Republican presidential debate season is finally in full swing. From now until next March, you’ll have the opportunity, at least once a month, to see well-coiffed presidential aspirants launch poll-tested rhetorical onslaughts at President Obama. Some candidates will imply that the president who administered the bailout of our flailing financial system is a closeted Western European socialist. Others will suggest that the president who has ordered more drone strikes in Pakistan in his first two years than President Bush did during his two terms is somehow inviting our enemies to attack us.
These lines will proably receive rapturous applause. But if you listen closely and direct your attention beyond the bronzer and the broadsides, you’ll notice that the Republican party’s messy makeover on foreign policy reflects an underlying bipartisan fluidity on international affairs.
For the most obvious evidence of this, look no further than the proclaimations of the twin front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Both have challenged the old orthodoxy of the Bush doctrine, which embraced unilateral intervention, preemptive war, democratic regime change and nation-building, particularly in the tumultuous Muslim world.
Romney, as usual, has been inconsistent on this front. During his first bid for the White House in 2008, he repeatedly praised the foreign policy vision of George W. Bush and emphasized his belief that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made the American people safer. But even though Obama has continued several of Bush’s initiatives in Afghanistan, Romney suggested at a June debate that “it’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can…one lesson we’ve learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation’s war of Standard.”
But Romney’s reversal pales next to the doublespeak of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. During one speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars late last month, he expressed support for a traditional realist foreign policy centered around vital national interests before declaring moments later that “we must renew our commitment to taking the fight to the enemy wherever they are before they strike at “Kucinich Republicans” further underscores the size of this schism.
All of this fits into a larger, unsettling development of recent years; old cleavages on foreign affairs appear kaput. I usually think post-partisanship is a ruse. On most issues, in part because of the political realignment of the South that dates back to the 1960s, our parties share precious little ground. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing; functioning democracy requires choice, contrast and competition, even if it’s bitter sometimes. But in a world where a (formerly) antiwar Democrat seeks regime change in Libya without congressional approval, and once-hawkish Republicans team up with the biggest lefty in Congress to stop him, what’s a man to think?
Foreign policy seems like one area where there really are “no