Richard Lugar and the Death of the GOP Foreign Policy Moderates

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Everyone understands that Tea Party-era Republicans have moved right on domestic policies like taxes and entitlements. At the same time, there’s a sense that In the Tea Party era, there’s a sense that Republicans have mellowed on foreign policy—that the post-9/11 neocon-hawk moment has passed, and restraint has taken over among conservatives. The Tea Party has a neo-isolationist strain to it, Rick Perry called for dramatic foreign aid cuts and Ron Paul draws cheers with his talk of a scaled-back foreign policy.

But the hawks are alive and well. Plenty of senior Republicans are open to a military strike on Iran and oppose scaling back the war in Afghanistan; many of them are advisers to Mitt Romney. Other leading Republicans call for bold action in response to low probability, high-drama nightmares like an electromagnetic pulse weapon plunging us all into the world of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. And now comes an effort by House Republicans to build a wildly expensive missile defense shield to protect America’s east coast.

The plan itself makes little sense: It addresses an extremely speculative threat. Chinese missiles do threaten west coast, not the east, and despite some seemingly exaggerated warnings, Iran probably can’t land a missile beyond Eastern Europe. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee say the system should be operational by 2015 to protect the U.S. from an Iranian attack. But as Wired‘s Noah Schactman notes, missile defense advocates are notorious for over-estimating our enemies’ capabilities:

Back in 1998, for example, a panel chaired by Donald Rumsfeld swore that an Iranian ICBM could be ready to fly by 2003. That doomsday forecast didn’t pan out, fortunately. Neither did an early-’90s intelligence estimate that the weapon would be online by 2010.

Leave aside the assumption that, by 2015, Iran will have developed a reliable warhead and managed to fit it into an accurate long-range warhead (a mighty challenge of its own). Simple logic is more relevant: Our ability to retaliate means that a missile attack against the U.S. would be an act of suicide by Tehran. Deterrence is a mighty shield, and at a moment of coming budget cuts it’s hard to justify spending what Democrats estimate could be $5 billion to complement it with an anti-missile system.

That hardly seems like the work of America’s most discerning national security thinkers. Which brings us back to the larger point: As the GOP‘s hawks and neo-isolationists struggle for control of the party in the months and years to come, one group that seems increasingly marginalized from the debate is the party’s moderate foreign policy elite. Soon-to-be-former Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, known primarily as a foreign policy statesman, was one of the few left in between the GOP’s dueling wings. This is the GOP of people like Condi Rice, George Shultz, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, Robert Kagan, and others–people whose judgment can of course be imperfect, but who understand the world, unlike the know-nothings of the Tea Party, while rejecting the partisan killer instinct of the hawks and neocons. Yet this group has been drowned out of late by the factions on either side of it. Lugar’s demise only further saps the moderates’ influence. The center is not holding; and for now, it remains unclear what will replace it.