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Foreign Policy Takes A Backseat To Domestic Issues In GOP Primary

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BILL KRISTOL
Conservative columnist Bill Kristol | Getty Images

The Republican Party is divided like never before on the issue of U.S. foreign policy, with rifts over foreign engagement, Pentagon budgeting and the efficacy of diplomacy and international institutions. This article is part of a series examining some of the key figures and movements within the GOP foreign policy establishment and the conservative press.

NEW YORK -- Everyone knows where Ron Paul stands.

During CNN's recent debate on foreign policy and national security, moderator Wolf Blitzer could always look to the most isolationist Republican candidate when trying to stir the pot on stage. Blitzer called on Paul when Herman Cain said he'd support a hypothetical Israeli attack on Iran and when Rick Santorum advocated profiling Muslims -- Paul, of course, disagreed with both candidates. And when Newt Gingrich said he wouldn't change the Patriot Act, Blitzer quickly pivoted: "Congressman Paul, I suspect you disagree."

While Paul can be counted on to rail against any and all who meddle with personal liberty and military intervention, several conservative writers say it's tougher finding broad consensus among the Republican presidential field when it comes to defining America's place in the world. So far, candidates have responded to global issues when they've arisen, but have largely shied away from advocating a foreign policy doctrine, like George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," or expressing their views in Foreign Affairs magazine, which published lengthy pieces from eight Democratic and Republican contenders in the run-up to the 2008 election.

For the national press corps, which has focused predominantly on domestic policy disputes and tracking the anti-Romney flavor of the month, spending time pressing would-be commanders-in-chief for an overarching worldview hasn't necessarily been a top priority. But for a seasoned group of conservative foreign policy-focused writers, it's becoming a worrying absence from election coverage.

"I think the major role of foreign policy in the debates has been in separating those candidates who've heard of Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan and those who haven't," said columnist Charles Krauthammer, referring to Cain’s dismissal of what he viewed as 'gotcha' questions about countries around the world.

IDEOLOGY FADES

Krauthammer, one of several prominent conservative writers who spoke to The Huffington Post for its series on foreign policy and the 2012 election, said that primary voters are looking for "competence and general command" of the issues, "rather than a great contest on ideology."

For this reason, Krauthammer likens today's political climate to that of the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then as now, he said, "some kind of clear ideological, foreign policy worldview was more difficult to apply." When it came to intervening in the Balkans, for example, there wasn't a clear left or right ideological divide. Some liberals and conservatives supported intervention, while others -- including Krauthammer -- opposed it. With Libya, more recently, politicians of all stripes argued for intervention; others on both sides of the aisle opposed it.

The current decade, he argues, is different from the previous one. Following the attacks of Sept. 11, Krauthammer said there was a "very distinct ideological debate" about America's role in the world. But that once-heated debate among the punditocracy has died down as the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, draws down forces in Afghanistan, and diminishes al Qaeda's ranks through drone attacks in a post-Osama bin Laden world. Al Qaeda doesn't "dominate our lives, the news, like it did five years ago," Krauthammer said. As a result, he added, the "era of intense ideological debate" over the military response to 9/11 has "sort of played itself out."

It's certainly looked that way over the past few months of the Republican campaign.

In an August New Republic cover story, Eli Lake wrote about how the 2008 Republican field -- again, with the exception of the outlier, Paul -- "didn't deviate much from the hawkish, democracy-promoting, nation-building foreign policy vision of George W. Bush." But following the rise of the Tea Party, a worldwide financial crisis and increasing war fatigue, the current GOP field has offered up a "difficult-to-parse ideological brew of policy disagreements and competing instincts."

Surveying the Republican field, columnist George Will also sees an ideological change from the Bush years. Will contends that the "neoconservative impulse" -- which helped shape the Bush administration's foreign policy and provided intellectual weight to the invasion of Iraq –- looks like "a spent force now."

One prominent neoconservative writer and pundit disagrees.

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, over email, argued that most of the GOP contenders -- with the exception of Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- "sound, if anything, MORE 'neoconservative'" or "more accurately, more neo-Reaganite" than George W. Bush in 2000 or Bob Dole in 1996 and "not noticeably less neo-Reaganite” than Sen. John McCain did last cycle.

Given the variety of foreign policy and national security positions tossed out on the stump and debate stage in recent months, it's difficult to tell who is right. For instance, Republican candidates have suggested attacking Iran to prevent the country from building a nuclear weapon and to spur regime change -- rhetoric one might expect from neoconservative Bush officials in the mid 2000's, not from the nation-building-averse candidate running against Al Gore at the start of last decade.

Meanwhile, some candidates have argued for a complete, or nearly complete, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, while others talk of staying indefinitely and talk of "listening to the generals on the ground." On Libya, candidates have supported intervention -- albeit with quibbles over the Obama administration's handling of it -- argued against intervention, or seemed unable to formulate a position at all (as was the case with Cain's infamous brain freeze before the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board).

But Republican candidates haven't only differed with respect to military might. There's been disagreement on providing aid to Pakistan, supporting a no-fly zone over Syria, building a fence on the Mexico border, and engaging with China. There’s no consensus on the Arab Spring, either.

Conservative writers, even those who've written passionately for years on America’s role in the world, have been left to concede that foreign policy is simply not on this year's election script.

"In 1992, it's the economy, stupid," Krauthammer said, referring to Bill Clinton's successful campaign mantra. "In 2012, it's the economy, you blithering idiot."

DOMESTIC PRESIDENTS, WARTIME LEADERS

Still, that doesn't mean conservative columnists, bloggers and pundits want candidates to avoid major global issues on the trail, since they'll inevitably face them in office.

Jennifer Rubin, who writes frequently about foreign policy and the election on her Washington Post blog, acknowledges that "it's very hard for the media to make candidates talk about a topic they don’t want to talk about," but contends that journalists and debate moderators need to keep trying. Rubin, for one, not only broke down the candidates' stated foreign policy and national security positions about an hour after the CNN debate ended but also pressed Santorum further on Iran and Afghanistan in an interview the following day.

While Rubin acknowledges that campaigns need to focus on jobs and economy, she’s quick to point out that the winner of next November's election will already have a host of foreign policy challenges on his or her plate.

"As we all know," she said, "presidents go in thinking they’re going to be domestic presidents and then become wartime leaders." She noted that Bush ran a domestic policy-focused campaign only to grapple with the 9/11 attacks after just nine months in office.

And yet the United States' longest-ever war, still dragging on in Afghanistan, was barely even mentioned during the first 10 Republican debates.

Will, who has written critically of "today's version of what are inexplicably called debates," says reporters and moderators need to press candidates on the thought processes behind their stated positions.

For instance, Will said that candidates suggesting a military option in Iran should explain why deterrence, which "worked against Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev," shouldn’t be tried first. "The premise, it seems to me, is that containment is not an option," Will said. "I’d like to hear why not." Will said he’d also like to hear a candidate explain why a no-fly zone was the correct response to the Libya situation but not Syria, and he wants a better understanding of the candidates' knowledge of the historical roots of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

It's not that all the candidates have avoided the big foreign policy speech.

Mitt Romney has made Iran a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda and has taken more steps than others to outline a broader agenda, both in a speech at The Citadel and a white paper entitled "The American Century."

"It used to be, when you were running for president, you went through a few months where you gave these worthy speeches at the American Enterprise Institute or some place like that, in which you laid out your version of George. F. Kennan," said New York Times columnist David Brooks.

"I guess they figured nobody cares," Brooks added. "I think that’s kind of wrong."

When The Huffington Post mentioned Romney's efforts, Brooks commended him for putting together a strong team of foreign policy advisers but said he remains unclear where the candidate stands. "I wouldn't say I know what the Romney foreign policy doctrine is," he said.

Kristol, who originally hoped that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels would get in the ring, has conceded that no one running this time around will excite the base like Ronald Reagan. But in a piece arguing that conservatives should stop expecting a repeat of 1980, he also seemed to come to terms with the current field's grasp of international issues, seeing them in a broad trajectory of past Republican nominees. Current frontrunners Romney and Gingrich, Kristol told The Huffington Post, are "fine on foreign policy."

In Sept. 1998, the Weekly Standard published an editorial -- "Foreign Policy and the Republican Future" -- urging Republican candidates to take back the White House by articulating "broad principles of a Reaganite foreign policy" that could be summed up with three M's: military strength, morality and mastery. The magazine hasn't published anything similar this time around, but Kristol insisted that the three M's still hold up 13 years later. The "only candidates really opposed to Reagan-Bush-Dole-Bush-McCain tradition of U.S. strength and leadership are Paul and (to a degree) Hunstman," he concluded.

OCTOBER SURPRISE

Brooks, who was an editor at the Weekly Standard when that editorial his newsstands in the late 1990's, said he expects that "foreign policy, and in particular, the Middle East, will emerge as a much bigger issue than anyone expects right now." For that reason, he argues, its incumbent upon the press to figure out where the field stands.

"I think we in the media have been too kind to people who are running for talk show host and should make some distinctions between those who've actually done the hard work to prepare for the presidency, which I think Romney has," Brooks said.

"You can imagine [Gingrich] having ideas and policies," he continued, "and having thought about this for a long time, and the people who haven't thought about it at all, including Cain or even Perry."

Now that the two foreign policy debates are over, the campaign press can be expected to retreat back to domestic issues, which candidates want to focus on, and the horse race, which reporters love. But Brooks expects that the pendulum will swing back the other way, and that Republican candidates -- or the eventual nominee -- will be forced to take a strong stand on a major global issue.

"Something will definitely happen over the next year," Brooks said. "Then everybody's attention will shift to whatever it is -- Iran or Libya or something. And candidates will have to make snap decisions. And some people will be prepared and some will have done the work. And other people will not be prepared. Events will shape what we pay attention to."

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