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Ilan Goldenberg

Ilan Goldenberg

Posted: October 20, 2008 05:47 PM

The Powell Endorsement and the End of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment


Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama is an important moment in the Presidential campaign.  Powell, a former National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State is one of the most trusted public figures in the United States.  And he is a Republican.  His endorsement acts as a seal of approval for moderate Republicans and independents from one of the most trusted figures in the country. 

But years from now when we look back at this moment there may be an even bigger story.  It is the story of the end of the Republican foreign policy establishment as we know it.  The final break between traditional pragmatic foreign policy conservatives and Neocons.  And it will likely be said that it was Colin Powell who struck the final blow that killed the alliance.

The pragmatists long dominated Republican foreign policy circles.  Their elder statesmen include notables such Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, George Schultz, James Baker, Bob Gates and of course Colin Powell.  They view the national interest through a relatively narrow lens, preferring to stay away from grandiose notions of American power and the romantic notions of spreading freedom and democracy around the world.  They don't completely forsake the idealistic notions of using American power as a force for good, but they do recognize that America's ability to spread democracy is limited

The Neoconservative wing of the Republican foreign policy community on the other hand,  which includes Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams is based on a version of messianic liberalism that believes that American empire and military might can be used to aggressively spread American values around the world. 

For years the two groups tolerated each other. The big break began in 2003 with the decision to go to war with Iraq.  A number of pragmatists began to speak out in opposition to the war, most notably Brent Scowcroft, who was not only George H.W. Bush's national security advisor but one of his best friends.  This evolution continued with James Baker's 2006 Iraq Study Group proposing a slow withdrawal from Iraq and direct engagement with Iran.

But with this election cycle, the break has finally come into the open.   John McCain's foreign policy ranging from the League of Democracies, to his refusal to talk directly to Iran, to his bellicose language reaction towards Russia has shown him to be a neoconservative hawk.  And now, two weeks before the election we have a remarkable situation where the majority of the old wise men of the Republican foreign policy community are either supporting Obama, not taking sides or supporting McCain out of loyalty or friendship while publicly contradicting him on foreign policy.

Consider this list:

  • Colin Powell has endorsed Barack Obama.
  • Richard Lugar, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has endorsed Obama's approach to diplomacy over that of McCain.
  • Brent Scowcroft refuses to endorse either way.  Pretty telling for a former Republican national security advisor, especially since he was opposed to the war in Iraq.
  • James Baker continues to support direct talks with Iran and has for the past two years. (Actually just read the entire five secretaries of state even transcript from CNN.  It's one big endorsement of Obama's foreign policy)
  • Kissinger and Schultz are op-eds in the Washington Post and Financial Times calling for a more moderate approach towards Russia.
  • Kissinger has also called for direct talks with Iran (At the Secretary of State level).
  • Chuck Hagel has traveled to Iraq with Obama and while not publicly endorsing looks to be pretty clearly in favor of Obama.
  • Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is giving speeches that sound a lot more like an Obama foreign policy than a McCain foreign policy.

The dirty little secret is that all of these pragmatic conservatives have more in common with Obama's world view and that of the progressive community as a whole than they do with McCain and Neoconservatism.  Right now most of them are sticking with McCain because of old friendships and loyalties, a desire to stay out of politics, or because they are social and economic conservatives. 

But don't be surprised if Powell's endorsement will encourage more of these pragmatic foreign policy conservatives to come over to the Democrats over the next few years.  At the very least I wouldn't be surprised if most of their proteges are soon working for Democrats.   If this scenario does in fact come to pass, then people will likely look back at the Powell endorsement as the moment the neoconservative/pragmatic conservative alliance came to an end, and the Republican foreign policy community fractured.