountable to sounding tough, playing up to a few key issues (Israel, Cuba, “the troops,” etc.), whacking anybody that messes with them, and otherwise staying out of trouble. So an “efficient foreign policy team” isn’t high on the agenda of any president except one (think of Bush 41) whose personal experience and preferences make him predisposed to see the need for it.
But the price we will pay, in power, interests, and security, will continue to grow as U.S. primacy fades and we have to join the rest of the known world in getting what we want with clever, thoughtful strategy. What remains to be seen is whether our next president appreciates the need.
* Photo courtesy World Bank Group