Of Deficit Hawks and War Hawks
When John McCain – the national security president that never was – ran for the highest office in 2008, foreign policy received top billing in the Republican Party’s platform, affirmed by a pledge to “defend the nation, support our heroes, and secure the peace”. It is the sign of not just how much things have changed under Mitt Romney’s stewardship, but out in the country at-large as well, that notes pertaining to American exceptionalism in the world have slipped to the back of the book in the 2012 platform.
Jobs and the economy are much on everyone’s mind, and Osama bin Laden’s corpse having dissolved into the Arabian Sea, the War on Terror and international relations are suddenly of secondary import. Even the party’s foreign policy platform tacks back to matters fiscal, arguing that “the best way to promote peace and prevent costly wars is to ensure that we constantly renew America’s economic strength. A healthy American economy is what underwrites and sustains American power”, it concludes.
Whither Republican foreign policy remains nonetheless an essential and inescapable question. For, since recent polling data shows President Obama up only 1 percentage point over Romney nationwide, and engaged in dead heats in swing states like Ohio, Virginia, and Florida, the matter of what a future Republican administration would do vis-à-vis China, Iran, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the transatlantic relationship becomes even more important.
It is immediately clear that, both as a party of the right and as the minority party in government, the Republican Party wishes to portray itself as far more hawkish than the Obama administration. “The current Administration has responded with weakness to some of the gravest threats to our national security”, including Russia, China, and Iran, and has fought House and Senate Republicans over “$500 billion in cuts through a sequestration in early 2013 that will take a meat axe to all major defence programs”. The Republican Party is, by contrast, “the advocate for a strong national defence as the pathway to peace, economic prosperity, and the protection of those yearning to be free”.
But today’s Republican Party has co-opted by economic libertarians, including the vice-presidential nominee, and this trend is reflected in the platform’s innate problem: that its two theoretical foundations are fundamentally antipodal and stand in direct contradiction with each other. On the one hand, in the name of “economic security and fiscal solvency”, the party pledges “articulate candidly to the American people our priorities for the use of taxpayer dollars to address those threats”. Put another way, the GOP tacitly acknowledges that rooting out the oft-mentioned trio of waste, fraud, and abuse are not enough to streamline the defence budget; cuts in real terms will need to be made to depress the national debt.
At the same time, the GOP remains wholly committed to the Reagan era axiom of peace through strength, and the idea, itself based on the false and downright ludicrous premise that the Berlin Wall was deconstructed on the back of having a bloated Defence Department, that “only our capability to wield overwhelming military power can truly deter the enemies of the United States from threatening our people and our national interests”. Thus the party commits itself to maintaining “military and technical superiority through innovation while upgrading legacy systems including aircraft and armoured vehicles” as well as “state-of-the-art surveillance, enhanced special operations capabilities, and unmanned aerial systems”.
Since it is impossible to do both – in other words, cut superfluous spending while continuing to funnel money into a succession of programmes which have caused the Department’s budget to swell to over $700 billion and 20pc of total spending – these two pledges are akin to an ox and an ass tugging in opposite directions. Their core argument is untenable and their promises incredible, inconsistent, and non-implementable. It is impossible for the GOP to project itself as the party of fiscal responsibility while, for example, arguing against cuts in the size of the nation’s gargantuan and exorbitant nuclear arsenal.
And this is not the only glaring paradox, either. On foreign aid, the Republicans propose to institute a system whereby “foreign governments must compete for the dollars by showing respect for the rule of law, free enterprise, and measurable results”, in order to prevent misuse. In the very next paragraph, they condemn the Obama administration for in effect doing the same very thing, for as they provocatively term it “attempting to impose on foreign countries, especially the peoples of Africa, legalized abortion and the homosexual rights agenda”.
This is not to say that the GOP’s platform is absent of interesting proposals. Republicans are correct to welcome “a stronger relationship with the world’s largest democracy, India, both economic and cultural” and to call on that country to “permit greater foreign investment and trade”. They are right to offer “closer cooperation in both military and economic matters” to African governments willing to deal with threat of creeping Islamism. It is pleasing to note that the party is “heartened by the ongoing reconciliation in Northern Ireland and hopeful that its success might be replicated in Cyprus”. Intriguing, too, is the proposal to expand organs of soft power like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio/TV Marti to the Middle East, recognising the indispensability of access to “free and impartial information in lands where freedom is unknown or endangered”.
These are however merely points of light in an otherwise tortured manifesto which attempts to be all things to all Republicans because the party appears unable to make a necessary choice. If the GOP is to be a credible institution of small government conservatism and libertarianism, then it will be necessary for it to advocate defence cuts in some form to shrink the size of the Department and trim the federal deficit. But their present policy agenda seems intent on maintaining current levels of expenditure across the board, even arguing against some of the curbs the Obama administration has placed on defence payments, namely $487 billion over the next decade.
“In an American century, America will have the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world”, the preamble concludes. Neither the party nor the country has to choose, and to say otherwise is to set up a false antithesis. After all, the United States’ strongest competitor in this century, China, spends an estimated $143 billion on its armed forces each year, and Russia $72 billion, both some way behind the United States.
But if the country is agreed that something must be done to set the government on a course towards a balanced budget, then something somewhere has to give. The solution, then, is that most egregious of words in contemporary Washington: compromise.