The Republican Party's increasing divisions on foreign policy have now moved beyond Tea Party-inspired financial grumbling to find their way into the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Could the party's 2012 nomination turn on foreign policy? If so, it would echo the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, in which foreign policy played an unusually strong role: Barack Obama is president of the United States today in large part because he opposed the Iraq War in 2003, compared to Hillary Clinton, who had been in favor of the war. However, supporters of a noninterventionist turn in the GOP are likely to be disappointed during the general election as well as by any actual Republican administration that might emerge from it: The intellectual superstructure of foreign policy thinking in the GOP remains firmly in the hawkish camp and will continue to reside there until the party's foreign policy realists build an institutional foundation of their own.
The battle lines in the GOP seem to be falling along "neoconservative" versus "realist" camps, although both terms are so loaded that they require considerable clarification. In broad strokes, the neoconservative faction tends to prefer a more interventionist foreign policy and a higher defense budget, while the realist faction is more skeptical of foreign intervention and talks seriously about cutting defense spending. Three issues currently distinguish the two factions.
The emerging congressional opposition to the Libya operation may provide a defining issue for the realists. The war is not particularly popular with the population at large, and Obama is extremely unpopular with the GOP electorate. For realists interested in the nomination, attacking the president on Libya -- as Rep. Michelle Bachman has done -- may prove profitable in both the primary and the general election.