Eric Cantor And The Death Of A Conservative Republican Foreign Policy

large_eric-cantor-john-boehner-090909The vital signs had been ominous for a long while. Hard-line Cold War-era realist hawks, who once dominated the conservative Republican foreign policy establishment, had been seeing their influence rapidly fade over conservative political leaders. After Congressman Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, we can now declare their influence dead.

There is nothing conservative about Cantor’s foreign policy. His speech, seen as the opening political salvo of the 2010 campaign on foreign policy, laid out the right’s political battle plan on foreign policy. Pulling together the lines of attack that conservatives in the House and Senate had peddled against the Administration for the past year, Cantor – the second ranking House Republican – created an overall narrative that is not only untethered from reality, but demonstrates a radicalism that fully embraces the radical neoconservatives of the early years of the Bush administration.

While Cantor’s speech may have been largely motivated by partisan calculations and blind opposition to Obama, his speech still exposes the total loss of influence of traditional and notable Republican foreign policy officials. This is no longer the party of Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Powell, it is the party of Frank Gaffney and John Bolton.

Despite his address being highly vacuous and short on specifics, about the only thing Cantor did specifically promise that:

A Republican Congress will turn back harmful treaties like START.

Cantor’s opposition to the START treaty, as well as the opposition of other right wing members of the Senate, is counter the overwhelming majority of the traditional Republican foreign policy establishment. For instance, last week and in a huge boost to the treaty, James Schlesinger came out in support of the START treaty. Schlesinger was Nixon’s former Secretary of Defense, he is a nuclear hawk that led the intellectual fight against the ratification of the test ban treaty in 1999, was picked by Republicans to represent the conservative view on the Strategic Posture Commission that assessed nuclear strategy, and is such a conservative heavy weight that he was profiled by the Wall Street Journal as the conservative’s nuclear yoda.

But Eric Cantor has rejected Schlesinger and these other figures and has decided to oppose the treaty. But what makes this so radical is that failure to ratify this treaty could have horrendous consequences, as it would automatically shatter nuclear stability, as all verification and confidence measures would be eliminated possibly unleashing a new nuclear arms race. It would very likely be a death blow to the non-proliferation regime increasing the threat of proliferation and nuclear terrorism. And it would without a doubt torpedo relations with Russia, potentially endangering our troops in Afghanistan who rely on supply lines through Russia. Rejecting START has absolutely massive consequences.

Yet this is where Eric Cantor and the House GOP are.

It used to be that hardcore hawkish realism put figures like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft in stark opposition to progressives. These leading lights epitomized the concept of “conservative.” In general, they feared foreign entanglements and questioned progressive efforts to emphasize the internal characteristics of countries, such as their human rights record and democratic legitimacy, as a basis for relations. National interests were narrowly defined and statecraft and diplomacy – peeling off China from the Soviets, building a huge multilateral coalition to counter Saddam – were integral tools of the trade.

But these leading Republican foreign policy figures are now either persona non-grata in the Republican party or are simply ignored. The fact is that these figures are now much closer to Democratic foreign policy leaders and progressive positions on foreign policy. In some ways, this is because of a convergence of views on how to manage the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, in others its because the Democratic foreign policy has become more conservative. But mainly it is because the GOP has moved leaps and bounds to the right – to the point where it is clear that these figures have almost nothing in common with Eric Cantor and the conservatives that are running things on the Hill.