National Security Regressives

A New Vocal Constituency Among Conservatives

A vocal strand of conservatives seeks to shape the political debate and policy agenda on national security heading into the 2012 elections, writes Brian Katulis.

Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, exemplifies a new breed of conservatives who oppose strengthening and utilizing the full range of traditional tools of American statecraft. She has made it her mission to cut funding for the State Department and foreign aid. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)
Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, exemplifies a new breed of conservatives who oppose strengthening and utilizing the full range of traditional tools of American statecraft. She has made it her mission to cut funding for the State Department and foreign aid. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

The ratification of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia marked a defeat for an influential faction among America’s right that can best be described as national security regressives. These are “conservative” voices who oppose strengthening and utilizing the full range of traditional tools of American statecraft, including assertive diplomacy, smart and balanced national security spending, and precise and targeted measures to combat terrorist groups. They may have lost on New START, but they are not likely to go away anytime soon.

The fact that a modest arms control measure such as New START took so much time to ratify is a harbinger of tensions to come in 2011—a year in which conservatives face significant challenges reconciling competing national security agendas in their ranks. The starting bell on the Republican presidential primary fight is about to ring, and more foreign policy regressives have joined the ranks of the new Congress—so look for some sharp battles to emerge among conservatives on national security. This internal conservative debate could have a major impact on how America conducts its foreign policy in 2011 and beyond.

Conservatives today are more divided on foreign policy than they have been in decades. The 2010 Republican Party “Pledge” manifesto for the midterm elections, however, papered over these divisions, briefly mentioning national security as an afterthought. It contained few ideas on how to keep America secure and strong.

The debate over the New START treaty exposed some of the conservative divisions on national security. Traditional foreign policy conservatives such as Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and several former secretaries of state supported the treaty while other national security regressives such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a likely 2012 presidential primary candidate, famously called the treaty “Obama’s worst foreign policy mistake” in this article for The Washington Post. Another key division exists on defense spending. Tea Party advocates, for example, are geared up to fight defense hawks.

The biggest challenge for conservatives in reconciling the divisions on foreign policy in their ranks comes from the regressive camp. National security regressives are usually described as conservatives, but the positions they have staked out on foreign policy make them undeserving of the conservative label.

The dictionary defines conservatives as “disposed to preserve existing conditions and institutions.” What sets regressives apart from traditional conservatives is that they are not interested in preserving existing foreign policy conditions and institutions. In fact, they have eschewed many of the key tools of statecraft that have made America a global leader—assertive diplomacy, smart and balanced national security spending, support for international institutions serving as force multipliers to address some of the world’s most pressing security challenges, and agreements like New START that demand other countries live up to commitments aimed at enhancing global security.

Regressives are likely to seize upon several key issues heading into 2011. The first is overall national security spending. Conservatives are strongly divided on overall spending and its impact on deficits. But regressives are generally opposed to spending for diplomacy and development in particular.

This is demonstrated by recent statements by the incoming chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She has made it her mission to cut funding for the State Department and foreign aid. Foreign policy regressives have opposed some of the most effective tools to project American power in the 21st century such as investments in tough diplomacy. They remain trapped in a 20th century Cold War mindset, placing more emphasis on military power at the expense of economic, diplomatic, and other forms of power.

The call for cuts on the civilian side of national security spending comes at a time when the Obama administration is trying to elevate these tools of national power. This effort is illustrated by the recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and the longstanding efforts by Defense Secretary Robert Gates (a Republican appointee) and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to increase investments in diplomacy.

Beyond the spending issue, national security regressives are building their arguments for conventional military operations to address threats and security problems that don’t have simple military solutions. So we’re likely to hear more advocacy for another Middle East war. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has dismissed Obama’s Iran engagement policy as a “mirage,” even as conservatives like Robert Kagan have recognized its success in creating international consensus around the Iranian issue that eluded the Bush administration for years.

Nevertheless, some national security regressives are already recycling their 2002 Iraq war arguments for Iran. Others, like incoming House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), have worked actively to undermine efforts by the Obama administration to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict by falsely charging that President Barack Obama is weak on Israel.

The Afghanistan war debate will likely reemerge by late spring 2011. National security regressives will likely push for an open-ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and oppose any plan to clarify the end goals in order to end the free riding of several countries in the region on America’s security umbrella and bring the conflict to an end at a time of America’s choosing. Foreign policy regressives are stuck on the least efficient means to address terrorist threats—large-scale conventional military operations in other countries lasting years. They promote this strategy even as terrorist threats migrate around the world.

Look also for national security regressives to revive terrorism as a political issue with continued vitriolic rhetoric on Islam and Islamist extremism. The Islamophobia campaign of this past summer in which prominent conservative voices like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich participated is not likely to fade as the presidential primary heats up. Finally, a specter of isolationism and protectionism looms on the horizon with America’s economy still struggling. More than two dozen congressional candidates from both parties are raising China’s impact on America’s economy in 2010 campaign ads.

As the Obama administration’s second year in office draws to a close, the Senate’s ratification of New START marks a modest but important step forward for pragmatic internationalism and efforts to revive America’s leadership role in the world.

National security regressives lost the New START fight, but they are likely to remain a vocal constituency among conservatives as the next Congress comes to town in January with more than 100 new members and the Republican presidential primary fight begins next year. That campaign season will help shape the direction a divided conservative movement takes on foreign policy for the rest of this decade.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow