The Australian

by Tom Switzer

Distinguished US commentator Walter Lippmann once wrote what is arguably the single most important sentence written on foreign policy: "Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs."

That truth, alas, has been comprehensively ignored by the US Republican presidential candidates who have won the first three caucuses/primary contests: Rick Santorum (Iowa), Mitt Romney (New Hampshire) and Newt Gingrich (South Carolina). For the former Pennsylvania senator, Massachusetts governor and Speaker of the US House of Representatives give classic expression to the dissociation of ends and means. On the one hand, they champion balanced budgets and smaller government. On the other, they demand assertive US global leadership and intervention across the world.

They make the downsizing of the federal government a priority. But they also preach an ambitious foreign policy inspired by vision and a sense of mission, a policy that has been instrumental in building up the power of the federal government since the outset of the Cold War. They want to slash the SUS14 trillion-plus debt, but do so without applying the knife to the defence budget.

Romney declares in quintessential neo-conservative language: "I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it." Never mind Nixon's realist warning 40 years ago: "It is when one nation becomes infinitely more powerful in relation to its potential competitor that the danger of war arises."

Rick Santorum believes the Iranian threat is so dire that a preventive strike on Tehran's facilities is justified. But surely the lesson of Iraq is that the tried-and tested policy of deterrence can keep Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in his box. After all, a terrorist can run and hide, but even a rogue state has a mailing address. If the mullahs use WMD against the US or its interests in the region, it would guarantee retaliation.

Gingrich describes himself as a "cheap hawk". That is, someone who wills the end, but baulks at providing the means. This is one of the most irresponsible and dangerous things one can propose in foreign policy. When political figures speak in these terms, it is clear they have not thought seriously about what they are saying. F. Scott Fitzgerald once suggested "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function". Perhaps.

To advocate two dramatically opposed and incompatible policies at the same time is merely the evidence of first-rate confusion. Foreign policy realism with its emphasis on the balance of power, national interests, spheres of influence and recognition of limits has shaped the thinking of Republican presidents from Eisenhower to George Bush Sr. Sadly, this tradition is alien to today's Grand Old Party.

As Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History? and a onetime leading neo-conservative, has remarked: "All of the Kissinger-era realists have gone away... Today the party is just a wasteland. They are total amateurs on foreign policy."