Several years ago, there was a thought—a hope, perhaps—that the Republican Party was becoming less hawkish. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, and domestic economic and fiscal issues began to take precedence, some believed that the sheer cost of the wars and Department of Defense day-to-day activities would require conservatives to make a choice between an activist foreign policy and their commitment to reduce government spending. Unfortunately, the field of actual and likely GOP presidential candidates suggests otherwise.
Writing at The Weekly Standard, Michael Warren approvingly notes that, with the exception of Rand Paul, “the GOP is the hawkish party, and its presidential candidate is likely to be hawkish, too.” Warren continues,
That’s clear enough from the rhetorical echoes across the field. Here’s Christie in a major foreign policy address in New Hampshire last month: “Throughout history, leaders in both parties have based our foreign policy on these principles: strength, leadership, and partnership with the people and nations who share our values.” Bobby Jindal, in an interview: “I want a world where our friends trust us and our enemies fear and respect us. That was the bipartisan consensus post-World War II through the Cold War.” Rubio, at the Council on Foreign Relations in May: “Only American leadership will bring safety and enduring peace. America led valiantly in the last century—from Truman to Kennedy to Reagan.” And Walker, in an interview: “Think back to Harry Truman. This is a bipartisan view that we’ve historically had that when we win, we don’t want to give up the victory.”
This rhetorical tendency toward hawkishness usually comes with few concrete policy details save one: more defense spending. Rubio already tried earlier this year to increase the Pentagon’s 2016 budget by $77 billion more than the Obama administration’s request and $112 billion more than allowed under the Budget Control Act. Late last year, Jindal called for creating a floor for defense spending at four percent of gross domestic product—requiring the United States to spend $810 billion (in 2015 dollars) on defense if the policy were in place by 2020, based on Congressional Budget Office projections.
In a 2014 essay for National Review, Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security and Eric Sayers, a staffer for the Senate Armed Services Committee, implored the Republican Party to be “smart hawks.” Bemoaning the GOP’s reflexive preference for the “hawkish course” and bombastic rhetoric about every foreign policy issue to cross their plate, Colby and Sayers argued that Republicans of the past earned the public’s trust on national security issues through sound decision making rather than simple bellicosity. They wrote at the time,
This point has important implications for how Republicans should think and talk about defense today. This stems from the fact that the international landscape and particularly the trends in military technology are such that the nation needs a defense policy that goes beyond the “more, more, more” approach.
Colby and Sayers are no doves, nor are they advocates for restrained defense spending. In fact, their essay included calls for exactly the opposite. They are right, however, when they observe that simply plowing more money into the Department of Defense is no way to make America more secure. Unfortunately, Republican candidates seem to think that the “more, more, more” approach to defense is the smartest. For that reason, Republican candidates will say little to nothing about whether spending hundreds of billions of dollars to simply increase the size of the U.S. military Cold War “legacy force” is an appropriate response to the asymmetric means hostile states are employing to counter American military superiority. It is why the allocation of defense dollars, as opposed to the amount, will go unremarked upon on the campaign trail. Instead, vague allusions to “American strength” will substitute for sound proposals.
It was likely always naïve to think Republicans would no longer be the hawkish party. However, it would have been nice to see them follow Colby and Sayers’ advice and put forth a smarter hawkishness. Judging by the early remarks of GOP presidential candidates, “more” is still the only answer they have.