Getting the GOP's Groove Back

How to Bridge the Republican Foreign Policy Divide

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney walks across the tarmac at the airport in Des Moines, Iowa October 26, 2012. Brian Snyder / Reuters

It is the healthy habit of partisans on the losing side of a U.S. presidential election to spend some time reflecting on the reasons for their defeat. And it is the grating habit of partisans on the winning side to tell the losers how they might have done better. Most of their advice is self-serving, none of it is solicited, and little of it is ever heeded. Yet still people pile on.

So it has been following Mitt Romney's defeat by President Barack Obama in last November's election. On domestic policy, pundits have instructed Republicans to moderate their positions on social issues and overcome their traditional opposition to higher taxes. On foreign policy, they are telling them to abandon their alleged preference for military solutions over diplomatic ones, as well as their reflexive hostility to multilateral institutions, their Cold War mentality toward Russia, their "denialism" on climate change, their excessive deference to right-wing Israelis, and so on. Much of this advice is based on caricature, and the likelihood of any of it having the slightest impact on the GOP's leadership or rank and file is minimal: the United States does not have a competitive two-party system so that one party can define for the other the terms of reasonable disagreement.

Put aside, then, fantasies about saving the GOP from itself or restoring the statesmanlike ways of George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower (all of whom were derided as foreign policy dunces or extremists when they held office). Instead, take note of the more consequential foreign policy debate now taking shape within the heart of the conservative movement itself. This is the debate between small-government and big-military conservatives. Until recently, the two camps had few problems traveling together. Yet faced with the concrete political choices raised by last year's budget sequester—which made large cuts in nondefense discretionary spending contingent on equally large cuts in the Pentagon's budget—the coalition has begun to show signs of

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