Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 9, 2012

Petraeus Deserves Thanks, Not Obloquy

I am saddened to read about David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA Director, citing an extramarital affair. I know nothing about the circumstances and suspect we will learn more before long. What I do know is that the hyenas are now circling his political carcass, ready to rip him to shreds, now that he is already wounded. What I also know is that this is a depressing fate to befall one of America’s greatest generals—probably the greatest we have had since the World War II generation passed from the scene.

Imagine Winfield Scott, U.S. Grant, William Sherman, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower or Matthew Ridgway resigning over an affair. It’s simply impossible to imagine; standards have changed so much over the years that now sexual peccadilloes are about the only thing that can bring down senior military commanders. Petraeus did not have as big a war to fight as his predecessors did but what he achieved in Iraq was one of the most impressive turnarounds ever seen in any counterinsurgency campaign that I am familiar with.

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I am saddened to read about David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA Director, citing an extramarital affair. I know nothing about the circumstances and suspect we will learn more before long. What I do know is that the hyenas are now circling his political carcass, ready to rip him to shreds, now that he is already wounded. What I also know is that this is a depressing fate to befall one of America’s greatest generals—probably the greatest we have had since the World War II generation passed from the scene.

Imagine Winfield Scott, U.S. Grant, William Sherman, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower or Matthew Ridgway resigning over an affair. It’s simply impossible to imagine; standards have changed so much over the years that now sexual peccadilloes are about the only thing that can bring down senior military commanders. Petraeus did not have as big a war to fight as his predecessors did but what he achieved in Iraq was one of the most impressive turnarounds ever seen in any counterinsurgency campaign that I am familiar with.

Field Marshal Gerald Templer’s success in Malaya in the 1950s is usually cited as the gold standard of counterinsurgency. Well Iraq in early 2007, when Petraeus took over as commander, was in far worse shape than Malaya in 1952 when Templer arrived on the scene. Few thought there was any chance of stopping Iraq’s slide into ever-more violent civil war. Certainly not with a mere 20,000 or so surge troops–numbers widely dismissed as inadequate for the size of the task. Petraeus did not bluster and he did not boast, but he arrived with a quiet confidence that he could still save the day–and he did.

He did not do it alone, needless to say. The contributions of Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the day to day operational commander, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were particularly important–not to mention the firm backing of President George W. Bush. But the odds are that the surge would have failed were it not for the inspired leadership displayed by Petraeus.

He had already studied the principles of population-centric counterinsurgency; he had quite literally written the book on the subject. And he proceeded to implement everything he had learned not only from his study of history but from the more than two years he had previously spent in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and then as the top general charged with training Iraqi forces. He faced not only multiple foes on the ground–most prominently Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Mahdist Army–but also constant sniping from the home front where some derided him as “General Betray Us.” Throughout the ordeal of 2007-2008 he stood firm, constantly pushing his subordinates to do better, while defending their conduct in a stream of media interviews and in pivotal congressional testimony that prevented anti-war legislators from pulling the plug prematurely on the entire effort.

I was privileged to see some glimpses of Petraeus in action, not only in Iraq but also later in Afghanistan; I served as an informal adviser to him in both places. Never have I seen more effective leadership in action. He was a maestro at using all the instruments of governmental power, combing multiple “lines of operation” to wage a war far more diffuse and harder to grasp than a conventional campaign. In Afghanistan he did not preside over the kind of quick turnaround he managed to pull off in Iraq but he once again, building on the fine work done by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, helped to implement a strategy that substantially improved the situation.

Petraeus spent most of the past decade deployed—first in Bosnia, then in Iraq, finally in Afghanistan. In between the last two commands he served as Central Command chief, constantly jetting around the Middle East to carry on high-level negotiations. He maintained a grueling pace that would have been hard to do for men half his age, yet he never seemed to flag, not even when he was treated for cancer.

Petraeus devoted his life to serving his country. Few have ever done it as well. He now deserves the thanks of a grateful nation—rather than obloquy that is more likely to be visited on him instead.

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Will it Take an Affair to Get the Media Interested in Benghazi?

For a military hero and able public servant such as David Petraeus to have to end his service to the country on the sort of disturbing note that his letter of resignation sounded is nothing short of a tragedy. For anyone in charge of U.S. intelligence to behave as he said did shows poor judgment that rightly required the president to accept his resignation. But that ought not to detract from a career that deserves to be remembered with honor by a grateful country.

But the avalanche of press coverage that Petraeus attracted in the hours after his announcement ought to bring into focus a far more important story that most of the same media has ignored: the Benghazi fiasco. It speaks volumes about the current state of contemporary American journalism that  a sex scandal generated far more interest from broadcast networks and the press than the questions of whether the administration failed to aid Americans besieged in Libya or why the government stuck to a bogus story about a video instead of admitting that terrorists were responsible.

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For a military hero and able public servant such as David Petraeus to have to end his service to the country on the sort of disturbing note that his letter of resignation sounded is nothing short of a tragedy. For anyone in charge of U.S. intelligence to behave as he said did shows poor judgment that rightly required the president to accept his resignation. But that ought not to detract from a career that deserves to be remembered with honor by a grateful country.

But the avalanche of press coverage that Petraeus attracted in the hours after his announcement ought to bring into focus a far more important story that most of the same media has ignored: the Benghazi fiasco. It speaks volumes about the current state of contemporary American journalism that  a sex scandal generated far more interest from broadcast networks and the press than the questions of whether the administration failed to aid Americans besieged in Libya or why the government stuck to a bogus story about a video instead of admitting that terrorists were responsible.

The juxtaposition of Petraeus’s fall with the ongoing investigation of who knew what and when about what happened in Benghazi is bound to attract more interest than the scandal has generated in the past two months. The refusal of many in the media to push hard on this story has understandably generated accusations of liberal media bias, since the relative silence on the issue from many important outlets was extremely helpful to President Obama’s re-election campaign.

But now that the president’s cheerleaders in the press box no longer need to worry about endangering his chances of a second term, there are signs that the contradictions about the administration’s Benghazi story are beginning to elicit some attention from news organizations. One imagines that the Petraeus angle and a resignation letter that seems to have raised more questions than it answered will only feed their curiosity.

While there is little doubt that Petraeus’s affair will be the most famous Washington indiscretion since l’affaire Lewinsky, perhaps some of that 24/7 news cycle attention will also be devoted to what the intelligence apparatus was doing in the last months. That is especially true since senior administration figures have thrown the intelligence community under the bus in their effort to divert attention from their own shortcomings. At any rate, let us hope that the hype about Petraeus’ personal life won’t divert anyone from a more important story with far reaching implications for American security.

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Ehud Olmert’s Conspiracy Theory

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently advanced a curious conspiracy theory about me—a theory that would almost be flattering if it weren’t so absurd.

Olmert charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “intervened in the U.S. elections in the name of an American billionaire with a clear interest in the vote.” Without a shred of evidence, Olmert pontificated that the “very same billionaire used Israel’s prime minister to advance a nominee of his own for president.”

Think about what Olmert is claiming. He is not suggesting the typical nonsense that the Likud government used me to influence the American election. No, Olmert’s conspiracy theory is even more outlandish: he’s asserting that Netanyahu—who isn’t exactly known to be a pushover—somehow agreed to be my puppet during the U.S. presidential campaign.

When I read Olmert’s comments, it reminded me of the old joke about the Jewish man who preferred reading anti-Semitic newspapers because they tell such good news: how Jews control Congress, how Jews run the media, how Jews pull the strings of international politics. I’m not saying Olmert is being anti-Semitic, but he is crediting me with a degree of power that I simply don’t have. The prime minister of Israel is very much his own man. I can also attest that Bibi has always maintained a neutral position vis-à-vis the U.S. presidential election, as would any sensible Israeli leader.

In trying to make sense of Mr. Olmert’s claims, I can only conclude that he still bears a grudge. Before he left office under a host of corruption charges in 2009, his approval ratings plunged to single digits. It is widely known that he blames an investigative reporter at Israel Hayom for prompting the legal investigations which ultimately led not only to Olmert’s political downfall but also, sadly, his conviction this summer for breach of trust.

Much is made about my friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu, especially by Olmert and the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, which is a competitor of Israel Hayom. Conveniently forgotten is that I’m also a close friend with Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz, the last of whom is an articulate and thoughtful supporter of President Obama. Netanyahu no more does my bidding than any of these other friends of mine.

Mr. Olmert, who is rumored to have his eye on political office, has every right to run a spirited campaign. But he’ll have to come up with more than conspiracy theories if he hopes to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Who Had the Dirt on Petraeus?

In a Friday afternoon bombshell, CIA Director David Petraeus resigned, citing an extramarital affair. Petraeus has been under fire recently for the CIA’s response to the Benghazi attack. The Cable’s Josh Rogin posted the letter of resignation:

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as D/CIA.  After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the President graciously accepted my resignation.

As I depart Langley, I want you to know that it has been the greatest of privileges to have served with you, the officers of our Nation’s Silent Service, a work force that is truly exceptional in every regard. Indeed, you did extraordinary work on a host of critical missions during my time as director, and I am deeply grateful to you for that.

Teddy Roosevelt once observed that life’s greatest gift is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing. I will always treasure my opportunity to have done that with you and I will always regret the circumstances that brought that work with you to an end.

Thank you for your extraordinary service to our country, and best wishes for continued success in the important endeavors that lie ahead for our country and our Agency.

With admiration and appreciation,

David H. Petraeus

This is completely out of nowhere. Just last week, the New York Times published a fawning profile of Petraeus (which the administration cooperated with), clearly an attempt to boost his image as the Benghazi criticism heated up. Here is the final paragraph:

Mr. Petraeus’s future has inevitably been the subject of rumors: that he would be Mitt Romney’s running mate, or, more plausibly, that he was interested in the presidency of Princeton. In a statement in late September, he did not rule that out for the future, but said that for the time being he was “living the dream here at C.I.A.” That was before the recriminations this week over Benghazi.

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In a Friday afternoon bombshell, CIA Director David Petraeus resigned, citing an extramarital affair. Petraeus has been under fire recently for the CIA’s response to the Benghazi attack. The Cable’s Josh Rogin posted the letter of resignation:

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the White House and asked the President to be allowed, for personal reasons, to resign from my position as D/CIA.  After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the President graciously accepted my resignation.

As I depart Langley, I want you to know that it has been the greatest of privileges to have served with you, the officers of our Nation’s Silent Service, a work force that is truly exceptional in every regard. Indeed, you did extraordinary work on a host of critical missions during my time as director, and I am deeply grateful to you for that.

Teddy Roosevelt once observed that life’s greatest gift is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing. I will always treasure my opportunity to have done that with you and I will always regret the circumstances that brought that work with you to an end.

Thank you for your extraordinary service to our country, and best wishes for continued success in the important endeavors that lie ahead for our country and our Agency.

With admiration and appreciation,

David H. Petraeus

This is completely out of nowhere. Just last week, the New York Times published a fawning profile of Petraeus (which the administration cooperated with), clearly an attempt to boost his image as the Benghazi criticism heated up. Here is the final paragraph:

Mr. Petraeus’s future has inevitably been the subject of rumors: that he would be Mitt Romney’s running mate, or, more plausibly, that he was interested in the presidency of Princeton. In a statement in late September, he did not rule that out for the future, but said that for the time being he was “living the dream here at C.I.A.” That was before the recriminations this week over Benghazi.

The recriminations over Benghazi notably include charges that Petraeus misled lawmakers during a closed congressional hearing in September. Petraeus was scheduled to testify at another closed hearing before the House Intelligence Committee next week. He sure isn’t scheduled anymore. Did the timing of his resignation have anything to do with that?

One last question. Typically when an official resigns because of an affair, it’s because the information has already been made public or is about to be made public. So who had the dirt on Petraeus?

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Can the GOP Change on Immigration?

Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

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Post-mortems on President Obama’s election victory have harped on his dominant hold on the Hispanic vote. That has, in turn, led to speculation about the Republican Party changing its tune on immigration, an issue which is widely — and probably quite rightly — viewed as a deal breaker for the majority of Hispanic voters when GOP candidates ask for their support. To that end, several prominent Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner and conservative thinkers like Charles Krauthammer, have suggested a course change for Republicans that would enable them to avoid being characterized as anti-immigrant and, by extension, anti-Hispanic.

While I’m far from sure that at this late date it will be possible for Republicans to make up the ground they’ve lost in the last decade with Hispanics by flipping on the issue, I think those advising a course change are correct. President George W. Bush was right to champion reform legislation on this issue, and his party’s failure to support him was wrong as well as a lost opportunity that may not recur. Most of those who come to this country illegally are merely seeking work, and it is high time that most conservatives stop acting as if illegals are a grave threat to the country. Nevertheless, any expectation that the bulk of party members will change their stance on the issue is probably unrealistic. The reason why most of the GOP presidential candidates pandered to the right on this issue is no mystery. Even though it is political poison for the party’s future, most in the GOP grassroots want no part of any plan to grant amnesty to the approximately 12 million illegals in the country.

There was a reason why, of all issues, the generally moderate Mitt Romney chose immigration as the one on which he would tack hardest to the right. In the one instance where his pose as a “severely conservative” Republican seemed to resonate, Romney attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for their more liberal stands on the issue. The tactic worked, and even though Romney’s stand shifted a bit to the center as the campaign wore on — by accepting a modified version of the DREAM Act, which would grant a path to citizenship for children brought here illegally but subsequently served in the U.S. military — until November 6, there was little sign that his party was ready to reassess its position.

In part, this reluctance to shift on immigration stems from the fact that a great many Americans believe the starting point to any discussion of the issue ought to be defense of the rule of law. Though some of those who obsess about the issue have blown the dangers that stem from immigration out of proportion and sound like 19th century “Know Nothings,” most Republican primary voters who care about the issue take a less extreme position. They believe the idea that the United States ought not to be able to control its borders is ludicrous. Treating law breaking in the form of illegal immigration as nothing more serious than a traffic ticket is offensive.

That’s why strong majorities of Americans polled on the topic generally support the controversial Arizona law that was both mischaracterized and condemned by President Obama in the second presidential debate. There’s nothing unconstitutional or unreasonable about inquiring about the immigration status of someone who has already been arrested on a different charge.

The plain fact is that the 12 million illegals that are already here are not going to be rounded up and deported. The government has neither the resources nor the will do so, and expectations that this will happen or, as Romney ludicrously put it, they will “self deport,” is detached from reality. Sooner or later the government will have to recognize their status and give them a path to legality, if not citizenship.

But anyone who thinks most Republican voters are prepared to tolerate a shift on the issue in the immediate future is dreaming. While there has always been a faction of leaders and thinkers that supported a strategy based on extending rights to the illegals, the last two elections show that this group is a minority within the GOP.

It should also be acknowledged that such efforts are fated to be largely futile. As Seth wrote, Hispanics are not going to be impressed if they think Republicans are cynically pandering to them. A large portion of the Jewish community continues to think of the GOP the same way their grandparents thought of it: as a vestige of an old country-club elite that harbors anti-Semitic attitudes. This may be an almost deranged and twisted view of reality, since contemporary Republicans tend to be even more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish concerns than Democrats, yet it nevertheless persists. But the bad taste from the harsh rhetoric on immigration from Republicans in recent years will not be washed away any more easily, even though a change of tune from some in the party on the issue won’t hurt. A possible Marco Rubio presidential candidacy in 2016 would also have an effect on the Hispanic vote.

But assuming that it will be easy for Republican leaders to accomplish this without a very strong pushback from their voters is unrealistic. As much as a GOP shift on amnesty would be smart politics and probably good public policy, it’s not likely to happen.

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Obama Open to Compromise on Tax Hikes? UPDATE: Nope

President Obama just delivered a statement on the fiscal cliff negotiations, reiterating his demand that more tax revenue come from upper-income earners. But he didn’t specify whether he would be willing to take the revenue from reforms in the tax code rather than tax hikes, an idea House Speaker John Boehner has indicated he’s open to. The fact that Obama was vague on that point could be a sign he’s ready to compromise on his demand that the Bush tax cuts be repealed for the top tax bracket.

What Obama made very clear, however, is that he wants to shift the onus for action onto Congress (h/t Washington Examiner): 

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President Obama just delivered a statement on the fiscal cliff negotiations, reiterating his demand that more tax revenue come from upper-income earners. But he didn’t specify whether he would be willing to take the revenue from reforms in the tax code rather than tax hikes, an idea House Speaker John Boehner has indicated he’s open to. The fact that Obama was vague on that point could be a sign he’s ready to compromise on his demand that the Bush tax cuts be repealed for the top tax bracket.

What Obama made very clear, however, is that he wants to shift the onus for action onto Congress (h/t Washington Examiner): 

While Obama didn’t use the word “mandate,” his basic message was that the House Republicans are the only obstacle to a solution the American people favor. “A majority of Americans agree with my approach,” he said at one point. Boehner’s strategy has been the opposite, calling on President Obama to take the lead and compromise on tax hikes:

Speaker John Boehner again tried to shift responsibility for the looming fiscal cliff to President Barack Obama, saying expiring tax rates and trillions of dollars in spending cuts are mostly his to solve.

“This is an opportunity for the president to lead,” Boehner said Friday in the Capitol. “This is his moment to engage the Congress and work toward a solution that can pass both chambers.”

Boehner struck a part conciliatory, part aggressive tone but stayed vague on the next few months in what’s sure to be a tense Washington would look like.

Both are short on details, waiting instead for their meeting next week to lay out their demands. But from their statements so far, it seems like there may be room for common ground on tax revenue.

UPDATE: Strike that. Jay Carney just said in the White House briefing Obama will only accept a deal that repeals the Bush tax cuts for the top tax bracket. “If a bill were to reach his desk that extends tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent, he will not sign,” said Carney. “We cannot afford it.” Interestingly enough, Carney also said the president wants to both repeal the top-level Bush tax cuts and reform the tax code. If you’re going to get the extra revenue out of the tax code reform, why would you need to raise tax rates even further, unless your policy stance has more to do with a personal view of “fairness” than with closing the deficit?

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Will Rand Paul Hijack the Pro-Israel GOP?

For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.

Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.

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For the past generation, Republicans have been able to argue with justice that their party is more consistently pro-Israel than that of the Democrats. That wasn’t just the result of President Obama’s antagonism toward Jerusalem and George W. Bush’s friendship. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that a significant portion of the influential left wing of the Democrats was hostile to the Jewish state, while those few Republicans who were not friends of Zion had been marginalized. While Pat Buchanan had been more or less kicked out of the GOP in the 1990s, left-wingers like the ones who booed the adoption of a platform plank on Jerusalem at the Democratic National Convention this year were numerous and not without a voice in the party’s councils. But that may be about to change.

Republicans are congratulating themselves on breaking the 30 percent mark in their share of the Jewish vote this year, even though they could point to Barack Obama’s problematic relationship with Israel. As I pointed out on Wednesday, anyone who assumes the GOP will continue to gain ground among Jewish voters needs to remember that they won’t have that advantage four years from now. But the really bad news is that the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party will make it clear that a significant portion of the GOP probably shouldn’t be characterized as part of the pro-Israel consensus. With the retirement of Rep. Ron Paul from electoral politics, the baton of the libertarian extremist/isolationist camp will pass to his son Rand, the senator from Kentucky. The younger Paul is more politically astute and probably a lot more marketable to a mainstream audience than his father was. But he is no less opposed to a mindset that sees a strong America and a strong alliance with Israel as integral to U.S. foreign policy than the older libertarian. That makes it entirely possible that under Rand’s leadership, radical libertarians will move from the fever swamps of the GOP to the mainstream. That’s bad news for the Republican Party, and could make their efforts to attract more pro-Israel and Jewish voters even more futile than they have been in the past.

As Eli Lake writes today in the Daily Beast, the coming civil war among Republicans over foreign policy will putt two traditional rival camps — the neoconservatives and the so-called “realists” — on the same side against what could be a rising tide of Rand Paul supporters who believe their small government credo ought to mandate massive defense cutbacks as well as the withdrawal of America from its place on the world stage.

Up until now, this wasn’t much of a contest because although Ron Paul could get throngs of his youthful libertarian crowd to applaud his absurd rationalizations of rogue regimes, such as Iran, or his belief that American imperialism helped generate anti-American terrorism, most Republicans weren’t buying it. But with a leader who doesn’t come across like everybody’s crazy uncle, the libertarian faction has reasonable hopes of doing much better. It’s not outlandish to believe, as Bill Kristol said on Fox News on Wednesday, that Rand Paul is likely to be a first-tier presidential candidate in the 2016 Republican primaries. If so, and I think he may be right, then there will be no question that it will call into question the assumption that there is wall-to-wall backing for Israel in the GOP.

To say that is not to jump to the conclusion that the younger Paul is an odds-on favorite to win the next Republican presidential nomination or that his views reflect those of the majority of Republicans. I think the chances of Paul ever being nominated are slim to none and that is in no small measure due to the fact that his embrace of his father’s foreign policy views — albeit expressed by the Kentucky senator in terms that are more subtle and less likely to be viewed as crackpot theories — will cripple any hope of ever capturing the party leadership.

Some Tea Party activists, like the staffer for Freedom Works who was quoted by Eli Lake as worrying about the possibility that a budget deal would avoid crippling defense cuts, believe their small government ideology requires a complete retrenchment of American defense and foreign policy. While some in the grassroots may share those sentiments, there is every reason to believe that the majority of those who identify with the movement also have traditional conservative views about the importance of American military power. Many also believe it vital that the U.S. maintain its alliance with the only true democracy in the Middle East: Israel.

The idea that the Republican Party will go back to its pre-World War Two embrace of isolationism is based on an imperfect understanding of the party’s base and its core beliefs. To argue, as some on the both the left and the right may, that there is a contradiction between believing in small government on domestic affairs but supporting a strong military, is to ignore that the requirement to “provide for the common defense” of the nation is enshrined in the Constitution that Tea Partiers revere.

Nevertheless, Rand Paul will be far more of a force in the Republican Party in the coming years than his father ever was. That’s a problem for conservatives who hope the GOP remains a bulwark of common sense about national defense and foreign policy. It will also mean that one of the party’s most prominent spokesmen will not be someone who will be viewed as reliably pro-Israel.

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Axelrod: GOP Has Some Soul-Searching to Do

Well, now we know where all those “Republicans are losing the demographics” stories are originating. Here’s David Axelrod speaking on a conference call with the press (via Playbook): 

“I think the Republican Party has some soul searching to do after this election, and all you have to do is look at the nature of our coalition, and the President got 56 percent of the vote among voters who describe themselves as moderates, and they were the largest segment of the electorate. The President got 70 percent of the vote among Latinos. He got 55 percent of the vote among women. And that reflects both his record and also the approach of the Republican Party, which has been to paint itself way out of the mainstream. …

“If I were one of those billionaires who were funding Crossroads and those other organizations, I’d be wanting to talk to someone and asking where my refund [is], because they didn’t get much for their money. … [I]n the final week, over $100 million was spent against us in these battleground states. How much influence did that actually have? … [T]he heartening news is that you can’t buy the White House. … I would think that there’ll be reluctance in the future when Mr. Rove and others come knocking on the door because of what happened on Tuesday.”

Right, Mitt Romney, the moderate Massachusetts governor who instituted the state-level model for Obamacare and almost lost the nomination because he was seen as too liberal has “painted the GOP out of the mainstream.” Just like the pro-amnesty John McCain was accused of “marginalizing” the GOP into the regional white southern party in 2008.

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Well, now we know where all those “Republicans are losing the demographics” stories are originating. Here’s David Axelrod speaking on a conference call with the press (via Playbook): 

“I think the Republican Party has some soul searching to do after this election, and all you have to do is look at the nature of our coalition, and the President got 56 percent of the vote among voters who describe themselves as moderates, and they were the largest segment of the electorate. The President got 70 percent of the vote among Latinos. He got 55 percent of the vote among women. And that reflects both his record and also the approach of the Republican Party, which has been to paint itself way out of the mainstream. …

“If I were one of those billionaires who were funding Crossroads and those other organizations, I’d be wanting to talk to someone and asking where my refund [is], because they didn’t get much for their money. … [I]n the final week, over $100 million was spent against us in these battleground states. How much influence did that actually have? … [T]he heartening news is that you can’t buy the White House. … I would think that there’ll be reluctance in the future when Mr. Rove and others come knocking on the door because of what happened on Tuesday.”

Right, Mitt Romney, the moderate Massachusetts governor who instituted the state-level model for Obamacare and almost lost the nomination because he was seen as too liberal has “painted the GOP out of the mainstream.” Just like the pro-amnesty John McCain was accused of “marginalizing” the GOP into the regional white southern party in 2008.

There is no crisis for the Republican Party, at least not the type Axelrod talks about. Most of the swing states have Republican governors: Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania. The coalition Axelrod boasts about was cobbled together through a mix of mudslinging, fearmongering, cynical election-year handouts, and a powerful get-out-the-vote operation that dragged every last Democrat to the polls. Other than the last part, that’s nothing to be proud of.

Charles Krauthammer pushed back on the demographic doomsayer nonsense this morning:

Ignore the trimmers. There’s no need for radical change. The other party thinks it owns the demographic future — counter that in one stroke by fixing the Latino problem. Do not, however, abandon the party’s philosophical anchor. In a world where European social democracy is imploding before our eyes, the party of smaller, more modernized government owns the ideological future. …

The answer to Romney’s failure is not retreat, not aping the Democrats’ patchwork pandering. It is to make the case for restrained, rationalized and reformed government in stark contradistinction to Obama’s increasingly unsustainable big-spending, big-government paternalism.

Republicans: No whimpering. No whining. No reinvention when none is needed. Do conservatism but do it better. There’s a whole generation of leaders ready to do just that.

Krauthammer calls Romney a transitional figure, which is a great point. The party that was left rudderless after John McCain’s defeat in 2008 has come to embrace an optimistic and reformist vision for conservatism. The younger bench of Republicans who embody that vision will be ready to run in 2016. Romney, as a technocratic political moderate, was not the right spokesperson for such an ideological message. But by choosing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney ensured that Ryan’s brand of reform conservatism would be the party’s future. What is the Democratic Party’s message, other than Barack Obama?

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Returning from the Political Arena

It’s a pleasure to return to COMMENTARY after having served as a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. At a later date I’ll dilate on the outcome of the election. For now I simply want to say that I ended the campaign with an even higher regard for Governor Romney than I began it. He is a man of great personal decency and integrity. He single-handedly revived his campaign on the largest stage in American politics (the October 3 debate); and he became stronger over the course of the election.

Tuesday’s loss was a body blow for those associated with the campaign. Few of us saw this defeat coming, which makes the defeat all the more jarring.

Most Americans are simply relieved the campaign is over. They believe it went on for far too long, that it was much too expensive, and that it was characterized by personal attacks and petty discussions. Everyone, it seems, is sick of politics.

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It’s a pleasure to return to COMMENTARY after having served as a senior advisor in the Romney campaign. At a later date I’ll dilate on the outcome of the election. For now I simply want to say that I ended the campaign with an even higher regard for Governor Romney than I began it. He is a man of great personal decency and integrity. He single-handedly revived his campaign on the largest stage in American politics (the October 3 debate); and he became stronger over the course of the election.

Tuesday’s loss was a body blow for those associated with the campaign. Few of us saw this defeat coming, which makes the defeat all the more jarring.

Most Americans are simply relieved the campaign is over. They believe it went on for far too long, that it was much too expensive, and that it was characterized by personal attacks and petty discussions. Everyone, it seems, is sick of politics.

Post-election lamentations aren’t unusual, and they aren’t without merit. But let me offer several other observations, the first of which is that we tend to be hyper-critical about the present while idealizing the past. That’s a mistake. Consider the first real political campaign in American history, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1800. It’s regarded by scholars as among the nastiest campaigns ever. One pro-Adams newspaper predicted that if Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”

According to the New York Sun, the 1872 election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley deteriorated into “a shower of mud.” So have many others. During the 1980 campaign, for example, the liberal New Republic declared, “President Carter has made a grave moral error in trying to portray Ronald Reagan as a racist.” The editorial page of the Washington Post chimed in, saying, “Mr. Carter has abandoned all dignity in his round-the-clock attack on Mr. Reagan’s character.”

My point isn’t to hold up these incidents as a model for political discourse; it’s that slashing attacks are often a part of politics. Even the Lincoln-Douglas election consisted of more than the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So some perspective is in order.

Point number two: It doesn’t help matters that many who comprise the political media tend to ignore intellectually serious discussions. Rather than discussing, say, the pros and cons of a premium support system or grappling with how to increase social mobility, they prefer to obsess on the horserace aspect of the campaign, gaffes, Twitter feeds and political intrigue. Many in the press are drawn to the sensational and trivial. Increasingly they themselves are contributing to it. Yet with the campaign now over, prepare for countless journalists to travel to the Shorenstein Center and appear on Charlie Rose to complain about the superficiality of campaigns.

A final point: Campaigns are never pristine and politics is an imperfect profession. But as flawed as they are, they have helped create an extraordinary nation and produced great leaders. Politics is a means through which we deal with matters of enormous importance, from policies on taxes and health care to the nature of justice and the relationship between the citizen and the state. Which is why it has always attracted, and still attracts, good people.

Shortly after Mitt Romney conceded on Tuesday night, a writer for whom I have great respect sent me a note. “Nights like this I realize how much easier it is to be in the peanut gallery rather than in the arena,” he wrote. “Easier but less satisfying.”

As for me, I rather like the peanut gallery. But I deeply admire the individuals I have worked with and for who have entered the arena. It isn’t an easy life. But it is a satisfying one. 

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Welcoming Immigrants Begins With How You Talk About Them

The post-election soul searching from Republicans has made one thing clear: there is a sea change in the conservative attitude toward immigration. Conservatives were always split on this issue (support for immigrants and immigration reform is certainly nothing new here in the pages of COMMENTARY), but there has been vocal and influential grassroots opposition to immigration reform. So it is most welcome that after a historic drubbing by the growing Hispanic vote, Republicans have “evolved,” to use the president’s term.

Immigration reform and taking a more welcoming attitude toward immigrants makes sense on every level–economically, morally, culturally, etc. But at the risk of being accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I think something needs to be said about the way this argument is taking shape, with particular emphasis on the newfound expression of support for Hispanic immigration on the right. As I said, there are many logical reasons to welcome immigrants and to support immigration reform. But conservatives who have previously opposed it and are now admitting that cynical electoral considerations are driving their evolution are making an understandable, but still devastating, mistake.

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The post-election soul searching from Republicans has made one thing clear: there is a sea change in the conservative attitude toward immigration. Conservatives were always split on this issue (support for immigrants and immigration reform is certainly nothing new here in the pages of COMMENTARY), but there has been vocal and influential grassroots opposition to immigration reform. So it is most welcome that after a historic drubbing by the growing Hispanic vote, Republicans have “evolved,” to use the president’s term.

Immigration reform and taking a more welcoming attitude toward immigrants makes sense on every level–economically, morally, culturally, etc. But at the risk of being accused of looking a gift horse in the mouth, I think something needs to be said about the way this argument is taking shape, with particular emphasis on the newfound expression of support for Hispanic immigration on the right. As I said, there are many logical reasons to welcome immigrants and to support immigration reform. But conservatives who have previously opposed it and are now admitting that cynical electoral considerations are driving their evolution are making an understandable, but still devastating, mistake.

The way that conservatives talk about immigration reform must be reformed as well. They must understand that there is now a cultural suspicion of the right on the part of a large segment of the immigrant population, especially Latinos, and for good reason. Immigrants are well aware of the debate over immigration here. And they remember–and will for some time–that when they arrived here with nothing but the clothes on their back, desperate for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children, one party said “come on in” and the other said “turn around and go back.”

Simply supporting immigration reform is not going to do away with this, especially if people describe Latino immigrants as some kind of demographic setback they must alleviate in order to win elections. That’s dehumanizing too. Immigration to the United States creates jobs, and many immigrants–more if the DREAM Act were to pass–are willing to first join the army and risk their lives in defense of this country in order to “earn” citizenship.

Additionally, there is of course the moral problem of punishing children whose parents moved here or of breaking up families. But there is another element to this. The United States doesn’t have nearly the problem with black-market goods that other, more highly regulated countries have, because our government meddles less (though still too much) and therefore does less to distort markets than other, nominally market economies. (Think Europe today, or Yeltsin’s Russia.)

Yet we have one major black market: labor. The free market tells us that we need a certain amount of labor at certain prices. Our current employment and immigration laws preclude this. But you can’t stop the market so easily in a globalized world. So we developed something of a black market in labor, which means a black market in laborers. So in addition to the other challenges faced by new immigrants, there is often a cloud of suspicion and illegality that hangs over their heads. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have laws and enforce them. But it’s important to understand the psychological toll this can take.

It is therefore imperative that a bit of compassion accompanies the cold hard intellectual logic of the right’s transformation on immigration. Cynicism and tokenism will not be much less offensive to immigrants than what came before.

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Romney’s Get Out the Vote Fiasco

The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

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The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

The idea behind Project ORCA was simple, albeit far too complex in execution. Romney’s Boston headquarters wanted a way to track who had been to the polls in swing states, and who had not. It was the most complicated GOTV (get out the vote) effort in GOP history. Volunteers in swing states would be assigned polling places. They would be given lists of every registered voter assigned to that polling location. Those voters would be reported on to Boston via a web application when they arrived to vote, and if that failed, via phone or, as a last resort, voice. Volunteers were to log in to the application, use their assigned pin number and password, and begin reporting on voters who had come through their polling place by ID number. A source familiar with the campaign told me that Boston would initiate calls and visits to those who had not yet gotten to the polls.

The story of how monumental a failure Project ORCA was on Election Day was first reported by a volunteer, John Ekdahl, on the Ace of Spades blog. After tweeting the article, I was contacted by several other volunteers who were eager to explain in greater detail just how many things went wrong with Project Orca on Tuesday.

I spoke with one volunteer in a rural Virginia county who had a similar experience to the blogger on Ace’s site. Shoshanna McCrimmon signed up to volunteer on Romney’s website several months ago. She was contacted by Dan Centinello of the Romney campaign and underwent online and phone training that lasted for several hours in order to volunteer locally on Election Day. Because of secrecy concerns, the application itself was inaccessible until the morning of the election. From the outset there were failures of organization.

Shoshanna wasn’t given the credentials necessary to gain access to the polling place and was told to arrive when the polls opened at 7. A few days before the election, she was emailed a PDF packet, which she was meant to print out, containing the names of all of the registered voters at her polling place and instructions. Her location’s packet was only dozen or so pages; Ekdahl’s packet was over sixty. The packet was supposed to contain credentials, but they did not. Shoshana’s email to the Romney campaign the night before the election about the lack of credentials went unanswered. When Shoshanna arrived on time at 7 a.m., she learned that polls had actually opened an hour prior.

Unable to test her pin number and password until that morning, she discovered, only after after she arrived at the polling location ready to work, that her pin was invalid. She spent until 2:30 that afternoon on calls to Boston every 45 minutes trying to get a new one. She attempted to input the voter information via phone dial-pad–the first backup plan–but her invalid pin number was useless. Plan C, calling in to Boston and verbally transmitting the information, was also a wash. The same phone number for dial pad and voice reporting was given–there was no option to ask to speak to Boston directly after calling in.

After finally getting her pin number in the late afternoon, Shoshanna attempted to log into the site. She had been sent an email from the Romney campaign that morning (after polls opened) telling her that cell phones were often not allowed in polling places, after she was previously warned not to forget to bring her cell phone in other emails. Thankfully, her polling place allowed her to use her cell phone. The website, on a secure server, was inaccessible from her cell phone (Ekdahl explains why in detail). By this point hundreds of voters had passed through Shoshanna’s polling station, unreported. Nevertheless, she went home, retrieved her laptop, and thanks to the pastor at the polling place (a church) she gained access to a locked wireless network. It was only at that point that Shoshanna was able to access ORCA, with only a few hours left before polls closed.

Shoshanna’s experience was far from unique. Starting in the early afternoon, reports were coming in from across swing states that ORCA had crashed. That morning, when Shoshanna was on the phone with Boston, she was told the system was crashing, unable to withstand thousands of simultaneous log-ins. The system had never been stress tested and couldn’t handle the crush of traffic all at once. Thousands of man-hours went into designing and implementing a program that was useful on one day and one day only, and on that day, it crashed. My source familiar with the campaign described it this way, “It was a giant [mess] because a political operative sold a broken product with no support or backup plan. Just another arrogant piece of the arrogant Romney campaign.”

The operative in question, Dan Centinello, Romney’s Deputy Political Director, was Shoshanna’s only point of contact with the campaign. After a two-and-a-half-hour conference call with volunteers across the country, Shoshanna still had questions about minor details about ORCA and volunteering at her polling place. Her emails were answered within 24 hours, always by Centinello. There appears to have been no delegation on Centinello’s part, and every question sent was answered by the ORCA project manager personally. It’s likely that if this was taking place with the thousands of volunteers in Project ORCA, Centinello was spending hundreds of hours answering basic questions from volunteers that could have been addressed by lower level staffers. This time would have been better spent, I would argue, testing the capabilities of ORCA and its servers and testing the application on small groups of trusted volunteers, especially elderly ones who might have difficulty with its interface (which, on election day, they did). 

One of the most basic tenets of conservatism is a loathing and mistrust of big government and bureaucracy. Project ORCA was the embodiment of big government, top-down management. Information was sent by volunteers in swing states across the country to Boston, and those in Boston were then tasked with assigning other volunteers in those same swing states to contact those who had not yet been to the polls. Boston was, at best, a detour and an unnecessary middleman in the GOTV efforts, and when that link in the chain broke, Romney’s GOTV effort crumbled on the most crucial day of his campaign. One of the most successful components of Karl Rove’s GOTV efforts with George W. Bush’s campaigns was his small-government ideological approach. Each volunteer was tasked with personally getting a handful of voters from their area to the polls, voters that they were already familiar with from their church, their children’s schools and their community. Instead of this strategy, Boston was the hub; information was sent there and GOTV assignments were delegated from thousands of miles away by Romney staffers largely unfamiliar with individuals and communities. At Ace of Spades, Ekdahl described the organizational approach of Project ORCA: “The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters).”

Was ORCA’s failure the reason why Romney lost Virginia by almost 116,000 votes, Ohio by 103,000, Iowa by 88,000 or why Florida is still, days later, too close to call? It’s impossible to know what a Romney campaign with working GOTV technology would have been able to accomplish. Ekdahl explained that with the failure of Project ORCA’s organization and its later meltdown on Election Day “30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. Like driving people to the polls, phone-banking, walking door-to-door, etc.” The possibility that all of the efforts of Romney’s campaign, all of the enthusiasm, went unharnessed and dormant on Election Day when they could’ve at least led to a closer election result, if not a victory, is becoming beyond frustrating for thousands of his staffers, for the millions of Americans who gave their time and money to elect Mitt Romney president as they come to learn just what a disaster ORCA seems to have been.

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Internationalist Foreign Policy Still Dominant in GOP

In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

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In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.

Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.

Mitt Romney presented himself as being squarely in the middle of this foreign policy tradition with his commitment to maintain our current level of defense spending, to stop Iran, get more actively involved in helping rebels in Syria, get tougher on Russia and China, and to defend Israel–the latter a particular bugbear of isolationists and realpolitikers. Few of his primary challengers, save the marginalized Ron Paul, disagreed; if anything, Rick Santorum and other candidates had an even more expansive foreign policy vision. Those among the early frontrunners for the 2016 nomination who have spoken out on foreign policy–in particular Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan–fall squarely into the same tradition.

There is certainly room for disagreement in the Republican party about particular policies or interventions; even those who have the same philosophical grounding will disagree about how to implement it in on occasion. (One recalls that Charles Krauthammer was against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s–an intervention that other “neocons” strongly supported.) But the same is true in the Democratic Party, which is split between those who wanted to intervene in Libya (and now Syria) and those who didn’t. Overall, however, the conservative international foreign policy championed most successfully by Ronald Reagan remains alive, well, and dominant within the GOP.

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