The Republicans' Paranoid Foreign Policy

Listening to the paranoid Republicans, you'd think that Barack Obama is working night and day to give away what's left of U.S. power. He's exposing America to a mortal threat from ... Nicaragua. Setting up the dollar to fall as the premier global currency. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton recently said, in all seriousness, that "people close to" the Obama team are conspiring to cede U.S. sovereignty to a world government. Former GOP leader Newt Gingrich sees a "weird pattern" in which Obama administration lawyers have sought to defend the terrorists that Bush tried to put away. One GOP congressman after another complains that Obama himself is aiding the "enemies of America"—Hugo Chávez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—by talking to them, and is setting the country on the road to -European-style socialism.

Not so long ago, the GOP was dominated by seasoned foreign-policy thinkers like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker. Now the mainstream of the party has a paranoid world view that sees America's rivals plotting with ruthless efficiency against a weak-kneed president. Former vice president Dick Cheney recently said he no longer considered Colin Powell a GOP member, because in the presidential elections Powell endorsed Obama, someone who in Cheney's view is making the nation "less safe." Cheney cited as a real Republican the popular radio personality Rush Limbaugh, whose has this to say on foreign policy: "I'm telling you, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are disasters. Russia, China, Third World communist countries are all on the move—and we're doing nothing other than begging them to talk to us by telling them it's a new era of diplomacy." Leslie Gelb, a foreign-policy expert who has worked in two presidential administrations, calls the new GOP tone "worse than paranoid, it's cynical." That is, a desperate attempt to shore up a failing party by defining itself in sharper contrast to Obama.

The new GOP line represents the triumph, if one can call it that, of the party faction that has always been hostile to multilateralism, and to global institutions and treaties like the U.N. and the Geneva Conventions. This faction dates at least as far back as the 1940s, and over the years it has clashed repeatedly with the party's internationalist, business-oriented wing. Ronald Reagan managed to unite the factions, briefly. His successor, George H.W. Bush, was a multilateralist—a businessman and ambassador to the U.N. After September 11, the business—oriented wing was shunted aside.

The new Republican paranoia is thus a sign of decay. Moderate party members in the Northeast and Midwest have drifted away, and the number of people identifying themselves as Republicans dropped from 30 percent in 2004 to 25 percent in 2008, with a further fall in the first four months of 2009 to 23 percent, according to a Pew survey. "This leaves a vacuum, and this vacuum is filled with the Rush Limbaughs of the world and with Cheney as the remaining spokesman," says James Mann, whose books have chronicled GOP foreign-policy thinking.

Facing a world in which it is increasingly difficult for the U.S. to ignore allies and the U.N., the conservative Republicans insist more loudly that this is what must be done. The global nature of the financial crisis, climate change, terrorism and pandemic threats have convinced just about everyone else, including the dwindling breed of moderate Republicans, that America can't go it alone. "This nonsense that if we cooperate with the world and if we form alliances that somehow this is going to be subversive to our sovereign interests is crazy," says Chuck Hagel, the recently retired Republican senator who identifies himself with the more multilateralist side of the party. "It makes no sense." Today's conservatives still hail Reagan as a hero, while forgetting how aggressively he engaged with the Soviet Union to help end the Cold War.

As the Republicans grow more paranoid, they grow less popular. Obama is reaching out to the world, and after 100 days in office, his approval rating hit 73 percent, higher than the younger Bush or Clinton at that stage in their terms, with particularly high marks on foreign policy. More than half of Americans think Obama is striking the right balance between pushing U.S. interests and taking its allies interests into account, according to Pew. Fewer than a third disagree.

The GOP is in danger of losing its reputation, firm since the Richard Nixon era, as the party of national security. A few weeks ago, members of the Republicans' more internationalist wing, including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, began a campaign to temper the party's image, but their one-page national-security plan said so little, it was hard to tell where they stood. Unless the GOP gets a grip on America's place in the world, its place in American politics will continue to slip.