In Session

On foreign policy, who speaks for Republicans?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Even as Washington is preoccupied with the threat of a government shutdown, news from abroad has insistently pushed its way onto the front page in recent weeks, with unrest in the Middle East spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and across the region.

It's obvious who speaks for Democrats on these issues: President Obama is commander-in-chief and the author of the foreign policy of his country and his party. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a political star in her own right, echoes and amplifies Obama's message.

Across the aisle, the situation is less clear. When it comes to foreign policy, who speaks for the GOP?

Typically, when a party doesn't hold the White House, the answer to that question should be found on Capitol Hill. Yet the Republican cohort in Congress has few lawmakers who are both experienced enough and high-profile enough to serve as effective party spokesmen on issues beyond U.S. borders.

Republicans also don't yet have a 2012 presidential nominee to rally behind, and the current field of potential candidates is thin on defense and foreign policy veterans.

"There's clearly a vacuum here," said James Carafano, who heads the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) cut his teeth working on education and labor issues and has never been closely associated with foreign policy or military matters. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been outspoken on issues affecting Israel and the Middle East, though he has primarily served on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

"He's probably the most eloquent Republican on Israel," Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said of Cantor.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been closely identified with some global topics, particularly China. Yet he, too, is known more for his work as an appropriator and party leader than as a foreign policy sage. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) has been a leader on some defense issues - he was a key negotiator on the recent START arms control treaty - but he plans to retire in 2012.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, might also be gone soon, but for a different reason. Although he has long experience on foreign policy issues, particularly arms control, many Republicans think he is too liberal, and he faces a serious reelection threat in next year's GOP primary.

House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), meanwhile, is politically safe and has the advantage of serving in the majority. But she says she does not consider herself to be a leading national voice for her party.

"The president is always going to [overshadow] anyone from either party," Ros-Lehtinen said. "It's very hard to have a megaphone as amplified . . . as the president's."

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