07/19/2011 10:12 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2011

2012: Slighting Foreign Policy

So far, the campaign by aspirants for the Republican nomination has generated more heat than light as concerns the United States' foreign relations. There are three principal reasons why the torrent of words has conveyed so little about their thinking.

First, they share an aversion to staking out specific positions in the belief that doing so carries the risk of being targeted by critics within and outside the party. Failure on the part of the media to press them makes this strategy politically viable. Second, they steadfastly are following the traditional practice of criticizing the Obama administration for alleged sins of commission or omission in the belief that this approach provides more electoral payoff. Following this aggressive tack, they all are ready to find fault with whatever he does at the tactical level -- even when they agree on the policy in place, e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine. They are especially keen to seek out those opportunities where White House actions lead to seeming failure and/or are unpopular. The most recent example is the attempt to topple Gaddafi by force. Finally, the Republican hopefuls, for the most part, share Obama's worldview. Its essential elements include: the unrelenting 'war on terror,' total support for Israel, taking a tough line with Pakistan, keeping maximum pressure on the Iranian regime without committing to military action, minimizing the strategic consequences of China's rapid rise, and generally to expanding and uninhibitedly using American power and influence. The last means no serious cuts in the defense budget despite the current austerity movement.

The odd man out is Ron Paul, who continues to be a vocal advocate of withdrawal from Afghanistan. His perspective derives from the venerable school of American thought that stresses the Washingtonian admonition to avoid costly entanglements abroad unless imperatively in the national interest. This 'neo-isolationism' has faded but still has enough currency to win Paul a loyal if small following somewhat inflated by growing discontent with our continuing commitments in AfPak.

The wide consensus among members of the American political class on the fundamental ideas that have crystallized about the country's foreign policy during the 9/11 decade has three clear implications. One is that these core matters will not figure on the list of issues that will be front and center in the presidential politicking between now and November 2012. Of course, any embarrassing setback will have all the Republicans baying in full voice. Second, there should be little expectation of any marked reorientation of the United States' dealings abroad were there a change in the occupant of the White House. The pervasive influence of the military/intelligence/media establishment provides further assurance that such will be the case. In addition, the American public remains largely passive when it comes to any form of critical activism on international questions. The striking reality that the structure of the country's strategy overseas remains solidly in place despite a decade of unrelieved and costly failure is the strongest evidence of that. Finally, President Obama is consumed by electoral considerations. He will risk nothing on dangerous initiatives. Foreign policy will be on automatic pilot for the next eighteen months -- some compelling exigency apart. The political survival instinct trumps all -- especially so when beliefs about what American security dictates are so ductile. Conviction will not challenge political caution.