The Republican Party is unlikely to find middle ground or bipartisan consensus among competing foreign policy positions and must decide on a stance before the next presidential election, one foreign affairs expert said Wednesday.
Colin Dueck, professor of government and politics at George Mason University’s Department of Public and International Affairs, argued at the Heritage Foundation that the emerging strain of neo-isolationism or anti-interventionism in the GOP—advocated by party members such as Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.)—represents a stark contrast with more traditional conservative foreign policy views of a robust global role for American power and influence.
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Political parties historically have lacked policy consensus when they are out of power, Dueck said, noting that the president is the final arbiter of a party’s foreign policy. Yet the distance between the "two doors" facing the GOP is "significant" when it comes to foreign policy, he said.
"Republicans are going to have to make a choice going into 2016—’What do we stand for in foreign policy?’" he said.
Dueck said Republicans would find it difficult to align with either liberal proponents of humanitarian intervention or anti-war progressives—groups that have remained supportive of President Barack Obama despite foreign policy disagreements but could retreat to their ideological corners if the Democrats do not retain the White House in 2016.
Instead, the GOP factions could consolidate around a coherent set of foreign policy ideals that include preserving American military superiority, open sea lanes for international trade, and robust support for allies and deterrence of adversaries.
"You don’t have to be a neoconservative to believe these things," Dueck said.
Many of these goals will be increasingly unmanageable if the Department of Defense’s budget continues to shrink, Dueck added. Pentagon officials and defense budget experts have expressed alarm at the potential effects of nearly $1 trillion in cuts stemming from the 2011 Budget Control Act and sequestration, which could undermine military readiness and modernization without addressing bureaucratic and compensation reforms.
Proposed cuts to the Navy also threaten the Obama administration’s planned "pivot" or "rebalancing" to the Asia-Pacific region and could fail to send a "convincing" message to both U.S. allies and aggressors in the region, Dueck said.
"The president’s own cabinet says that this is completely unsustainable, yet nobody’s doing anything about it," he said. "We’re just stumbling along."
Dueck criticized Obama’s approach to countries like Libya, where the United States assisted the downfall of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi with air strikes but was reluctant to further aid a country that reports suggest has become a "breeding ground" for al Qaeda terrorists.
"In Libya, the light footprint was so light that the Obama administration didn’t make the diplomatic engagements to ensure Libya didn’t become a failed state," he said.
A similar scenario could play out in civil-war torn Syria as the president again considers limited strikes in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he added.
Conversely, Republicans could offer a more viable foreign policy vision that would incorporate lessons learned from problematic engagements like the Iraq War but preserve the "benign" global leadership of the United States that has generally guaranteed a "safe, free, and prosperous" world in the last 70 years.
"I don’t want to see that erode either by choice or by accident," he said. "I would want to maintain that."