After the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, you'd think Republicans would be more skeptical of interventionism and the neocons more humbled. Yet the party's major neoconservative institutions, like FPI, AEI and Heritage, have pushed aggressively for US intervention in Libya, Iran and Syria. "How do you get out of this state of interminable war?" asks Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Powell. "My party has not a clue. In fact, they want to deepen it, widen it and go further, on Chinese and Japanese dollars." Wilkerson says he was "astonished by how much the neocons seem to still have influence," and that he was "scared to death" about the prospect that people like McCain and Graham would have sway over foreign policy. I asked Cato's Preble why the neocons haven't lost more clout in GOP circles after the failures of the Bush years. "They've crafted this narrative around the surge, claiming Iraq was, in fact, a success," Preble says. "They've ridden that ever since."
Today there's a striking disconnect between the neocon establishment in Washington and the beliefs of GOP voters. Fifty-two percent of Republicans believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, an all-time high. Seventy-one percent of self-identified conservative voters are worried about the war's costs, and 57 percent agree that "the United States can dramatically lower the number of troops in Afghanistan without putting America at risk." "Where is this grassroots movement for open-ended US interventionism abroad?" asks Preble. "It doesn't exist. In fact, public sentiment is in the opposite direction." Yet only two GOP senators, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, voted in March to support an expedited timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The likes of McCain and Graham, who advocate a longer US commitment there and elsewhere, continue to speak for the party establishment. (Another top Romney foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, who served as Bush's special envoy to Sudan, advised the McCain campaign in 2008.)
With the party base focused on other issues — only 1 percent of Republicans named Afghanistan as their top issue in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll — the neocons have filled the vacuum. "There are more neoconservative think tanks than there are neoconservatives," jokes Preble, whose boss at Cato, Ed Crane, calls them "a head without a body." They have clearly overwhelmed the libertarians and realists. "The neoconservatives, I'll concede, have a very good ground game," says Preble. "They have a network of institutions in Washington that are very effective and vocal. They have a friendly audience in many of the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines. That gives them a significant leg up in terms of making these arguments."
Elder statesmen from the George H.W. Bush administration like Powell and Scowcroft are much closer to Obama than to Romney. "The foreign policy experts who represent old-school, small-c conservatism and internationalism have been pushed out of the party," says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the center-left National Security Network. "Who in the Republican Party still listens to Brent Scowcroft?" Wilkerson says the likes of Powell and Scowcroft are "very worried about their ability to restore moderation and sobriety to the party's foreign and domestic policies." In 2012 Obama is running as Bush 41 and Romney as Bush 43.
Romney would like to make the 2012 election a replay of 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. Romney has attacked Obama's "breathtaking weakness" and called him "America's most feckless president since Carter." Yet so far, Romney hasn't been able to make this argument stick. Obama has been more hawkish than many liberals and conservatives would like to admit, and his main foreign policy triumph — the killing of Osama bin Laden — is easy to communicate. As a result, Obama has a seventeen-point advantage over Romney on foreign affairs and a seven-point advantage on terrorism. The public is also more supportive of Obama's overall foreign policy worldview. A Pew poll last year found that Americans prefer peace through diplomacy over peace through military strength by 58 percent to 31 percent. A similar percentage believes the United States should compromise in order to work with allies rather than go it alone.
Some top Republicans are worried about Romney's belligerent statements. "In foreign affairs the Republican candidates staked out dangerous ground," conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journalafter the primaries unofficially ended. "They are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all non-war ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, non-bellicose contender. Do they want that? Are they under the impression America is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years?" Recent surveys of swing voters in Ohio and Florida by Third Way and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner confirm her fears. "Republicans strike many of these swing voters as too extreme; too aggressive; too quick to take dangerous actions without all the facts; and 'too quick on the trigger,'" they reported.
Romney has already committed a string of foreign policy gaffes on the campaign trail. He was chided by House Speaker John Boehner for criticizing Obama while the president was abroad and widely panned for calling Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe" and demanding that Obama release the transcripts of his conversations with foreign leaders. Peter Feaver, an adviser to Bush at the National Security Council, urged Romney to "walk back from reckless campaign promises."
Yet Romney inexplicably continues to get the benefit of the doubt from leading pundits. A Times news article recently praised his "impressive bench of foreign policy advisers," and Times columnist Nicholas Kristof called them "credible, respected figures." Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center similarly discounted Romney's hawkish positions. "He's articulating policies he wouldn't follow," Miller said. "Barring an extraordinary event like September 11, Romney will be much more moderate, much less reckless than George W. Bush."
How can we be so sure? After the Bush administration, it's best not to take anything for granted. Yes, Romney might not yet be a reliable neoconservative. The neocons, after all, have firm beliefs about the necessity of military interventionism, which they're willing to defend even when unpopular. Romney, on the other hand, simply opposes whatever policy Obama pursues. Neoconservatism, for him, is an ideology of convenience. "I don't think he has any North Star on foreign policy right now, other than whatever Obama is for, he's on the other side of it," says Clemons.
That said, Romney's malleability is an advantage for his neocon advisers, giving them an opportunity to shape his worldview, as they did with Bush after 9/11. Four years after Bush left office in disgrace, Romney is their best shot to get back in power. If that happens, they're likely to pursue the same aggressive policies they advocated under Bush. "I don't think there's been a deep rethink," says Clemons. "I don't think the neoconservatives feel chastened at all. As a movement, the true neoconservatives never, ever give up. They will be back."