A PERIOD OUT OF power has given conservatives and Republicans a golden opportunity to reassess their approach toward American foreign policy. Such periods in opposition are often fruitful for political parties, which can reformulate creative and winning ideas on issues of public policy. But there is nothing to say that they will necessarily do such reformulation. Success in political and conceptual rebuilding requires intellectual honesty regarding current strengths and weaknesses. Conservatives pride themselves on a clear-eyed view of political and policy realities. It is entirely fitting that this same clear-eyed view be turned on conservative foreign policy approaches.
The foreign policy of George W. Bush contained several major and under-appreciated successes. Relations with Asia's major powers were well-handled, the full scale of jihadist terrorism was comprehended, and terrorist attacks after 9/11 prevented. But conservatives have yet to admit the political damage sustained by the Republican Party because of Iraq. However sincere Bush's intentions, the first three years of mismanaged war in Iraq fatally undermined the credibility of his presidency and his party with a majority of Americans. His eventual, courageous, and well justified embrace of a new surge strategy in 2006-07 could not erase the already firm popular impression of reckless incompetence. In truth, this firm impression created an environment that would have made it exceptionally difficult for any Republican presidential nominee to win election in 2008, even if the autumn financial meltdown had never occurred. It is therefore strange what little emphasis most conservatives and Republicans place on the Iraq war for their party's comprehensive loss of power. Even more important, in terms of first principles, is the fact that Bush pursued an approach in Iraq that departed from traditional Republican strengths and conservative insights alike.
A curious narrative has taken hold among some conservatives, one that says that the greatest possible danger now would be for Republicans to embrace a "realist" foreign policy. According to this storyline, great Republican presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush pointed the way to principled success with a foreign policy of muscular idealism, while supposed disappointments such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush paid the price both politically and morally for embracing foreign policies of directionless, cynical realism. The only problem with this storyline is that it is quite inaccurate. The true history of the GOP'S foreign policy traditions is actually more interesting than that, and over the long term more flattering to Republicans.
There have always been at least three main strains or schools of thought in conservative and Republican foreign policy thinking: those represented by nationalists, hawks, and realists. Nationalists emphasize the protection of American sovereignty. Hawks emphasize both the moral and the practical arguments for military intervention overseas. Realists emphasize the careful coordination of force and diplomacy. Successful Republican foreign policy presidents have been those who balanced all three of these strains. Unsuccessful presidents have been those who failed to do so. The relevant comparison is therefore not between stereotyped realists such as Eisenhower or Nixon and stereotyped idealists such as Roosevelt or Reagan. Rather, the relevant comparison is between those Republican presidents who implemented traditional conservative and American foreign policy ideas with skill, prudence, and care, and those who did not. On this score, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush really belong in the same category of successful and realistic yet principled foreign policy presidents. George W. Bush on the other hand, whatever his strengths, erred on the side of insufficient realism in Iraq, and he fumbled the central foreign policy decision of his tenure so seriously that Republicans have yet to recover from its consequences. …