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Conservatives and Foreign Policy After the Election

Although exit polling showed just how few voters cared much about foreign policy in yesterday’s presidential election, the right should put it on the list of subjects that pose a new challenge for the Republican Party and conservative movement going forward. It is not only because of the president’s successful ordering of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. It is also because of something Micah Zenko, in a thoughtful piece for Foreign Policy, talks about: the idea that we will never again have a peacetime president.

Zenko seems to suggest that this is because of lack of understanding in Washington about the threats this country faces around the globe, thus leading to an overreaction in many cases. I think it’s because there has been a recognition, after 9/11, that prevention, and thus vigilance, is key to protecting the homeland. Either way, there is a consensus in American policymaking. Here’s Zenko:

Though both of the presidential candidates claim to want a peaceful world (Mitt Romney used some version of “peace” 12 times in the final presidential debate), it is unlikely that the United States will ever have a peacetime president again.

The primary reason for this stems from how policymakers in Washington perceive the world — a perception that bridges partisan divisions. According to most officials, the international security environment is best characterized by limitless, complex, and imminent threats facing the United States. Those threats require the military to be perpetually on a wartime footing and the president to frequently authorize the use of lethal force. As a Pentagon strategy document first noted in 2010, the United States has entered “a period of persistent conflict.”

I don’t think there is quite as much “news” here as would seem. The public knowledge of the American military’s efforts to fight threats worldwide is now much greater than it ever was. But the system of persistent conflict still hews to what formed in the administration of Harry Truman on the ruins of FDR’s great power politics. After the end of World War II–or, rather, after the defeat of Germany in WWII–the United States for the first time faced a very different world. This was one in which the U.S. could not simply disengage when a specific threat was defeated.

Suddenly, the U.S. found itself, through its armed forces and later through international organizations such as NATO, formally responsible for the co-defense of the European continent, while at the same time fighting an enemy–Communist radicalism–both at home and abroad. A national security infrastructure bloomed. Washington, D.C. looked very different than it once had and because of the nature of the ideological conflict, the disagreement between leftists and conservatives grew into a broad distrust between the two groups, soon reflected by their representatives in the Congress.

Democrats seen as insufficiently opposed to Communism were construed as weak–a label that was, over the course of the next few decades, successfully applied to the party as a whole.

Eventually, the Democrats basically became the “peace” party, while Republican foreign policy successes, such as those during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, won the right a reputation as the party you could trust when push came to shove. Bill Clinton ran on the theme not that the Democrats were tougher than Republicans but essentially that the “peace dividend” made such toughness quite unnecessary. That peace proved illusory, and the Democrats were later unable to unseat George W. Bush, who was seen as a resolute commander-in-chief, even when he was commanding unpopular wars.

But if there is truly a recognition in Washington that there is no such thing as a peacetime president, then there is also going to be recognition that there is no such thing as a “peace party.” The Democrats–and it seems President Obama realizes this–cannot run indefinitely on “getting our troops out of” wherever they happen to be at the time, because of the perceived necessity of military engagement, even if limited in scope. Obama may have opposed the way Republicans conducted the war in Iraq, but it was not because he refuses to ever contemplate military intervention in the Middle East. Indeed, he spent the one foreign policy debate last month hammering Mitt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty in Libya–a military engagement for which the president did not seek congressional authorization.

Obama has not wholly rescued his party’s national security credentials. There is, after all, quite loud chatter that his second-term secretary of state will be the dour, unprincipled antiwar agitator John Kerry, a man with such comically obtuse strategic sense that he considered Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator currently murdering a large segment of his country, a reformer we could do business with. And his current vice president is a man who cannot seem to get a single foreign policy related issue right, despite spending decades in Washington.

Nonetheless, conservatives are set to spend two consecutive presidential terms out of the White House, and will have something of a clean slate now as they regroup. If Zenko is right, and there will never be another peacetime president, they cannot afford take foreign policy for granted, no matter what the exit polls say.