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GOP in Search of Identity on Foreign Policy

GOP in Search of Identity on Foreign Policy

By Scott Conroy - December 12, 2012

In the aftermath of the GOP’s electoral defeats last month, the Republican ranks have been roiled by debate over how to expand their appeal to a changing electorate -- a questioning of party orthodoxy that has included immigration reform and other key issues.

But foreign policy apparently has been absent from this internal review, even as the GOP has seen an expanding rift between internationalists who support a growing military budget and strong projection of American power and noninterventionists who argue for scaling back the nation’s footprint on foreign soil.

Though foreign policy is rarely a decisive issue in presidential elections, the 2012 campaign did see a reversal of the traditional dynamic between the two nominees. For most of the past half-century, Republican candidates have put their Democratic counterparts on the defensive regarding international and military affairs, but Mitt Romney was never able to do so on an issue that polls showed was one of President Obama’s greatest strengths.

Romney did seek to portray Obama as weak-willed in confronting the nation’s adversaries and resigned to a future of declining U.S. influence, but the Republican was often criticized for an inability to clearly distinguish his own view of America’s role in the world and how he would respond differently to its foes.

As a one-term governor with minimal foreign policy experience, Romney faced an obvious handicap in this regard against a commander-in-chief who had ordered the risky mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

But as young Republican leaders begin positioning themselves for possible runs in 2016, there is already concern with the party’s ranks about their lack of foreign policy expertise.

Still, plenty of White House hopefuls with scant resumes in that regard -- Obama included -- have gone on to win the presidency, and conservative foreign policy experts are nearly unanimous in their emphasis on vision over experience.

“It comes up every cycle where there’s a great beating of the breast and everyone laments that we don’t have a deep bench on foreign policy,” said Daniel Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The American Enterprise Institute. “The truth is that what matters much more in choosing a leader is that that person embraces a clear set of principles. And if they have a clear set of principles and a vision to go along with it, I’m not worried that they don’t know what the capital of Burkina Faso is. If they have no vision, no amount of knowledge is going to make up for it.”

Of the 2016 GOP prospects, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among the most vocal in advocating a robust flexing of American muscle -- which has long been the dominant strain of thought within the GOP but one that has faced stiffening resistance from small-government proponents in the Tea Party era.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution last spring, for instance, Rubio lamented the pushback he received from within the party after calling for a tougher approach to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and criticizing the isolationist streak that has curried favor among a slice of the conservative electorate in recent years.

“A robust foreign policy was a hallmark of both Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan,” the National Journal reported Rubio as saying. In reference to the recent ideological shift, he added, “Today in the Senate on foreign policy, the further you move to the right, the likelier you are to wind up on the left.”

Thus, any discussion of foreign policy has been far from the forefront of the GOP’s post-election efforts to both reestablish its core principles and rebrand itself heading toward the next election.

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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