When George W. Bush left office in 2009, liberal Democrats and a fair number of moderate, traditional Republicans proclaimed the good news: the GOP neo-cons were dead, chased from Washington in disgrace.
But as Republican presidential hopefuls begin to develop foreign policy platforms, a clear and surprising pattern has emerged: they’re back, and so far winning the fight for the direction of the party.
In spite of the tarnished reputation of the neo-cons and the movement by many in the tea party wing of the party towards a more isolationist foreign policy that is open to real cuts in defense spending, all but one of the leading 2012 candidates – in early speeches and campaign books – appear to be toeing a hawkish, interventionist line and promising increased spending on the Pentagon.
When Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour broke with that consensus abruptly Tuesday night in Iowa, he set himself apart from the field and put himself in position to fill a potentially significant opening in the 2012 GOP debate. Former Governors Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, have only differed largely in their attempts to outdo one another in commitment to what Bush called the “freedom agenda.”
“They’re all basically mainstream in their agreement about the [Obama] administration being too friendly toward enemies and too harsh toward allies,” said Randy Scheunemann, who was John McCain’s top foreign policy hand in 2008 and has worked for Sarah Palin and informally advised other contenders.
The apparent unanimity reflects the settlement of a long dispute inside the Republican Party, as many in the aging band of “realist” statesmen defected to support Obama in 2008.
“Once upon a time, there was a debate within the party between realists of the Brent Scowcroft variety and the neo-cons,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former adviser to Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. “It seems like realists have lost that debate.”
“The party is reasonably united,” Abrams told Politico. “There is a consensus about the need for American leadership of the world.”
Practically speaking, the change inside the party has meant that none of the several Republicans moving seriously toward presidential runs joined former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton in calling for Obama to stand with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (though Bolton, on many other policy issues, is a neo-con of the first order). They have been, when asked, bullish on the notion of a no-fly zone over Libya, and competitive in their devotion to Israeli security.
The GOP response to the unfolding situation in Libya is particularly illustrative.
Pawlenty recently blasted President Barack Obama for an “incoherent” response and said he supported a no-fly zone.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum echoed that sentiment, calling for air strikes and telling a Des Moines radio host that Reagan bombed Libya. “If you want to be Reagan-esque, it seems the path is pretty clear,” said Santorum.
Romney was more cautious, but echoed the theme that Obama has failed to show leadership.
“The president and his team look like deer in the headlights. Instead of leading the world, the president has been tiptoeing behind the Europeans,” Romney said in New Hampshire stop earlier this month.
Gingrich, Palin, and Mike Huckabee also joined the chorus for imposing a no-fly zone on the troubled North African country, and took aim at the Obama administration’s handling of the situation.
Barbour alone, in his comments Tuesday night, broke with that consensus.
“I don’t think it’s our mission to make Libya look like Luxembourg,” he told reporters in Davenport, warning of “nation-building.”
2012 GOP Field: Are the Neocons Back?
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