It's Bill Kristol's party: Why there's no room for GOP foreign policy debate anymore

As the James Baker fracas has shown, anything short of maximal hawkishness is no longer welcome in the GOP

Published March 30, 2015 5:17PM (EDT)

Bill Kristol                      (AP/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Kristol (AP/Janet Van Ham)

Jeb Bush has a festering James Baker problem and the New York Times is ON IT.

The neoconservatives' battle to prevent Bush from consulting his family's old friend and fixer from time to time has advanced into the mainstream from its beachheads at Jennifer Rubin's Washington Post blog and Bill Kristol's Twitter account. James Baker, Treasury Secretary to Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State to George H.W. Bush, is now the turf on which a proxy war between Republican neoconservatives and everyone else is being waged.

Guess who's winning?

The debate over whom Jeb Bush is allowed to solicit for advice is really about who's ideologically eligible for service in the next Republican administration. Bush has a list of over two-dozen foreign policy advisers ranging from out-and-out neocons like Paul Wolfowitz to so-called "realists" -- people who believe diplomacy should be practiced, basically -- like Baker. The list was intended to show that Bush had the support of most experienced government hands from previous Republican administrations. Whether or not Bush wins the nomination, these officials and their next-generation mentees will staff up the State and Defense ranks for the next GOP president.

The campaign against Baker is an early show of muscle from hawks trying to send a message: there is no room in the party for wishy-washy, naive diplomats. There is no room for the realist foreign policy of Jeb's father; only the adventurous, let's call it, foreign policy of Jeb's brother is acceptable. If you loved the failed foreign policy of George W. Bush, you have a place in the 2016 Republican party; if you're more partial to the successful foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, then you hate Israel and should probably join the Iranian-backed militia of your choice.

These are just a few ways of thinking about it. Bill Kristol, from whose Twitter account most of these grumblings emerged following Baker's J Street speech criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu and supporting diplomacy with Iran, put it another way in an email to the Times. Kristol is ecstatic that GOP foreign policy no longer allows for any criticism of the Israeli right-wing or support for diplomacy with Iran. His level of excitement is only matched by his ace trolling game. There is no better summation of the first quarter of 2015 GOP politics than this paragraph.

Mr. Kristol, emailing from Israel where he was meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, described the shift as a result of broader underlying trends in American politics as the political left grows more “European” and the political right grows more “Reaganite.” He added that “the conservative belief in American exceptionalism is akin to Zionism.” And he said the contrast between Mr. Obama’s friction with Mr. Netanyahu and former President George W. Bush’s strong support for Israel “is pretty dramatic.”

Realism versus omnidirectional hawkishness, if Bill Kristol gets his way -- and Bill Kristol tends to always get his way, usually for the worst -- will be rebranded in Republican politics as Europeanism versus Reaganism. Frank Luntz couldn't have focus-grouped it any better, assuming Frank Luntz didn't already focus-group this for Bill Kristol.

Kristol isn't the only conservative figure traveling to Israel to celebrate with Netanyahu. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell made a surprise visit to Israel over the weekend. He and Netanyahu went before the cameras to denounce the foreign policy objectives of the President of the United States. Speaker John Boehner will do the same thing in the coming days. The two most powerful Republican officials in the country have clearly chosen the Reaganite foreign policy approach, championed by Benjamin Netanyahu, over the European one, best represented by the Obama-Baker-Chamberlain axis.

Bill Kristol is still just Bill Kristol, though. He holds a lot of sway, for no particular reason, but you never know. One day the GOP power structure could wake up and ask itself, "Why the hell do we still listen to the guy who brought us the Iraq war and Sarah Palin?" And that would be the end of Bill Kristol's influence within the party.

It's going to be much harder for GOP candidates like Jeb Bush to discard another figure with similarly if not more hawkish foreign policy views than Kristol -- as well as twenty-something billion dollars. The Times also reported that Team Jeb's rapid attempt to distance itself from (though not completely renounce) Baker following the J Street speech came at the request of Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, who believes that the United States should nuke Iran, is none too pleased that Jeb Bush talks to a former Treasury Secretary, Secretary of State, and White House chief of staff who is his father's best friend.

Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and a powerful donor to Republican “super PACs,” is among those who have expressed concerns to Mr. Bush’s friends and allies, several of them said. Mr. Adelson is said to be incensed over Mr. Baker’s comments and the lack of pressure put on him by the Bush team before his address — a significant concern, given that Mr. Adelson has the resources to pour tens of millions of dollars into the Republican presidential primary.

This is not a climate that's conducive to Republican candidates consulting a wide range of foreign policy figures, much less tolerating real dissent. Remember a couple of years ago when people thought there might be an actual intra-GOP debate about American foreign policy in the next presidential cycle? Ha.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Benjamin Netanyahu Bill Kristol Editor's Picks Foreign Policy Hawks Iran Israel James Baker Jeb Bush The Right