How the GOP lost its clear voice on foreign policy

Senator Lindsey Graham (RS.C.) discusses the Biden administration’s policies in Afghanistan, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2021 (Amr Alfiky / The New York Times)

For decades, Senator Lindsey Graham traveled the world with his friend John McCain, visiting war zones and meeting foreign allies and adversaries, before returning home to promote the Republican gospel of internationalist foreign policy and warmonger.

But this week, after President Joe Biden announced that troops would leave Afghanistan no later than September 11, Graham stepped onto the podium in the Senate press gallery and hinted that spreading the party’s message had become a little lonely.

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“I miss John McCain a lot, but probably no more than I do today,” Graham said. “If John was with us, I would speak second.

McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, embodied in many ways a distinct Republican worldview: a commitment to internationalism – and much-needed confrontation – that arose out of the Cold War and lasted under Ronald Reagan’s presidencies. and George HW Bush before moving after the September 11 attacks to explain the threat of global terrorism.

Then came Donald Trump, who campaigned on the Make America First Promise, an isolationist mantra that resonated with a nation tired of endless wars. Now out of power in Washington, Republicans have split into disparate factions, with few numbers to take the lead.

In the Senate, lawmakers who have made a name for themselves as leaders in foreign policy – like McCain and Senators Richard Lugar and John Warner – are long gone. Trump defenestrated much of the party’s political establishment by alienating dozens of foreign policy experts who refused to support his campaign, let alone enter his administration.

And for ambitious Republican officials, the political calculation remains blunt: As Republican voters care at all about foreign policy issues, many have come to embrace Trump’s nationalist views on issues such as trade, military companies abroad and even Russia.

“Boy, I’m having a hard time,” said Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator, when asked to appoint a GOP foreign policy expert to the Senate. “The emphasis on foreign policy has probably not been the same with Senators. But I can’t think of a Dick Lugar or a John Warner or any of the guys I’ve served with.

Graham, who failed the presidency and has always been eclipsed by McCain as the Republican voice on foreign policy, spoke for more than half an hour at a press conference on Wednesday, showing listeners the history of the Afghan conflict.

“That’s what they are able to do when we ignore the enemy threat,” he said, pointing to a large photo of a world trade tower on fire. “The likelihood of this and that happening again is skyrocketing after President Biden’s decision today.”

Other prominent Republicans, some of whom have condemned Trump’s pledge to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by May 1, also insisted on the traditional Republican view of using American power to protect the interests of the nation.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, warned that withdrawing troops would be a “big mistake.”

“Apparently we have to help our adversaries celebrate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by wrapping the country and returning it straight to them,” he said in a Senate speech.

But this point of view was far from uniform. Senator Rand Paul, a longtime opponent of foreign intervention, said he was “grateful” to Biden. “Enough endless wars,” he tweeted. Senator Ted Cruz told CNN he was “happy the troops are going home.”

And Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Who has ambitions to develop a new political framework for the party, hailed the move.

“President Biden is expected to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan by May 1, as the Trump administration planned, but better late than never,” he said. “It is time for this war forever to end.”

The dispute is hardly new or contained in the GOP. Many Democrats have come to believe that foreign policy should serve domestic economic and political goals much more than in the past. But Senator Jack Reed, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan could pose a significant threat to national security.

For Republicans, the inward turn comes as their long dominance over national security issues and international affairs wanes. Trump rejected Republican foreign policy orthodoxy, but largely struggled to articulate a cohesive view opposed beyond a vague notion of putting America first. He embraced strong men, called his longtime allies free riders, and favored a transactional approach, rejecting any notion of the kind of values-driven foreign policy that had defined the party for decades.

The party’s foreign policy establishment found itself exiled from the Trump administration and fought for its relevance against an isolationist insurgency base.

“To say that there is only one Republican foreign policy position is to miss what has been going on within the conservative movement on these issues for 20 years,” said Lanhee Chen, researcher at the Hoover Institution and political advisor to a number of prominent Republican officials. . “The characters change, the terminology changes, but the differences persist.”

Yet this old debate carries a new political resonance for the party as it faces the political need to develop a platform that goes beyond mere opposition to anything the Democratic administration puts in place.

“Anytime you don’t have the White House and you don’t have control of Congress, it’s time to look inside and figure out what the prevailing opinion is,” Chen said.

With the Republican base more focused on issues such as relaunching the elections and the so-called cancellation culture, there has been little discussion of the broader agenda the party should pursue. But some experts see an opportunity for Republicans to articulate a new conservative perspective on national security issues.

Foreign policy, particularly the withdrawal from Afghanistan, was one of the few areas where elected Republican officials were prepared to publicly criticize Trump. Now that he has stepped down, foreign policy pundits who have condemned Trump throughout his administration and endorsed Biden by the dozen hope the party consensus will revert to traditional Republican values ​​of free trade, more open immigration. and re-adoption of international alliances.

“Restoration seems to be the right word, both in the long-term nature of it and in correcting what has long been identified as conservative policies,” said Kori Schake, who heads policy studies. foreign and military to the conservative American Enterprise. Institute and served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

Still, the chances that Republicans will achieve a complete restoration of the traditional party platform seem slim, especially if Trump continues to flex his political power within his base. The former president has captured the hearts and minds of his supporters, changing his mind on issues of globalization. During his administration, polls showed Republican voters took a more positive view of Russia and became more skeptical of trade deals and international alliances.

A survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last year found that Republican voters preferred a more nationalistic approach, valuing economic self-sufficiency and taking a one-sided approach to diplomacy and global engagement.

When asked about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, 58% of Republicans polled said the outbreak showed the United States should be less dependent on other countries, compared to just 18% of Democrats who said the same. Nearly half of Republicans agreed that “the United States is rich and powerful enough to go it alone, without getting involved in the problems of the rest of the world,” and two-thirds said they prefer the country to produce its own. goods. oppose buying or selling abroad.

Another survey by Tony Fabrizio, one of Trump’s pollsters, found that only 7% of Republicans prioritize issues of national security and foreign policy, compared to nearly a quarter who care about economics.

“We don’t want to get involved in nation building; we don’t want to engage in endless police action, ”said John McLaughlin, who also conducted polls for Trump. “President Trump was ahead of the curve when he said we need to have American policy first, and that’s where public opinion is within the party.”

Much of that debate could take place in the early stages of the 2024 presidential race, as Republican candidates attempt to hone their foreign policy credentials. Already, some are presenting themselves as heirs to Trump’s legacy, with Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, widely expected to weigh the presidential offers.

Pompeo, who recently became co-chair of a new foreign policy group at the Nixon Foundation that aims to reaffirm “conservative realism,” said he supports Biden’s decision.

“Reducing our footprint in Afghanistan is very appropriate,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News. “This is the right thing.”

The comment received rare praise for a man who is emerging as Biden’s most outspoken critic among former senior Trump officials.

Of course, as Fox News hosts pointed out, had Trump been re-elected the troops would have returned home next month – with the full support of Pompeo, if not many other Republican leaders.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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