Foreign Policy with the Commander-in-Chief We Have

The most important thing Republicans need to understand about U.S. foreign policy today is that Republicans are out of power and Barack Obama is in power.

That may seem obvious, but much Republican commentary seems to ignore it. Much of the post-election commentary seems divorced from the political reality that, especially in the area of national security policy, Democrats hold not just an advantage, but a decisive one (politically, that is, not substantively). Yes, Republicans hold the House, and Democrats lack a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But Obama has a much stronger political position than, say, George W. Bush enjoyed in 2005 (let alone 2007), and while second-term Bush faced great constraints on what he could do domestically, he was able to overcome those constraints in the national security arena. Obama will likely be able to prevail at least as often as Bush did.

Republicans will be able to influence foreign and national security policy, but only on the margins. We can and should make the case for key priorities -- restoring U.S. leverage in the Middle East, thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions, matching resources to goals in the Asia-Pacific, etc. -- but we should recognize that Obama will have his way, and his way will likely increasingly diverge from what Republicans would wish him to do.

If the dominant theme of Obama's first term was continuity -- despite campaigning against Bush foreign policy, Obama continued far more of it than either side would like to admit -- the dominant theme of the second term may well be change. In the coming years if not months, Obama will likely face pivotal decisions on Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and defense cuts, and on each one he is showing signs that he will decide in ways quite different from how a President Mitt Romney might have done. I am not sure what Republicans can do to change that trajectory.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once observed that you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you wish you had. The same logic applies to the commander-in-chief: Republicans need to recognize that we wage foreign policy with the commander-in-chief we have, not the one Republicans wish we had.

The dominant feature of this commander-in-chief is that he is so determined to avoid errors of commission that he risks comparable errors of omission. For example, he is so determined to avoid starting another Iraq war by U.S. action that he has allowed a strategically analogous problem -- a sectarian civil war spiraling out of control -- to arise in Syria by U.S. inaction.

Obama's distinctive risk calculus sets limits on what kind of American foreign policy is viable in the next four years. How plausible is it to recommend a more muscular approach to Syria or Iran when this president has been loath to mobilize public support for the very military escalations in Afghanistan that he campaigned on? How realistic is it to talk about defense spending at 4 percent of GDP when the president seemed willing to stomach defense cuts amounting to $1.4 trillion through 2023 (if we sum the cuts he has already authorized and credit him as willing to trigger the defense sequester to protect his apparent red lines forbidding cuts to entitlements).

It is fine for Republicans to hold the administration accountable in the public square for its choices, but Republicans also have to recognize that a Republican playbook implemented by the Obama team would likely not produce the kind of results Republicans want.

Of course, this approach sidesteps a larger and ultimately more important issue: What ought to be America's role in the world, and how can Republicans persuade the voters to embrace that role in 2016? Danielle Pletka makes a very useful contribution to that larger effort, and in coming blog posts I hope to make mine, too. But before we can get that right, we have to acknowledge where we are and where we aren't.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University. He co-moderates the Shadow Government blog at, where this commentary was originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.