25 August 2012
Election seasons are tough times to divine a party’s platform. Most of the “wonkier” items that make up a policy’s substance get lost in election-style messaging, and the platform has not been tested by the practical realities which shape the platform into its functional form. At the same, platforms are important statements of intent, not just because they suggest a party’s outlook on a given issue but also because they provide insight into which audiences that party is aiming to please, and therefore be accountable to, if that party takes power. So platforms are still worth paying attention to even though pundits and wonks might see them as vapid, shallow, or pandering.
The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus published a summary of the GOP’s draft foreign and defense policy platform on August 22nd. As he comments, most of the items covered in the draft (which will not be officially released until the convention) are not surprising; the document itself is as much of a repudiation of President Obama’s foreign policy than an affirmation of a Republican approach. This is not necessarily surprising since a campaign against a sitting president needs to refute the incumbent to undermine their case for a second term, but it makes it difficult to determine what the challenger actually supports and leaves them open to the accusation that there really might not be much difference on substance.
A few things that Pincus relates about the discussion leading to the final draft are worth paying attention to. First, while the draft calls for “unequivocal support for Israel,” the committee also approved language that supported a two-state solution. Committee Chairman Jim Tallent supported the inclusion of that language since it was in keeping with past statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The discussion is worth noting because after the rancor about which future administration would be friendlier towards Israel, the Republican platform is not radically different from Obama’s positions on the issue. Romney supporters have argued that their candidate is more explicit about his support for Israel, but Obama’s approach has still generally received support from Jewish groups, and most of the differences between the candidates mostly rhetorical. There may still be daylight between the candidates on critical details like the future of settlements or the status of Jerusalem, but Romney’s position on Israel doesn’t offer any concrete suggestions that he differs, or how he differs, with Obama on these issues. On substance, the Republican platform suggests that there is not much practical difference in the parties’ approaches to Israel.
Second, the platform takes Obama to task for several items that are not necessarily fair. One example would be to accuse Obama of supporting the sequestration of defense funding: no one supported budget sequestration--it was only created as a deterrent for failing to agree on legislation to close the budget deficit and was never intended to be policy. Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have frequently described the dangers posed by sequestration so it seems inappropriate for the Republican platform to criticize Obama on this point. On Iran, the platform accuses Obama of “engaging rather than deterring” Iran, even though it was Lindsey Graham that said, “We support you and we have your back, Mr. President,” and the George W. Bush administration had first explored negotiations with Iran. Whether the P5+1’s negotiations with Iran have been successful or not is a legitimate question, but considering the sanctions that Obama has consistently supported against Iran, it again seems inappropriate for the Republican platform to accuse Obama of failing to deter Iran.
The draft Republican platform, when scrutinized, seems to confirm the idea that Romney’s foreign policy ideas are either undeveloped or not much different from Obama’s. But the key insight into what a Republican foreign policy looks like is the reaction to former World Bank President Bob Zoellick’s appointment as head of the transition team for national security posts. His appointment was criticized by members of the conservative foreign policy establishment like Condoleezza Rice and John Bolton, while others tried to insist that Zoellick’s job would be administrative and not related to policy. The reason the selection caused so much controversy is because modern foreign policy conservatism has split into realist "George H.W. Bush Republicans” and neoconservative "George W. Bush Republicans” that are less compatible than their party affiliations would allow. Generally, the former is pragmatic, trade-oriented, and willing to make compromises with offensive governments if it can serve a larger purpose; while the latter’s first goal is expanding democracy and isolating (and ideally toppling) offensive governments—and as the campaign’s unease has showed, it is this faction that is ascendant. The schism was best encapsulated by an unnamed Romney campaign advisor who said "Mitt Romney's made clear that he has conservative views on foreign policy and defense, and those aren't the views of Pragmatic Bob." In a way, this is surprising because Romney was generally thought to be a moderate, business-first pragmatist but his campaign has consistently taken a more “conservative” approach that is apparently in opposition to the pragmatic wing of the GOP.
Even George W. Bush seemed to repudiate neoconservativism in his second term, but it seems that Romney has decided that the neoconservative approach to foreign policy resonates with voters well enough for him to enthusiastically embrace its ideals. In the short term, it seems that the Republican establishment and its supporters have decided that a “conservative” foreign policy is one that speaks a language that is idealistic, nationalist, and assertive, while their platform seems to suggest that they are either not sure how this language could be applied in practice or that the differences are superficial--but superficial can become significant once the platform rubber hits the policy road and the rhetoric tries to find form.