11/12/2012 04:28 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Can House Republicans Look Forward on Foreign Policy?

There was passing press notice of a Democratic colleague's defeat last week of Howard Berman, the much-respected Californian who formerly chaired the House foreign affairs committee. But while Democrats on the committee vie for his current slot as ranking minority member, a more consequential struggle is going on behind closed doors on the Republican side for the chairman's post.

Term limits under Republican caucus rules require Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the committee's sharp-tongued chairman from Miami, to step down, and the competition to succeed her pits the most senior member of the committee, Christopher Smith of central New Jersey, against the Republican leadership's presumed favorite, Edward Royce of southern California, who is five notches down the seniority ladder.

Both Royce and Smith are conservative stalwarts, but they embody different tendencies in the Republican caucus. The decision Republicans make between them will be a signal to the nation -- and, given that this is the committee on foreign affairs, to the world -- about how the Republican party wishes to re-position itself after its demoralizing losses to President Obama and Senate Democrats last week.

Full disclosure: I had run against Chris Smith a quarter century ago, obviously unsuccessfully, and I have been critical of his rigid (if, by his lights, principled) adamance on abortion and contraceptive issues and the way it has warped specific issues in American foreign policy.

Yet Smith's ascension to the chairmanship of the foreign affairs committee would telegraph that Republicans in Congress are open to leadership that sometimes strays from lockstep conservative orthodoxy. Most of all, his zeal for promoting human rights would reassure Americans and America's international partners that House Republicans can tolerate a broader perspective on foreign affairs than that of simply imposing American military and economic dominance.

Certainly they had a lesson in the presidential election campaign. Mitt Romney's audacious commitment to large increases in Pentagon spending and his insistence on flagging potential military measures on Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan disconcerted swing voters. It proved such a problem that, too late, he spent the third presidential debate vowing to do exactly what President Obama has been doing on all three.

Royce chairs the subcommittee on terrorism -- the "hard" side of American foreign policy priorities -- and Smith the subcommittee on human rights, arguably the "soft power" or "values" side. Smith has carved out a niche as a Republican advocate for suppression of human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation, and for democracy and religious freedom in the former Soviet bloc and worldwide.

The voting records of both Royce and Smith largely overlap, especially on foreign policy. Both voted to invade Iraq and to fund continuing the deployment of troops there, and both backed divisive legislation Ros-Lehtinen pushed in the current Congress to refuse payment of U.S. assessments to the United Nations.

But there are some suggestive differences as well. Royce, despite having nuclear proliferation within his subcommittee's jurisdiction, voted to support President Bush's nuclear deal with India, which Smith opposed. Smith supported providing $156-million to mitigate debt burdens of heavily indebted low-income countries, which Royce opposed.

And perhaps most tellingly, Smith -- along with a majority of New Jersey Republican congressmen -- supported the landmark 2009 legislation to tackle global warming, a brave vote at the time that looks increasingly prescient after the extreme weather events of 2012. Royce opposed it.

Conservative hard-liners may cite American Conservative Union ratings that show Smith with just a 60 percent lifetime "conservative" voting record compared to Royce's 98 percent record, or National Journal's finding that on selected foreign policy votes Smith voted "conservative" on 44 percent of them while Royce voted "right" on 60 percent.

But in a world where few people seem to identify with hard-line American conservatives' priorities -- manifested in repeated cross-national polling -- it may be useful to Republicans to project a somewhat more forward-looking face at the helm of the foreign affairs committee.

I don't expect Smith would be easy on the Obama administration. But after the highly antagonistic and unproductive relationship of outgoing chairman Ros-Lehtinen -- a Royce supporter -- we might at least anticipate some civility.

So here is one Democrat, and former adversary, who hopes that House Republicans will give their seniormost member of the foreign affairs committee his chance at chairing it.