Why the Republicans Won't Benefit From Being the War Party

If there was a single moment in this campaign in which a candidate declared, "Here's a position that almost every American will find completely insane, but I'm taking it because Barack Obama sucks," it would have to be the time in one of the debates when Rick Perry declared that not only was he bummed that the Iraq war was over, but "I would send troops back to Iraq." Even his Republican opponents obviously thought that was crazy. I thought of that listening to the radio this morning, when John McCain gave an interview to NPR about how Obama has screwed up Iran policy, and reminded us all not just of why he was such an unappealing presidential candidate four years ago, but how far the Republican party has drifted on foreign policy.

Among the absurd things he said were that the "green revolution" protests in 2009 were "literally crying out...'Obama, Obama, are you with us?'" and if Obama had spoken out against Iran more forcefully, things would have turned out differently. You might remember that this is just completely false—in fact, the Iranian opposition didn't want any kind of direct American support, since that would make it easier for the regime to declare them to be stooges of the Great Satan. And in the interview as a whole, you could feel McCain's deep yearning for another war, as though once we get out of Afghanistan there'll be no purpose to our national endeavors if we're not at war somewhere.

Iran's nuclear program presents a complex policy challenge, but I think the last decade has actually made Americans a little more comfortable with complex challenges, in that they don't assume that the most simple-minded solution is necessarily the best one. For a long time there was a simple formula that worked quite well for Republicans: say "We're strong, they're weak," advocate force in foreign affairs as often as possible, repeat, win elections. But ten years since the Afghanistan war started and just under nine years since the Iraq war started, there's no obvious political benefit to taking the position that what we need is another war. When you combine that with the series of badass special operations missions (most notably the killing of Osama Bin Laden) that have occurred under Obama, it's not obvious that advocating a war with Iran makes you look tough. It may just make you look like a nut, or an idiot.

Foreign policy will be a secondary issue in the fall, unless we do actually start another war. But it's pretty remarkable how what was for so long an obvious Republican strength has turned into a liability for them.