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Republicans’ Murky National Security (Washington Examiner) February 21, 2020

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

The Republican tent has historically been big enough to hold several varieties of foreign policy conservatives. It was a little easier in the days of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, with anti-communism as the center holding things together, though even isolationists found a home in the party. From the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, however, it has been a struggle to find a foreign policy common denominator for Republicans. George W. Bush test-drove neoconservatism and nation building as his approach, but foreign policy realists were not impressed. The war on terror provided a core national security policy for a while, at least until the era of President Trump.

Even though we think of Republicans as the party of national security, could we actually describe what that means? Trump himself doesn’t seem to be sure. At first, he clearly liked “my generals” and appointed former military leaders to a broad range of roles, including secretary of defense, White House chief of staff, and national security adviser. Since then, like the public, Trump seems to have grown weary of the “endless wars” an aggressive national defense policy has delivered. He said in his 2019 State of the Union address that he was bringing our troops back home. Yet even when he reduced slightly in one place (Syria, for example), he expanded elsewhere (the Middle East) so that there is little change overall.

Meanwhile, the days of a foreign policy “grand strategy,” practiced by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, appear to be over. Perhaps in an era in which threats come from terror groups, rather than nation-states, a grand strategy is no longer realistic. Rather than a Truman Doctrine, we may have to settle for being “the world’s policeman,” responding to dangers on an ad hoc basis as they arise. Yet Trump warned in October 2019 that “the job of our military is not to police the world.” Less than three months later, however, America assassinated a top Iranian general perceived to be an imminent threat. Trump, at least, seems to be fulfilling his campaign proposal that foreign policy should be more unpredictable.

Republicans missed a recent opportunity to lend greater deliberation and consistency to national security when they failed to support legislation to restore to Congress the power to declare war, in this case, against Iran. The Constitution makes the president commander in chief, but it empowers Congress to declare war. By now, however, the exceptions to congressional war declarations have almost swallowed up the principle, and the president is largely able to go to war unilaterally. This places national security policy in the hands of a single person rather than building a consensus of national leaders, leaving the nation vulnerable to a president who wishes to drive toward war, such as Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, or who prefers an unpredictable foreign policy, such as Trump.

One thing is relatively clear: The public is ready to move on from the era of endless wars. Both a recent Eurasia Group Foundation survey and a 2018 poll by the Committee for a Responsible Foreign Policy found that Americans wanted to spend less on defense and engage in fewer military interventions. A Pew Research Study of veterans found that even they thought the invasion of Iraq was not worth fighting. Therefore, it would seem as if the party of national security needs to find a way to pursue its goals at a lesser price.

It seems time for Republicans to engage in a debate over how to pursue national security without endless wars. For starters, we will have to acknowledge that sending in the military is a tactic, not a strategy. Long before we commit troops, we need an understanding of why we would use military force and what victory would look like. Then, too, we need to build a stronger national consensus about when to use force, which means we have to bring Congress off the sidelines and back into the forefront when we declare war.

Perhaps Trump’s failure to reduce our military commitments as promised will become a campaign issue in 2020. More likely, it’s one more important policy can to kick down the road until the post-Trump era.

David Davenport is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the co-author, with Gordon Lloyd, of How Public Policy Became War, published May 7.

To view the column at the Washington Examiner:



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