- - Thursday, September 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For all of the concern among some Beltway Republicans about his Texas tough talk alienating moderate voters, it is perhaps ironic that Republican presidential nomination front-runner Rick Perry raised the most eyebrows at one of the first GOP debates when he warned against military “adventurism,” in what many saw as a subtle dig at the foreign policies of both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.

Yet Mr. Perry’s sentiments are reflective of an increasingly popular approach in the GOP, especially among those allied with the tea party movement. This influence can be seen not just in Mr. Perry’s campaign, but in the rising influence of once-marginal candidates like Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who now sits in third place in some national GOP polls.

But while Mr. Paul’s strict non-interventionism is still out of the GOP mainstream, Mr. Perry, governor of Texas, is hardly the only Republican leader expressing skepticism about America’s role as the world’s policeman or nation-builder.

Figures from Sarah Palin to Haley Barbour have recently joined Mr. Perry in implicit critiques of neoconservative foreign policy. Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty, who among the leading GOP candidates had perhaps most embraced the neoconservative view, could not even survive the Ames, Iowa straw poll, and Rick Santorum, who embodies it the most strongly of any of the remaining declared candidates, remains an asterisk, polling just 2 percent.



Perry rival Mitt Romney said in an earlier GOP debate concerning Afghanistan that the U.S. cannot “try and fight a war of independence for another nation.” Mr. Romney’s statement drew the ire of neoconservative-friendly South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who implicitly compared Mr. Romney’s foreign policy to Jimmy Carter’s. But Mr. Graham’s star has been in eclipse within the GOP, and the McCain-Graham wing of the party, combining aggressive foreign policy with middle-of-the-road views on social and economic issues, looks increasingly marginal among today’s grass-roots conservatives.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to infer too great of a transformation from the change in public tone from the GOP candidates. A robust defense of U.S. national interests and an unapologetic willingness to use military force when necessary will always be a key component of Republican foreign policy.

But it is unclear if the more revolutionary role envisioned by neoconservatives can survive the new budget realities, in which defense spending will be weighed against new taxes and substantial cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare. Many military officers say, both privately and publicly, that the high-footprint, high-cost engagements that have characterized our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlikely to be repeated in the near future.

So while neoconservatives may long for a return of the Bush Doctrine, it is not clear that they have a champion among the existing GOP candidates — or sufficient support in the GOP grassroots — to support its revival. At the same time, purist non-interventionism still alienates the majority of core GOP voters.

Is there a safe passage for conservative foreign policy between neoconservatism and isolationism? There is, and it lies in a set of views that conservatives of almost every stripe can embrace, while drawing a sharp contrast with most liberals. This safe passage is found through opposition to what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte, in his invaluable new book “Sovereignty or Submission,” refers to as “transnational progressivism,” a movement of the global left that seeks to weaken U.S. democratic sovereignty through increasing use of “global governance,” “transnational law” and “group rights.”

Transnational progressives work through institutions such as the U.N. and the International Criminal Court to create legally enforceable “norms” of behavior and “human rights” that coincidentally align with the views of a global elite whose values are more reflective of Bethesda and Brussels than of Middle America. Transnational progressives fundamentally seek to constrain U.S. action under a web of interlocking norms, institutions and often-unratified “treaties.”

To make an abstraction more concrete, what will unite the diverse strands of conservative foreign policy views is not whether or not we should engage in the next war in Iraq or Libya, but whether our future leaders need to seek the blessing of the U.N. or the “international community” to “legally authorize” our actions.

In the future, the conservative movement may not always speak with one voice on where, or whether, we fight the next war. But, from Mr. Perry to Mr. Paul, from John Bolton to Michelle Bachmann, conservatives can unite in declaring that the American people and their democratically elected representatives are the only ones who should have a voice in making that solemn decision.

Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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