Rumsfeld’s Revenge

Return of the GOP’s Tough Guy Brigade

Obama’s lack of a foreign policy strategy is bad for the world—and maybe worse for America, as it gives the hawks new power and leverage.

Isaac Brekken/AP

Bad news: President Obama’s foreign policy is putting America at risk.

Wait! Don’t stop reading. I’m not about to tell you that the likes of John Bolton are correct. There’s a conversation to be had about whether the White House has raised or lowered the national threat level, but that conversation has been going on for years, and it can take care of itself.

We need to talk in a different way about how Obama has endangered America. In a nutshell, his negligence on international affairs has opened the door for a dangerous kind of Republican at a dangerous time for the Republican Party. That’s not just bad news for the GOP. It’s bad news for everyone.

It all started years ago. Although the Obama administration has now begun treating Russia and ISIS with the seriousness they deserve, its scramble to lurch into action comes from a broader failure that’s long been apparent to analysts.

Simply put, President Obama lacks a grand strategy. It was easy for the media to pounce when he admitted to lacking a comprehensive strategy for tackling ISIS. But that was just one slice of the geopolitical pie. Obama’s string of modest successes and modest failures hasn’t added up to anything coherent, because it was never meant to. That kind of approach is sustainable for a couple years. Sometimes, it’s even preferable. Better no strategy than a bad one—at least for a quick stretch.

Now, however, Obama is suffering from what we might call Rumsfeld’s Revenge. Infamously, W.’s defense secretary quipped that you go to war with the army you have—meaning an inadequate one. That was galling for those who described the invasion of Iraq as a conflict of choice, not necessity. Now, with military imperatives splayed out across the former Soviet and Ottoman empires, Obama faces the prospect of going to war with the (thoroughly inadequate) grand strategy he has.

A lot of ink will continue to be spilled about the first-order problems surrounding that fact. Less has been said of the domestic political dynamic it’s also about to cause. As a group, Republicans have cheerfully despaired over Obama’s foreign policy foibles. After having the issue taken away from them in 2012, their schadenfreude has been epic.

It’s important to remember, however, that it wasn’t just the GOP that lost in 2012. The real losers were moderate-to-liberal Republicans who favored Wall Street and big business. In part, the Tea Party’s populist agenda was to blame. But Obama himself did the real damage Obama seized the mantle of foreign policy leadership by killing Osama bin Laden and bringing the troops home—two big goals of mainstream voters. That prevented the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party from racking up votes with their appeal to “toughness,” “bold leadership,” and all the other catchphrases of a hawkish foreign policy. Without this traditional electoral wedge, the electoral edge was lost by Republicans who are hawks on international issues but squishes on domestic ones like the size and scope of government..

The reverberations from that quick political sea change have been so strong that they helped take down ex-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the most powerful and influential of the pro-Israel hawks in the House. Once, that uncompromising stand would have kept him in office no matter how corporatist or out of touch he became. This year, against a Tea Party challenger, it was useless.

Just as swiftly as the power of the Rinohawks ebbed, however, it’s about to flow back with a roar. The hot new Republican voice of authority on national security strategy is now Mitt Romney. Buoyed by hawks’ claims that he was a foreign policy Nostradamus during the ’12 campaign, Romney took to The Washington Post with a (for him) thunderous op-ed on “the need for a mighty U.S. military.”

Romney is coy at best about 2016, although his old running mate, Paul Ryan, wants him to run. But Romney’s fellow Rinohawks aren’t nearly so shy. Despite his utter lack of geo-strategic expertise, Chris Christie, for instance, is strapping on the foreign policy swagger with characteristic brio. He knows how the game is played: When an alleged RINO is down, he always tries to hitch a ride aloft on hawks’ wings.

That makes these gleeful times for John McCain, who recently tweeted in triumph about how “gratifying” it is “to see all these doves turn into hawks.” Yes, even Rand Paul supports a military solution to the ISIS problem.

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Paul’s position is an indication of just how much time Obama frittered away when he should have been crafting America’s global game plan. McCain, of course, would like to believe it’s actually an indication of how right he is about the virtues of hair-trigger military adventurism. The domestic political problem created by Obama’s negligence on grand strategy is that the McCains and Romneys of the GOP now have an unheard-of second chance to retake control of the Republican platform on war and security.

Since the Civil War, big business Republicans have secured power by portraying themselves as the champions of American might and human freedom. It’s hard to do that for very long without actually occasionally delivering on those brand promises. But the double failures in Afghanistan and Iraq caused most Americans to lose faith in the Rinohawks.

That’s a sign of how spectacular those failures really were. But the Rinohawks’ return to the brink of power is an equally potent sign of how spectacular Barack Obama’s strategic failure has been. America actually does need a more robust, vigorous, and coherent approach to its role in the world—and that’s the perfect opportunity for Republicans who still hold unpopular and un-populist views about the cozy relationship between big business and big government.