The Path-Dependency of Foreign Policy Resolve
By Taylor Marvin
Why did members of the Republican Party so bitterly oppose the Obama administration’s decision to nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary? After Hagel’s confirmation this ultimately-pointless intransigence appears to have been a poor strategic decision, but this assessment isn’t plain solely in hindsight. Executives are generally recognized to have broad latitude in selecting their own cabinet, and Republicans’ decision to filibuster Hagel’s nomination was simply a terrible PR decision — not only did it come off as overreaching and excessively partisan, it simply looks petulant.
If the effort to block Hagel’s nomination was never that likely to succeed, why did Republicans push so hard for it? This is particularly puzzling because the Hagel nomination could have conceivably been spun as a victory for Republicans. At a time when the Republican party is acutely concerned that it is losing its historical advantage on national security issues to the Democrats, the perception that Obama had to look in the Republican camp for a competent defense secretary could surely be valuable.
One explanation for the Republican vitriol towards Hagel is precisely his Republican history, which fed a palpable sense of betrayal among conservatives, in particular Senator McCain. But partisan anger doesn’t explain the full extent of the quixotic and self-harming Republican fight against the nomination. Conor Friedersdorf recently attributed this opposition to the information gap between dedicated conservative commentary and the rest of the media establishment. Because conservative media is largely an entertainment, rather than informatory, good, it has a business incentive to create unrealistic expectations among grassroots conservatives, who then send these demands up the chain to Republican lawmakers. “Hagel’s opponents in conservative media weren’t just misinforming their readers,” Daniel Larison writes, reflecting on Friedersdorf’s argument. “They were immersing themselves in misinformation and congratulating themselves on their keen insights into reality.” To conservative agenda-setters Hagel wasn’t a fairly run-of-the-mill conservative realist; instead, he was a radical whose nomination could and should have been blocked at all costs.
Going further, Robert Farley explains the fight as an internal sorting process between the neoconservative and realist foreign policy wings of the Republican party. Though out-of-power Republicans aren’t able to directly set American foreign policy now, this internal sorting process matters because today’s reputation gains through demonstrations of partisan resolve help the neoconservatives ensure that they, not realists intellectually aligned with Hagel, will be the ascendent group in the next Republican administration. Farley writes:
“The cultural story runs as follows; one of the central planks of neoconservative foreign policy thinking is the important of resolve. Resolve aids both deterrence and compellence; throwing a country against the wall now and again enhances U.S. power and prestige. If resolve works on the international level, it probably works on the domestic level. The Hagel fight represented a cheap opportunity to display resolve; even in a hopeless fight, the neocons show that they’re willing to push beyond all reasonable means to carry on the struggle.”
Writing at the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart independently expands this argument. Bitter opposition to Hagel isn’t simply about furthering the perception that neoconservatives and not realists are the natural intellectual drivers of Republican foreign policy, it’s about defending their signature accomplishment, the Bush Doctrine. “The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine,” Beinart writes. “But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable,” an unacceptable admission of the limits of American global influence and challenge to the neoconservative enshrinement of resolve.
What’s so fascinating about this dynamic is how obviously fantastical the Bush Doctrine — which Beinart defines as the rejection of containment and deterrence as acceptable foreign policy tools — has always been, and the obviousness of this core deficiency. For over a decade neoconservatives have loudly insisted that an Iranian nuclear capability is absolutely unacceptable, yet despite stressing the acute dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation quietly accepted North Korea’s ascension to the nuclear club during the same period. “Resolve” aside, this inconsistency should be lost on no one. After all, Bush’s 2002 State of the Union clearly qualified the North Korean regime equally “evil” as Iran’s, and presumably as resistant to containment.
The lesson was clear: despite declarations that the modern world made containment and deterrence unacceptably dangerous strategic concepts, neoconservatives weren’t prepared to follow their own rhetoric to its logical conclusions when it was inconvenient to do so. The American public could be convinced to support an invasion of Iraq when the Bush administration wanted to demonstrate that Donald Rumsfeld’s revitalized Defense Department was capable of replacing inconvenient foreign regimes at minimal costs. Americans would have reacted much less favorably to calls for an invasion of a possibly nuclear-armed North Korea, even if it posed a much greater threat than Saddam Hussein.
Neoconservatives’ practical inconsistency was always obvious to perceptive observers. Of the three axis of evil states, the Bush administration elected to invade the one farthest from nuclear capability simply because Iraq was armed with a decrepit military and its flat geography was amenable to armored invasion. Even before the disastrous occupation of Iraq laid bare its limitations, the Bush Doctrine was alway more about strongman posturing than a consistant worldview.
Yet despite these very obvious limitations, neoconservatism remains the driver of Republican foreign policy thought. While today’s neoconservatives haven’t attained another policy victory on the scale of the Iraq War, they largely haven’t moderated their philosophy in the last decade. When Lindsey Graham says containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, he isn’t staking out a realistic policy position — as the US reaction to North Korea’s successful nuclear ambitions should make obvious. But if the Bush Doctrine, and neoconservative thinking in general, is unworkable, why has it persisted?
The problem is once individual politicians have invested themselves in resolve-heavy neoconservative doctrine, it’s very difficult for them to extract themselves from it while retaining political credibility. Unlike realism — or, to a much lesser extent, liberalism — neoconservative thought by definition stresses consistency regardless of external conditions. Placing value on consistant expressions of resolve makes neoconservatism itself an incredibly path-dependent framework: once credibility has been invested in expressions of resolve, subsequent rhetoric can only escalate these expressions without sacrificing credibility. In this self-reinforcing positive feedback loop it’s very difficult for individual lawmakers and pundits moderate their policy positions. The target of neoconservative resolve can change — as today’s focus on Iran’s nuclear ambitions while North Korea’s are comparatively ignored — but the level of resolve must at least remain constant. Until neoconservative politicians figure out how to untangle previous expressions of resolve and their future credibility — or retire — neoconservatism will remain a significant constraint on the shape of US foreign policy.