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Memo to the GOP's Team 2012: On National Security, Fear Ain't What It Used to Be

This item is a guest post from the National Security Network's Executive Director, Heather Hurlburt, and its Director of Outreach, Ryan Keenan. The views expressed herein are their own.

The "Ground Zero mosque" debate of recent weeks has claimed several casualties: Muslim-Americans' confidence in their homeland and its Constitution, Howard Dean's credibility on the left, and, as Peter Beinart wrote, the U.S.'s ability to lay claim to intellectual generalship in a global "war of ideas." But perhaps less-noticed was a body blow to the 2012 presidential hopes of Newt Gingrich.

Early on, he had signed up to headline a fear-mongering rally at the site of the proposed Cordoba House on September 11 with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, conservative media luminary Andrew Breitbart and far-right Dutch Parliamentarian Geert Wilders. But an onslaught of opposition from all ends of the political spectrum led Gingrich to withdraw, leading his staff to deny he had ever intended to appear - though the announcement on Wilders' website that the anniversary "will witness two eagles" suggests otherwise.

Make no mistake about it: This appearance was about the 2012 Republican presidential race, not the "Islamization of America." In order to win the Republican nomination, Newt needs to get past religious conservatives' reservations about his personal life. He must reel in Tea Partiers to whom his credentials make him part of the Establishment; gain the blessing of that same establishment; and court neoconservatives without scaring off independents.

For Newt in 2012 - and for far too many GOP candidates in 2010 - rhetoric about Shariah law, "Ground Zero mosques" and "Terror Babies" is a tempting "us"-vs.-"them" narrative that papers over an ugly little secret.

As much of the national narrative leading into November's midterms has been division and disappointment among the Democratic base, on national security there are unnoticed but enormous policy and ideological differences within the Republican base. The nativism of the Tea Party movement and the neo-isolationism of Ron and Rand Paul directly contradict the priorities of mainstream Republicans and neoconservatives. Only with difficulty can conservatives embrace the Pauls, with their opposition to the Iraq invasion, skepticism on the Afghanistan war and waffling on issues of detainee treatment. As Ann Coulter said earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, "if Ron Paul supports it and it's not about foreign policy, I'm for it." [Emphasis added].

Tea Party-driven candidates add another layer of challenge. Dan Maes in Colorado thinks the UN is using bicycles to take over his state. Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck brags about turning down Dick Cheney's offer of a Pentagon job. Sharon Angle in Nevada spent six years in the American Independent Party, the Nevada branch of the Constitution Party (with whom a variety of other tea party-oriented Republicans have links). The foreign policy platform of the Constitution Party deserves quotation in full:

The only constitutional basis and purpose of foreign policy is to serve the interests of this nation. We should not be the world's police-man. We pledge our only allegiance to the American Republic. We shout a resounding "NO!" to any one-world government or so-called New World Order. Not one whit of American autonomy may be surrendered to any international organization or cartel of nations. We oppose entangling foreign alliances. The United States [sic] should withdraw from the UN and NATO and bring home our overseas forces. We should review all existing treaties to determine which go beyond constitutional limits. Those that do should be rescinded.

These differences can be managed in an off-year election dominated by an endless trickle of bad economic news - if your opponents allow you to manage them. The strategy is simple: Limit discussion of Afghanistan (see for example the reaction to RNC Chairman Michael Steele, whose comments track public opinion as closely as any public official pronouncements of late). Pick some hardy perennials that get the base riled up - thus the GOP in-district playbook's emphasis on missile defense, military spending, borders, terrorists and Iran. (The Obama administration and Democratic Congress have increased spending on all those things, in fact. But who's counting?)

But to emerge in a crowded field to unseat the commander-in-chief two years from now, it's tempting to try something a bit more daring: a new culture war. Gingrich's soundbite -- "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia" -- gives religious and social conservatives the "Christians under attack" narrative we remember from fights over abortion, gay marriage and Teri Schiavo. This time, the "them" refers to Muslims, not liberals - at a moment when 46% of Republicans tell a Time pollster that Obama is a Muslim. For the Tea Partier, the message is slightly different. Although one would think freedom of religion would logically be appealing to people who brag about constitutionalism and limited government, spinning this as an outside "them" intruding on American soil "us" hits the nativist nerve of a movement with leaders like Mark Williams who think Muslims worship a "monkey god."

Third, this line plays to the neoconservative obsession with power and the Middle East. It creates an image of American impotence with "them" (Muslims) intruding into American society and "us" not being able to build a church or synagogue in Saudi Arabia. And finally, the fact that it involves 9/11 and Ground Zero loops-in Independents.

There's just one problem - as Gingrich's precipitous retreat from the rally shows. The public's position on this is far more nuanced, combining a discomfort with the unfamiliar with an awareness of the deep constitutional issues that the debate raises. In a recent Fox News poll, by a 53% to 41% margin, Independents believed it was "wrong" to build the mosque. But in the same poll, by a 69% to 29% advantage, Independents believed the group had the right to build the mosque. A CNN Opinion research poll of the nation at large shows similar numbers with a 70%-29 % margin opposing the construction but 64% supporting the developers' right to build it. This week a spate of respected Republican, Independent and national security voices spoke out to warn that the debate harms our social cohesion, our Constitution and our national security.

Can a presidential candidate lie down with the animalistic motivations behind the current spate of hate-filled rhetoric, Koran burnings and disgraceful retreats from our Constitution without waking up with a potentially-fatal case of the fleas? It looks as if Gingrich has decided the answer is "no." Others in his party might want to learn from his example - and Democrats as well as Republicans might want to think about what it means when one of our two major parties' national security platform can be summed up as, "build missile defense, not mosques."