Will the 2016 election be about foreign policy? And, if it is, can non-interventionist conservatives win that kind of election? Some think the answers to these questions might be “yes and yes.” I think that the answers are more likely to be “probably no and not yet.”
Absent a major terrorist attack in the United States, or a spate of smaller domestic attacks, or escalating weekly American military casualties, my suspicion is that in the 2016 election, voters will weigh foreign policy based on their feelings about the economy. The more unhappy they are about the economy, the more likely they will be to judge what is going on in the Middle East as just another symptom of Democratic failure. The happier they are with the economy, the more likely they will be to shrug at events in the Middle East and believe that at least things are better (for American troops) than they were under the last president.
Obama's job approval ratings are below 50 percent, but his foreign policy approval ratings are even worse. But for all of his foreign policy reversals, the president's overall job approval has slightly increased (and his overall disapproval has slightly decreased) over the last six months. Republicans can choose to talk more about foreign policy, but it isn't clear that the voters are ready to decide the next president primarily on foreign policy.
And if we did have a foreign policy election, it is not clear that Republicans are ready to talk about foreign and defense policy in a way that reassures voters who felt burned by the Bush administration. The disaster of the 2003–2006 occupation of Iraq lost the Republicans the presumption that they were the party of realism (meaning common sense rather than ideology) and competence in foreign affairs. Earning back public trust will mean reining in some of the rhetorical (to say nothing of policy) excesses of the Bush years.
In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Republican Senator Tom Cotton said:
I think that Americans—and this is not true just now, but over the years—are not fundamentally opposed to war. They're fundamentally opposed to losing wars.
Compare that with Ronald Reagan in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter. Reagan said:
I'm a father of sons; I have a grandson. I don't ever want to see another generation of young Americans bleed their lives into sandy beachheads in the Pacific, or rice paddies and jungles in Asia or the muddy battlefields of Europe.
The two statements are not inherently opposed, but when was the last time a Republican who was not from the party's non-interventionist wing sounded like Reagan? Cotton is for using non-military means to (for example) prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; it doesn't sound like he thinks of war as a last resort. It sounds like Cotton and other mainstream Republicans think of war as a second resort (after threatening war).
In 1980, Reagan made it a point to show that he was anything but eager to launch military campaigns. That was because Reagan knew his political weaknesses. People did not doubt that he was willing to use force. They did worry that he might be reckless. The post-Bush Republicans are in a similar position. Reagan had to convince voters that he was not a mad bomber. Mainstream Republicans have to reassure voters that future military operations will be prudently chosen.
And prudently implemented. In the same interview with Goldberg, Cotton speculated on the potential consequences of a bombing campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program. Cotton said:
And if it is military action, I would say it's more like Operation Desert Fox or the tanker war of the 1980s than it is World War II. In the end, I think if we choose to go down the path of this deal, it is likely that we could be facing nuclear war.
Maybe a bombing campaign would work out just as Cotton hopes. That argument would probably have gotten more public support (or at least indifference) in the America of 2002, where the most recent major combat operations were Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, and the bombing of Yugoslavia. After the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, trying rhetorically to minimize the risks doesn't make a potential war seem less risky, but it does make Republicans seem more reckless.
Perhaps trying to minimize the risks is the wrong strategy altogether. Perhaps the best argument that one can be trusted with the power to wage war is admitting and embracing the reality of risk.
That is why it is so important to use every tactic short of war (perhaps even to the point of risking trade relations with other important countries in order to put pressure on Iran). That is why it is so important that a bombing campaign incorporate contingencies for an extended and costly operation. That is why it is so important to level with the public about the risks. The public might trust a candidate more with martial power if he could tell them that we would only go to war when our options were so terrible that even a lengthy and costly war was the least-worst alternative.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.