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Whether a Democrat or a Republican is elected in 2008, the time is ripe for a reassertion of the traditional Republican way of war in America. By that I mean the approach to foreign policy of pre-neo-conservative Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell – an approach that US President George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives have rejected in favour of a disastrous strategy inspired by cold war Democrats.

Neo-conservatives are far more likely to praise Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy than to quote Eisenhower or Nixon, and with good reason. Most are ex-Democrats, and their foreign policy tradition is based in the “cold war liberalism” of Truman, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. As big-government liberals, cold war Democrats assumed that the US economy could afford both welfare and warfare. They favoured outspending the Soviet bloc at all levels.

Cold war Republicans were much more concerned about ensuring that the cost of containment did not stifle the American economy. Eisenhower feared that what he called “the military-industrial complex” would compete with the private sector for resources. To keep defence costs under control, he rejected matching Soviet power gun for gun, in favour of a strategy based on atomic airpower. Cold war Democrats influential in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations rejected this in favour of matching the Soviets and their proxies in conventional wars and even guerrilla wars. Result: Vietnam.

While trying to extricate the US from Vietnam, Nixon added the Nixon doctrine to the Republican way of war. In Guam on July 25 1969, he announced that, although the US would provide indirect aid to its allies, “we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the weapons for its defence”. The Reagan doctrine added yet another element. Instead of sending US troops to liberate nations from communist dictatorships, the US would arm and bankroll insurgents in countries such as Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. In an article in Foreign Affairs in 1992, Gen Powell added his own “Powell Doctrine”, which stated that the US should not send troops except as a last resort and with sufficient force to ensure swift victory.

Call it the Eisenhower-Nixon-Reagan-Powell doctrine – a capital-intensive strategy for the traditional American party of capital. The US will rely on superior technology, rather than attempt to match the military manpower of its enemies (Eisenhower). The US will provide allies and clients with arms, intelligence and aid, but expect them to fight their own battles (Nixon). The US will support freedom fighters, but will not send its own soldiers to liberate them from their oppressors (Reagan). Only when all else fails will the US send its own troops (Powell).

Nothing could be further from the neo-conservative Bush doctrine. Neo-conservatives reject the logic of the Eisenhower doctrine, arguing that the US should permanently fund the military at cold war levels. They reject the spirit of the Nixon doctrine, arguing that the US in the name of “reassurance” should volunteer to protect allies such as Japan against their enemies such as North Korea. While praising Reagan, the neocons reject his doctrine, holding instead that the US should liberate oppressed nations by means of “regime change” instead of by his less costly alternative of arming indigenous “freedom fighters”. And they reject the Powell doctrine, arguing that it raises the bar for US military intervention too high.

The neocon hostility to the Republican way of war comes as no surprise. They and their allies are converts to the Republican party who emerged from the anti-communist left wing of the Truman-Kennedy-Johnson Democrats. In the electorate, the major supporters of Mr Bush’s foreign policy are hawkish southerners, who used to be Democrats until the cultural revolutions of the 1960s drove them out.

Now that the Republican way of warfare has been rejected by the Republican party, might it be adopted by the Democrats? In the past 30 years, moderate Republicans switched to the Democrats. Their geographic base – the northeast, midwest and Pacific coast – is that of the Republican party up to Eisenhower and Nixon.

“We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,” Bill Clinton reflected, shortly after being elected president. “We stand for low deficits, free trade, and the bond market.” Mr Clinton was right: with the exception of their dwindling trade-union wing, the Democrats are already Eisenhower Republicans in domestic policy. Will the Democrats become Eisenhower Republicans in foreign policy, too? The Republican way of war could provide the Democrats with a tough-minded but cost-conscious national security strategy as an alternative to the Bush doctrine, with its spendthrift attitude towards American blood and treasure.

Will the 2008 election pit an Eisenhower Democrat against a Truman Republican? Now that would be an interesting debate.

The writer is the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of The American Way of Strategy

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