James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Campaign 2012 Roundup: Is the GOP Embracing Neoconservatism?

by James M. Lindsay
December 15, 2011

Republican presidential candidates before a GOP debate in November. (Jeff Haynes/courtesy Reuters)

Republican presidential candidates before a GOP debate in November. (Jeff Haynes/courtesy Reuters)

The New York Times’s Trip Gabriel has a story today assessing the “nascent Gingrich Doctrine, one that looks to decades of struggle against radical Islam.” Gabriel credits the former speaker’s tough talk on foreign policy with fueling his rise in the polls: Gingrich “frames the challenges in stark terms that can have an apocalyptic ring.” All this has Gabriel thinking that something bigger is happening among GOP voters:

Earlier in the nominating race it seemed that the Tea Party, with its call to eliminate foreign aid, might nudge Republicans in a more isolationist direction. But the emergence of Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich as the top candidates suggests the resurgence of neoconservative thinking, with its staunch support of Israel and unilateralist impulses abroad.

Color me deeply skeptical about this argument. First, “neoconservative thinking” accounts for “the emergence of Mr. Romney”? He began the race as the front-runner and hasn’t expanded his base of support since then. Second, nothing in the polls suggests that foreign policy is a priority for the vast majority of Republican voters. Third, Gingrich says he has become less enamored with foreign aid, moving toward the Tea Party rather than away from it. Fourth, advocating “neoconservative views” didn’t help Tim Pawlenty—he sank without a trace back in August—and it hasn’t helped Rick Santorum, the candidate who has been the most consistent and vocal in his hawkish views. Fifth, Republican voters have rallied around Gingrich only after first flirting with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. None of them are cut from neoconservative cloth. In all, Gingrich’s surge seems less indicative that neoconservativism is back and more indicative that conservative Republicans harbor deep doubts that Romney is one of them.

What is true is that the GOP candidates are ramping up their rhetoric on Iran. I noted yesterday that Gingrich’s recent comments can be fairly read as suggesting that he believes that the United States might have to go to war Iran. Now Jon Huntsman looks to be banging the war drum. He had the following exchange yesterday with CNN’s Erin Burnett:

HUNTSMAN: Well, I think [the Iranians] already made the decision to go nuclear. I think the mullahs in Tehran have already looked at the world and they’ve said, North Korea, they’ve got nuclear weapons, nobody touches them. They looked at Libya and I think they’ve said, they gave up their program in exchange for relationships internationally. They want the prestige and the leverage that goes with being a nuclear power.

BURNETT: So, if push comes to shove and this is important, I’m not saying this is something you do tomorrow if push comes to shove, if there was an uncertainty, required troops invasion, you’d do it?

HUNTSMAN: I can’t live with the implications of not doing it. I can’t live with the thought of what a nuclear Iran brings to the region and what they said about Israel, which is our centerpiece alliance in the region. I can’t live—I can’t live with the world with a nuclear Iran. So, then, you say, what do you do? And realistically, you got to have all options on the table. You got to be prepared to use all elements of national power.

The question Huntsman didn’t answer in this exchange is how much force he thinks is necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear. Gingrich and Romney have both aired doubts that a so-called limited military strike would stop Iran’s nuclear program for long. It’s unclear whether Huntsman shares those doubts.

The moderators of tonight’s Fox News/Republican Party debate in Sioux City, Iowa could help us get answers to what the GOP candidates are prepared to do on Iran. Let’s hope the question gets asked. This will be the last debate before Iowa holds its caucuses on January 3.

I noted yesterday that some conservative bloggers are talking up Palwenty as a possible secretary of state. What about secretary of defense? Well, a surprise candidate has thrown his hat into the ring. Barbara Walters asked Herman Cain which cabinet post would most interest him. He responded:

We are speaking totally, totally hypothetical, right?  Department of Defense. Because if I could influence rebuilding our military as it should be, that would be a task I would consider undertaking.

Walters reminded Cain that such a post would require him:

To be familiar with the various countries around the world. And you have had some difficulty with that, Mr. Cain.

Cain didn’t miss a beat. He told Walters with a chuckle: “Yes, but I have been doing my homework ever since that difficulty.”  You can see video of Cain’s interview here

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