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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Rise of the Vulcans Redux

The purported “end of the neocon consensus” has hardly meant an end to hawkishness in the GOP fold. With the Republican candidates virtually all gunning for Iran, backing right-wing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, and stabling a passel of neoconservative advisers (Ron Paul excepted), voters have plenty of clues about what the foreign policy of a new GOP administration would look like. And while some of the candidates have expressed wariness with neoconservative notions of armed democracy promotion, all the signs indicate that if a Republican wins next year, we will likely be in for a bit if George W. redux.

This past July, the New Republic’s Eli Lake claimed to discern in the emerging 2012 GOP presidential field the “end of the neocon consensus.” That peculiar blend of faux democratic idealism and unbridled militarism that had characterized establishment Republican thinking throughout the George W. Bush years and into the John McCain presidential campaign, Lake thought, was under assault from business-friendly, deficit-wary, and “isolationist”-minded politicos.

As it turns out, however, the main threat to the neocon consensus in the presidential campaign is the fact that U.S. foreign policy has receded into the deep background of public concerns and, consequently, of the rhetoric of most of the Republican presidential candidates. To the extent they utter views on issues like Iraq, Israel, or China, GOP candidates appear to be to taking many of their cues from long-worn-out neoconservative talking points.

Nevertheless, some of the candidates early on revealed a more cautious approach—one not so different from that adopted by then-presidential candidate George W. Bush during the run up to the 2000 election. In line with candidate George W., most of the current candidates seem to lack enthusiasm for building new democracies abroad. And the ostensible successes of President Barack Obama’s hawkish policies in places like Libya have helped push his would-be presidential opponents to pay lip service to anti-interventionist opinions. Thus, while neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute and Commentary magazine criticized the Obama administration for its lack of vigor in Libya, many of the Republican candidates expressed outright opposition to U.S. involvement in the conflict.

But if some aspects of the candidates’ evolving foreign policy visions cannot be characterized as expressly neoconservative, they can surely be dubbed hawkish. Scarcely months since Lake’s eulogy for the neocon consensus, the GOP presidential field has unanimously—or nearly unanimously, with the perfunctory exception of Ron Paul—decried President Obama’s drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, effectively declared the Iranian nuclear program sufficient grounds for a new war in the Middle East, and stabled a passel of neoconservative stalwarts from the Bush administration as advisers. Several candidates, moreover, have showcased their own idiosyncratically militaristic tendencies: consider Rick Perry’s faith-based “directive” to support Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, for example, Herman Cain’s ineptly xenophobic butchering of “Uzbekistan,” or Mitt Romney’s platitudinal resistance to the notion of “apologizing” for the United States.

If his anemic poll numbers are any indication, the ostensibly dovish Jon Huntsman has failed to influence the party’s conversation on China or Afghanistan—areas where he has been decidedly more moderate than the other contenders and even, arguably, President Obama—and has largely followed the flock when it comes to Iran, Israel, and Iraq. Ron Paul, who polls rather robustly compared to Huntsman, serves primarily as a foil for his GOP rivals when it comes to foreign policy, subject to the perennial “isolationist” canard but seldom to any actual engagement.

The GOP foreign policy standard that ultimately emerges will not be exactly what it was four years ago, but it will likely bend sharply toward the neoconservative right—as happened after candidate George W. became President George W.  

“Dovish” No More

Last summer, a writer for U.S. News and World Report marveled that the GOP candidates were “going dovish on Afghanistan,” citing the outright opposition of Huntsman to an indefinite U.S. occupation of the country and the unenthusiastic hedges from more hawkish candidates that they would “listen to the generals.” Largely missing from the candidates’ otherwise predictable criticisms were the full-throated endorsements of the U.S. mission that might have been reminiscent of the party’s Iraq War posturing, which survived largely intact at least through the 2008 campaign. McCain acolyte Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and erstwhile GOP candidate, seemed a lonely apologist (along with fringe candidate Rick Santorum) for the slog of counterinsurgency and nation-building in Afghanistan, declaring, “When America goes to war, America needs to win.”

Only months later, it was President Obama’s failure to negotiate favorable terms for a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq—and subsequent announcement that “America’s war in Iraq will be over” come the holidays—that showcased an apparently hardening attitude in the GOP field against winding down Bush-era wars. Excepting Ron Paul, every GOP candidate lambasted the decision, and no reporter read anything “dovish” in the tealeaves. Then-frontrunner Mitt Romney called the disengagement an “astonishing failure,” while Rick Perry impugned the administration’s “political” motives. Newt Gingrich, after initially (and curiously) assessing that “the president is right” to withdraw the remaining troops, only days later suggested Obama was ushering in “a decisive defeat for the U.S. in Iraq.” Even Huntsman, who had earlier derided the notion that the United States should linger on in Afghanistan to “play traffic cop,” called it a “mistake” “not to leave a small, focused presence in Iraq.”

When it comes to Iran, the candidates’ enthusiasm for confrontation has rivaled even the GOP’s saber rattling toward Saddam’s Iraq. Even as the Obama administration has insisted that the United States is already doing “everything that Mitt Romney [has] said we should be doing—tough sanctions, covert action, and pressuring the international community” with respect to Iran—the GOP field has piled on a litany of additional suggestions and threats.

Such calls have surpassed the usual pale of leaving “all options on the table.” Romney has called for the placement of a U.S. carrier force in the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf “to deter would-be aggressors” in the region, effectively doubling down on Herman Cain’s bid to place new U.S. weapons systems in the Gulf (which he introduced by bidding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to “make my day”).

Such posturing in the Gulf region has given way to threats, overt and thinly veiled alike, against Iranian territory itself. Several candidates have taken particular aim at Iranian nuclear scientists. Gingrich, whose support for anti-Iranian CIA programs dates back to his time in the House, has called for “maximum covert operations to block and disrupt the Iranian program, including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems, all of it covertly, all of it deniable.” Speaking to Jewish Republican activists, Gingrich assessed, “They [Iranians] only have one very, very large refinery. I would be focused on how to covertly sabotage it every day.” He added that “regime replacement” should be a stated U.S. goal in Iran and Syria alike.

Rick Santorum has also implied his support for targeting nuclear scientists. Such scientists, he said at a campaign stop in Iowa, “are enemy combatants similar to the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” before adding that he would also favor “working with Israel and being very clear with Iran that we are preparing a military strike, an airstrike, on those facilities.” ThinkProgress writer Eli Clifton called such comments “troubling,” pointing out that the International Atomic Energy Agency has still not concluded definitively that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program. Thus, Santorum—along with Gingrich—advocates attacks on civilian scientists whose work may not have anything to do with nuclear weapons.

In a remark that has more or less set the tone for the party’s line on Iran, Mitt Romney has boldly declared that "If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney … they will not have a nuclear weapon.” If there was any doubt that this should be read as a promise of military action toward Iran, it was removed when a Romney adviser told the Huffington Post that Obama "says that all options are on the table but doesn't really mean all options are on the table."

Huntsman has followed Romney’s lead on Iran, telling a New Hampshire audience, "I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that.” Huntsman later declined even to rule out a conventional land invasion of Iran, saying he “can’t live with the consequences of not doing it.”

For his part, Gingrich has indicated he would support an Israeli request for a U.S. invasion of Iran if it would prevent “another Holocaust,” thereby injecting one of the neoconservatives' favorite leitmotifs—overstated existential dilemma—into the presidential campaign. Gingrich, who serves as a fellow at the quintessentially neocon AEI, promised ominously that such a scenario was “not very far down the road.”

Niche Issues

With a readymade script to follow on Iran, the candidates have carved out various niches on other foreign policy matters in an effort to distinguish themselves. Unsurprisingly, these have often dovetailed with more domestic political concerns. Tapping into widespread economic anxiety at home, for example, Romney has advocated for a more aggressive approach toward Chinese currency manipulation (along with, of course, a more robust U.S. naval presence in the western Pacific). Huntsman, alongside vague comments about “taking China down,” has devoted considerable energy to pushing free-trade agreements despite the Obama administration’s evident support for them. (For more on the GOP’s “China problem,” check out Robert Farley’s Right Web feature on the subject.)

A bit more off the beaten path of mainstream foreign policy discussions, Rick Perry has leveled his fire at foreign aid, perhaps taking a cue from Ron Paul and an aid-skeptical GOP House. At various debates and in newspaper op-eds, Perry has repeatedly asserted that “Zero is the right starting point for foreign aid,” although he was forced to walk back that position somewhat when asked if it would also apply to Israel. Since then Perry has argued that he would actually increase aid to Israel, and has refined the talking point to appeal to more socially conservative GOP voters. In response to the Obama administration’s decision to weigh a country’s human rights record toward gays and lesbians when considering foreign aid, Perry issued a statement that said, “This administration’s war on traditional American values must stop. Promoting special rights for gays in foreign countries is not in America’s interests and not worth a dime of taxpayers’ money.” He has accompanied this messaging with a renewed emphasis on reinstating discriminatory policies towards gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, meanwhile, have distinguished themselves by their unabashed antipathy toward democratic uprisings in the Middle East. Santorum—who is based at yet another core neoconservative institution, the Ethics and Public Policy Center—has criticized President Obama for “turning his back on” deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, as well as for supposedly isolating Israel in a changing Middle East. The “recent dislocation of the old order in the Middle East will usher in a new one,” Santorum surmised, “and anti-Israel elements are working overtime all across the world to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Similarly, Bachmann has myopically explained the Arab Spring in terms of Obama’s supposed weakness toward the region. "You want to know why we have an Arab Spring?” she asked a campaign audience. “Barack Obama has laid the table for the Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America.” She likened the development to Jimmy Carter’s failure to have “the back of the shah” of Iran in 1979.

Certainly, if such remarks suggest an Israel-centric view of the Middle East, it is no accident. Although Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said he “can hardly remember a better period” of U.S. support for Israel than under the Obama administration, most of the GOP candidates have aggressively sought to paint the administration as hostile to the state of Israel, taking an overwhelmingly one-sided approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the process. Perry has certainly done so with the most fanfare—convening a conference of right-wing Jewish and Israeli leaders in New York to accuse Obama of “appeasement toward the Palestinians,” and even publishing an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post to that effect—but he is hardly alone. Perhaps in a bid for votes among conservative Christians, Perry and Bachmann alike have touted their pro-Israel policies as a consequence of their Christian faith. Newt Gingrich, for his part, has called Palestinians an “invented” people and accused the Palestinian Authority, which favors a two-state solution with Israel, of harboring “an enormous desire to destroy Israel.” Not to be left out, Mitt Romney has promised that his first foreign visit as president would be to Israel, accusing Obama of “chastening” the country.

In the Stables

Although the 2012 GOP campaign has been replete with interesting foreign policy sideshows, much of the Bush-era establishment has slowly fallen into place behind Mitt Romney, long the presumed—but by no means anointed—nominee. In early October, Romney rolled out his foreign policy team, which includes prominent Iraq War backers like Dan Senor, Robert Kagan, and Eric Edelman of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a successor organization to the highly influential Project for the New American Century, among sundry other veterans of the Bush years. Also included is Walid Phares, a prominent anti-Islamic commentator with ties to far-right elements from the Lebanese civil war that were responsible for massacres of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians.

As Herman Cain’s campaign has imploded, Rick Perry’s has stagnated, and the other candidates have struggled to attract votes, Newt Gingrich has emerged somewhat surprisingly as Romney’s lone major rival. Gingrich lacks Romney’s establishment support—and has indeed had a degree of difficulty holding on to staff—so has largely attempted to articulate himself those things that Romney has entrusted to his cast of advisers. But Gingrich has nonetheless been advised by Herman Pirchner of the right-wing American Foreign Policy Council as well as by former CIA director James Woolsey, a well-connected member of the neoconservative firmament. Seeking perhaps to associate himself with a bigger name in GOP foreign policy, Gingrich has vowed to appoint John Bolton—a former U.S. ambassador to the UN and an extreme hardliner on foreign policy—as his secretary of state.

Nor, apparently, will the Gingrich camp hurt for campaign funds. Although Gingrich has been overshadowed by Romney’s prolific fundraising and massive personal wealth, Politico reportedrecently that billionaire casino magnate—and right-wing Israel supporter—Sheldon Adelson had promised a pro-Gingrich PAC an astounding $20 million for the presidential campaign. A spokesperson for Adelson later denied the report, but the $5,000 personally donated by Adelson and his wife to Gingrich’s campaign—as well as the $7 million Adelson gave to Gingrich’s American Solutions between 2006 and 2010—indicate that Adelson’s hard-right views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may continue to influence Gingrich into the future. “You can be sure,” writes commentator Richard Silverstein, “that every word out of Newt’s mouth from here on concerning Jews and Israel will be personally pre-approved and scripted by Adelson.”

Whoever becomes the GOP nominee, it is unlikely that either the GOP primary or the general election will hinge on foreign policy. Indeed, thus far, the GOP electorate has been remarkably forgiving of foreign policy gaffes; it took a compounding sex scandal to sink the candidacy of Herman Cain, after all, who had become reputed for his tenuous grasp of the world outside America’s borders. Furthermore, as James Joyner notes at the Atlantic, whatever foreign policy emerges from the GOP race, it is likely to tack at least somewhat toward the center before the general election. “The 2012 candidates making the worst gaffes and most outlandish statements,” he writes, “are also unlikely to be their party's nominee, let alone president.”

Nevertheless, it is safe to say that given the slate of advisers racked up by Romney and Gingrich, the GOP race amounts at best to a choice between heartland outlandishness and beltway neoconservatism. Whatever the eventual outcome of the primary, these advisers serve as an important indicator of what awaits us if a Republican wins the White House in 2012. By the end of 2013 we could very well be awaiting the release of a sequel to James Mann’s authoritative book, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at Right Web.   

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