Juliette Kayyem

The GOP’s war identity crisis

By Juliette Kayyem
July 18, 2011

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THE NOISY debate within the Republican party about its vision of the world, and America’s role in it, is exposing a deep ideological divide at its core. A new breed of Republican candidates like Michele Bachmann are heralding a “Come Home, America” foreign policy. The Party’s more established wing, led by the Senator John McCain, who doesn’t exactly urge caution in military engagements from Iraq to Libya, worry that the isolationist ideology “seems to have moved more center stage.’’

How did the party of national security end up so divided on national security? The Republican’s intellectual division, however, has less to do with their own ideology, and more about President Obama’s lack of one. If there is one thing that has united Republicans the last two years it is that they were against whatever Obama was for. So they are cast adrift when they can’t figure out what he wants.

To his supporters, Obama is a deliberative executive who weighs pros and cons based on individual circumstances. It means not everyone will be happy all the time; Libya, for me, is a good case in point. To his detractors, his policy seems more like whack-a-mole. But Obama’s unwillingness to embrace anything close to an “Obama Doctrine’’ has made it more difficult for his opposition to unite against him. The anti-Obama non-doctrine just doesn’t have a catchy ring to it - especially when Republicans railing against his supposed incoherence are at each other’s throats.

Even on their signature issue - terrorism - the Republicans can’t get traction against an administration that killed Osama bin Laden. After all, the White House came out with a new counterterrorism doctrine last month that barely got any mention. The strategy, filled with compliments about Bush tactics of drone warfare and intelligence sharing combined with a lot of criticism of Bush tactics like waterboarding, threw the Republicans off guard. They were essentially silent on the national security issue that has defined them for a decade, reduced to breathless complaining about the administration’s decision to bring one lone Somali terrorist in New York to trial in civilian court.

The Republicans’ search for an identity on foreign policy is all the harder in a world no longer defined by terrorism. There is, after all, nothing new about the isolationism heralded by the Tea Party. It has always been a strong ideological strain for Republicans, from opposition to the League of Nations to involvement in World War II (silenced after Pearl Harbor), to early, and prescient, concerns about the Vietnam War. It is also easier for the GOP to be anti-engagement when a Democrat is in office. But President Bush’s wars submerged the rift between this camp and the neocons.

“The end of the Cold War, with no singular enemy, exposed the ideological debates within the party. 9/11 brought the party together,’’ says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. “But remember, Bush told then-candidate Al Gore that his own presidency would be defined by a humble foreign policy.’’

It wasn’t, and that’s the legacy today’s Republicans are left to ponder. Deciding which pieces of that legacy to keep and which to discard is especially difficult for Republicans when Obama is doing the same thing. Such was the unintended brilliance of Leon Panetta’s shaky first trip abroad as defense secretary. What is a Republican, all of whom voted for Panetta’s confirmation in the Senate, to make of a man who tells the Iraqis to “dammit, make a decision’’ about US troop presence in the future there; who repeats Dick Cheney’s mantra that we were in Iraq because of 9/11; who, despite his boss’ statements, views the primary US mission in Libya as being to “bring down the regime’’? Panetta even eerily reclaimed the mission-accomplished mantra by saying Al Qaeda’s defeat was within reach.

Panetta’s press folks had a lot of backtracking to do. In one foreign trip, Panetta simultaneously channeled all and no ideologies. When asked to explain himself, all he could say was “Hey, I’m Italian, what the frick can I tell you?’’

Could that be the elusive Obama Doctrine that Republicans are hoping to challenge? No Fricking Doctrine does have a ring to it.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.