Commentary

Are Republicans Locked in a Cold War Mindset?

By Leon T. Hadar
August 7, 2000
Trying to spark a foreign policy debate during this year’s presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush charged that his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, was locked in a Cold War mentality. Bush’s indictment of the White House’s foreign policy, and his argument that it was possible to build a national missile defense (NMD) system while defusing confrontation with Russia and China, would have been more credible if he had integrated his plan into a creative strategy to improve diplomatic and military relations with the two former Cold War adversaries.

Instead, Bush and the entire Republican foreign policy establishment have been enthusiastic proponents of an eastward expansion of NATO as well as efforts to challenge Russian national security and economic interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the same time, Republicans on Capitol Hill, as well as conservative pundits, have been the leading advocates of an aggressive containment policy toward China.

Not surprisingly, Bush’s NMD plan is not seen in Moscow and Beijing as part of a policy to legitimately defend U.S. national security but as an extension of a revived Cold War strategy aimed at establishing American global nuclear supremacy. Such a U.S. policy is bound to play into the hands of the more nationalistic factions in Moscow and Beijing, leading to additional tensions.

Indeed, while Bush describes his foreign policy agenda as an alternative to the outdated and incoherent Clinton-Gore approach, there are clear indications that confusion and an outmoded Cold War-era mentality continue to dominate Republican thinking as well. Hawkish congressional Republicans and their allies in conservative think tanks and magazines advance a jumbled mix of proposals that seem to coalesce into two main policy options, both of which run contrary to the party’s free-trade orientation: military intervention and economic sanctions.

That inconsistency is reflected in strong GOP support for the ineffectual economic and diplomatic isolation of Cuba, for sending U.S. military advisers to Colombia to pursue the futile war on drugs, for maintaining the sanctions against Iraq that only strengthen Saddam Hussein’s hold on power, and for retaining the economic embargo against Iran despite the political changes taking place there. Only in their criticisms of the administration’s floundering policy in the Balkans have a majority of Republicans displayed realism and fresh thinking.

Republicans assert that their policies are motivated solely by considerations of U.S. national interest — as opposed to the more elusive global nation-building crusades of the Clinton administration. Yet many of the congressional Republicans’ pet foreign policy projects, such as the plan to provide military support for the “democratic” forces fighting Saddam Hussein, are driven by pressures from interest groups, by the desire to satisfy the institutional needs of the military, and even by Wilsonian idealism (usually an intellectual folly of the Democrats).

On another level, several Republican policies reflect a concern over the potential loss of U.S. military hegemony in former strategic arenas of the Cold War, including the Middle East and East Asia. Behind those policies is the fear that withdrawing the U.S. military presence and scaling back Washington’s diplomatic activism would lead to the creation of a new regional balance of power, marginalizing the U.S. role.

That may explain the recent sniping by conservative commentators at the energetic Israeli efforts (backed by that country’s national security establishment and business community) to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon, and the strategy of South Korea (launched by its pro-American president) to open a dialogue with the North. After all, the reunification of Korea would remove the raison d’être for the U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula and could bring about a strategic realignment in Northeast Asia. Similarly, peace in the Middle East and the integration of Israel into the region could substantially erode support for the current activist U.S. policy in that area.

Trying to discourage these inevitable strategic changes in East Asia or the Middle East — combined with the proposals to launch a Bay of Pigs-type operation in Iraq, to contain China and to expand NATO — reflects the very Cold War mentality that Bush has condemned. Those policies don’t amount to a coherent and consistent version of foreign policy realism that should serve as an alternative to the Clinton administration’s mishmash, which has drawn the United States into needless military interventions on the peripheries of the Cold War playing fields — in the Horn of Africa, the Balkans and Haiti.

That approach, much less the even more meddlesome version advocated by Gore, is thoroughly bankrupt. But with the apparent direction of a Bush administration foreign policy, the United States could find itself locked into more costly military conflicts in the Middle East and East Asia and drawn into a new Cold War with Moscow and Beijing that could be even worse than the original.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.