Daniel Larison, of the paleo-con American Conservative takes a look at the woes of the GOP and the conservative movement and puts the blame on national-security conservatives.
It wasn’t that the Bush Administration went on an orgy of spending that made a mockery of conservative principles, or that social conservatives had a message that tended to alienate rather than include, it’s that the the strong national security message of the GOP caused them to lose:
Like their short-sighted cheerleading for a “surge” in Iraq, which failed on its own terms, and their subsequent carping this year that the Pentagon budget increase is too small, the mainstream right’s apologies for torture are not only morally bankrupt but also divorced from the reality of the intelligence, or lack thereof, these methods provided. Much as liberals needed their internal critics to challenge the welfare status quo over the last three decades, conservatism desperately needs similar internal dissent concerning the warfare state. But there is almost none.
One reason for the lack of dissent and accountability is that the majority of the GOP was deeply implicated in supporting and defending the war in Iraq, the signature failure of national security conservatives. To a large extent, the party has defined itself around the ideological fictions used to justify and continue the war long after the country had turned against it. This process was aided by the disappearance of antiwar Republicans in Congress. Never numerous in the first place, most have been replaced by Democrats during the past two cycles.
Now, this argument is wrong, but it isn’t fundamentally wrong. It is wrong on the facts. The surge did work, it worked better than had been expected, and as a testament to how well it worked, the Obama Administration has not disavowed it. President Obama, were the Iraq issue as toxic as it is claimed, could have withdrawn all U.S. troops ASAP. Instead, Obama’s war strategy is not that much different than what a President McCain’s strategy would have been—a gradual and conditional withdrawal over the next year to two years. Moreover, the Obama Administration is hardly rejecting the idea of a hawkish foreign policy. During the debates, Obama needled McCain about getting bin Laden. Hardly the act of someone who wants to push for a more restrained war. Obama has been sending more drones into Pakistan, even though such actions may be dangerous. Rather than de-escalation, Obama plans to put more troops into Afghanistan and has signaled a muscular U.S. foreign policy.
The truth of the matter is, doves don’t win elections in the U.S. Muscular foreign policy is widely accepted by both political parties in the United States. The idea that the GOP lost because they embraced “hegemony” is something only someone inside the intellectual bubble of academia could take seriously.
Moreover, Larison divides the GOP into three wings: social, fiscal, and national security conservatives. The reality is that both social and fiscal conservatives also tend to be national security conservatives. There isn’t a separate wing of conservatives that believe in a strong national defense but not social issues or fiscal ones. Rather, both socially-minded and fiscally-minded conservatives tend to be interested in national security issues. That’s why it’s not that surprising that Evangelicals tend to be supportive of “torture” against suspected terrorists—there is no hard and fast line between social conservatives and national security conservatives. The Reagan coalition was largely built around national security issues, and a strong national defense has been one of the common issues shared by a vast majority of Republicans and conservatives.
There is, however, an element of truth here as well. The GOP lost in large part due to the war in Iraq, a war that was never convincingly explained by the President and suffered from poor management from 2003–07. The “surge” was the product of the Administration finally listening to the people fighting the war rather than dictating from the top down. President Bush never convincingly explained why we were in Iraq so long and why the sacrifice of American blood and treasure was worth it. There was truth in the adage that we were “fighting them over there rather than over here,” but that logic was never followed through.
The GOP has many problems, but “interventionist” foreign policy is not one of them. The Obama Administration continues to play lip service to the idea of a more “humble” foreign policy while still engaging in interventions abroad. Isolationism has not played a major role in U.S. politics since the end of World War II, and for good reason. America’s superpower status demands world leadership, and we can’t have one without the other. If the GOP becomes a policy that abrogates its positions on a muscular U.S. foreign policy, they will lose. While Iraq hurt the GOP in 2006 and 2008, the GOP’s foreign policy positions helped re-elect President Bush in 2004 when Kerry’s weakness on national security proved to be fatal.
The real lesson here is that if you’re going to fight a war, fight it well and keep the American people fully engaged in the conflict. To argue that the lesson conservatives should learn from the last election cycles is to abandon a deeply-held and popular principle of conservatism and embrace a discredited and dangerous isolationism is to learn exactly the wrong lesson.