“Hard Line: The Republican Party and
U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II”

by Lydia Alfaro-Gonzalez and Erin Robinson


At a recent Nixon Center event, George Mason University scholar Colin Dueck argued that the differences within the modern Republican Party on foreign policy matters have been overstated by the media, and that many past Republican presidents have been misrepresented as well.  In Dueck’s recent book, Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II, he argued that the most successful presidents were those whose policies were grounded in a realist worldview rather than idealism. Dueck, Associate Professor of Public Policy and International Affairs at George Mason University, also stated that, while the general trends in the party have been important, those are often overridden by the personal preferences of the President.  The National Interest’s Senior Editor Jacob Heilbrunn provided a response to Dueck, and Nixon Center Board Member Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, moderated and provided additional comments.


Dueck grouped recent Republican presidents into two categories: those who based their foreign policy decisions on realist approaches and those who based their policies on idealism.  On the whole, he said, most Republican presidents have tended towards realism until recently, even if the party itself often promotes an idealistic approach.  For example, he argued that President Ronald Reagan, who is often labeled an idealist, was a realist because he did not embark on any large-scale military interventions, because “he took the threat of the Soviet Union very seriously” and created policy to “challenge them comprehensively, exploit its weaknesses and possibly reverse Soviet expansion.” Reagan was pragmatic in reassuring the USSR that the United States was not a hostile threat, and while he promoted democracy throughout developing regions, it never overrode his pragmatic Soviet policy or led him to undermine U.S. allies.  


Dueck likewise contended that President Theodore Roosevelt, who is often accused of being a ‘bombastic cowboy,’ was rather a careful and effective negotiator who believed in American naval power.  On the other hand, Dueck affirmed that George W. Bush, as a result of his idealist-influenced policy decisions, was in fact a “bad wartime President.”  According to Dueck, Bush argued that “there could be no delay” in overthrowing the governments of Iraq and North Korea, a decidedly non-pragmatic approach based on his view of the nature of the regime, rather than on an overall security calculus. Bush also affirmed that Iraq was capable of becoming democratized with the help of U.S. military intervention, a profoundly idealistic view.


Jacob Heilbrunn, Senior Editor of The National Interest, disagreed with Dueck’s analysis, contending that what Dueck defined as ‘realist’ actually just referred to policy that was successful and the remainder was simply ‘too idealistic’ or non-traditional.  In addition, Heilbrunn accused Dueck of underestimating the split within the GOP following World War II.  Evidence of their diverging paths can be found documented in back issues of The National Review, Heilbrunn asserted, where Republicans began to denounce Eisenhower as an ‘appeaser’ for his pragmatic approach to foreign policy.  Heilbrunn argued that acknowledging the disparity between the hard right (previously isolationist) wing of the party and President Eisenhower’s supporters was essential.  Another influence on the current GOP that Heilbrunn emphasized was the rise of the neo-conservatives.  Their idealistic and aggressive take on foreign policy has had a profound effect on GOP policies and recent presidents.  Heilbrunn argued that comment criticism by Sarah Palin and other Tea Party candidates of President Obama’s position on Israel reflects close attention to Israel among Republicans over the last 40 years.  Finally, Heilbrunn suggests that Dueck did not give sufficient attention to Israel’s role in Republican foreign policy.


The two panelists and the moderator also differed over Republican views of the Iraq war.  All agreed Iraq was a key factor in Republican electoral defeats in 2006 and 2008.  However, Heilbrunn argued that Iraq is still touted as a successful venture by neo-conservatives, who argue that President George W. Bush “saved the day and [President] Obama managed not to throw away what Bush handed him, which was a triumphant victory.” Conversely, Grover Norquist described a shift in the Republican Party stating that, “up until recently, disagreeing on anything dealing with Iraq or Afghanistan was viewed as throwing a rock at Bush,” and thus unacceptable.  Recently, however, many Republicans have been expressing disagreement with this viewpoint.  The shift is most visibly displayed through the Tea Party, which lacks a strong loyalty to Bush and may prove outspoken about the costs of the wars.  Norquist predicted a Republican shift in the coming years, dependent upon whether the war in Afghanistan is seen as Bush or Obama’s legacy, and therefore whether they support or criticize it.  Republicans are also “quietly” dissenting to the public narrative that occupying Iraq was a wise decision.  Dueck stated that Bush’s decision to invade was a huge mistake, yet the surge was a success and is rightly pointed to as an example of successful policy.


Dueck contended that the media inaccurately portrays many Republican candidates to be isolationist, including both Tea Party and more traditional Republican candidates.  Marco Rubio from Florida is actually very hawkish, he argued, supporting military engagement abroad, while Rand Paul, though opposing nation-building, supports missile defense and continued involvement in Afghanistan.  Jacob Heilbrunn agreed that the media greatly over-portrays isolationism within the Tea Party, adding that the GOP has previously had similar periods where its policy stances were misrepresented as isolationist, including during the 1950s.  Dueck pointed out that the top priority of the Tea Party is fiscal conservatism, which does not automatically lead to isolationist foreign policy.  Rather, fiscal responsibility, limited government at home and a reduction in ventures overseas, he stated, is the Tea Party platform and “exactly the direction we should go.”


Despite wide Republican support for limited government and reduced Federal spending, Republicans are divided over the fate of defense spending.  Heilbrunn referenced a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal by William Kristol, Edwin J. Feulner, and Arthur C. Brooks, prominent neo-conservatives, which emphasized the need for budget cuts in every department excluding defense and military spending.  He contended that while the neo-conservatives may disagree, it is clear the defense budget must be cut given the state of the economy and the strength of the anti-spending Tea Party movement within the Republican Party.  Norquist pointed out that this issue will become even more important after the midterm elections, as the fiscal conservatism of Tea Party candidates clashes with the realities of negotiating the federal budget.  Dueck argued that where the future of this debate goes depends on the next President, if it is a Republican, and where that individual chooses to draw the line between fiscal conservatism and defense spending. 


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