international analysis and commentary

Over Foreign Policy, A Republican Debate Worth Having


The recent Republican presidential candidate debate on foreign policy started as the myriad others had, secure in its otherworldly tone. Most of those on the stage took President Obama to task over his ineffectual leadership regarding the Iranian nuclear crisis. Weak front-runner Mitt Romney castigated the White House’s timidity, saying the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons was unacceptable, calling for all options (including air strikes) to be left on the table, and urging that sanctions with bite be leveled at the mullahs, in an effort to make them rethink their efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. In other words, in terms of policy, pretty much what the President has been haplessly advocating throughout his term.

Over the single biggest foreign policy issue to affect the outcome of the presidential election – the real chance that Europe’s debt crisis could derail global recovery – the would-be presidents said… nothing. To be fair, (incredibly) their CNN hosts never actually asked a question about this central matter (nor anything about China or Egypt either; you do wonder what they were actually talking about), but, really, one of the men cluttering the stage ought to have proactively brought up this seminal matter. It will directly affect the American economy for years to come, after all. No dice. Whether the candidates thought the matter too complicated to bring up in a forum designed to elicit sound bites, or (far worse) whether the candidates knew too little about the issue to intelligently raise it, the most important immediate foreign policy issue facing the nation went unremarked-upon.

Still, just as you were ready to throw your hands up in despair, an exchange occurred that made the true reason for the endless series of Republican debates and their role in the democratic process crystal clear. Mitt Romney, ever determined not to be outflanked to the right, pushed his hawkish line on national security. America ought to spend at least 4% of GDP on defense, while committing to construct a 600-ship navy. Ron Paul, stalwart libertarian, took this in as if he had just been listening to a mental patient who had delusionally told him to watch out for the fairies behind him.

Suddenly, there it was, for all to see: the new schism that lies at the heart of the battle for control of the Republican Party’s foreign policy, the epic contest between “fiscal-firsters” and “defense-firsters”.

Most conservatives have always proclaimed steadfast support for both a strong national defense and a strong economy. But of course there is a potential contradiction underlying this conservative laundry list. What if times got tough and a strong national defense – predicated on out-of-control spending – actually jeopardized America’s national security by jeopardizing America’s fiscal position? As long as times were relatively benign, this choice could be avoided, with all Republicans committing to both propositions.

But it is good to be wary of laundry lists; they conceal priorities. Now that times are most definitely not rosy, the choice Republicans have managed to put off for decades is unavoidable. And Ron Paul is certainly not alone in his musings to this end. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen testified before Congress in the summer of 2010 that the national debt was the single biggest security threat facing the United States. Well-respected former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – as shrewd a judge as there is of where the zeitgeist in Washington is heading – was equally forthright: “Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the United States’ battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?”. It is all right to be for all things when no choices need to be made. But in this new age of austerity, even the Republican Party is having an increasingly open debate about how much security is necessary, given the horrendous costs.

Worse for the defense-firsters (unused as they are to opposition within the GOP), this ideational battle is morphing into a political struggle, for the majority of the Tea Party seems to be siding with Representative Paul and the fiscal-firsters. Freedom Works, a Tea Party-inspired advocacy group, has recently issued a Tea Party Budget. In it, they adopt the fiscal plan of unreconstructed conservative, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. It calls for $1 trillion of defense cuts over the next decade; a number sure to make the establishment defense-firsters howl that America is (somehow) being left unprotected. The critical point is that the Tea Party, astonishingly in line with a majority of the Democratic Party, sees no reason that the Pentagon should be exempt from the fiscal austerity measures increasingly on the cards for the federal government as a whole.

Ironically, at present, that $1 trillion worth of cuts over a decade is exactly where the US under Barack Obama is heading. The Pentagon, after mutterings that the apocalypse is nigh, has come up with a plan for $350 billion in cuts over the next decade. Following the predictable failure of the Congressional Supercommittee, a further $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts over ten years is scheduled to begin in 2013, evenly divided between entitlements and the defense budget. Add these numbers together and we arrive at $950 billion in Pentagon cuts by 2023. Horrifyingly for defense-firsters, this is something fiscal-firsters seem able to live with. Coupled with President Obama’s publicly-stated resolve to veto any efforts to do away with these self-imposed cuts, the defense-firsters are rightly beginning to panic; the Days of Wine and Roses for defense spending are over.

The conclusion of the Romney-Paul exchange was intriguing. Romney was predictably horrified that Paul questioned whether the $1 trillion in cuts went far enough, but not so Newt Gingrich, the latest “not-Romney” to rise in the Republican polls. When challenged by the moderators, Gingrich cleverly refused to commit, saying cuts had to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, thus avoiding offending either defense- or fiscal-firsters. Given the longstanding domination of the GOP establishment by defense-firsters, this noncommittal response showed just how far their political sway has slipped as the reality of America’s corroding economic position becomes apparent to all. It is my hunch that most of the GOP (and most of the country for that matter) is with Gingrich on this point. The seminal battle between fiscal-firsters and defense-firsters has just been joined within the Republican Party. And victory by the defense-firsters is far from assured, given the coming age of austerity.