Will Republicans Nominate a Dove?
WaPo's Jackson Diehl asks, "Will the GOP nominate a dove?"
WaPo’s Jackson Diehl asks, “Will the GOP nominate a dove?”
Is the Republican party turning isolationist for 2012? No doubt it’s too soon to know–but the responses of GOP presidential candidates to questions about Libya and Afghanistan in Monday night’s debate were striking.
None supported President Obama’s decision to join NATO’s military intervention against the regime of Moammar Gaddafi. “There was no vital national interest,” said Rep. Michelle Bachmann, summing up what appeared to be the prevailing view.
“We to this day don’t yet know who the rebel forces are that we’re helping,” Bachmann said. “There are some reports that they may contain al Qaeda of North Africa. What possible vital American interests could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya?”
Newt Gingrich quickly seconded Bachmann’s view: “I think that we should say to the generals we would like to figure out to get out as rapid as possible with the safety of the troops involved.”
To be sure, Tim Pawlenty has previously supported air strikes in Libya and criticized Obama’s strategy there as too “timid.” On Monday he said he supported drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, contrary to libertarian Ron Paul, who predictably declared that he would end American military operations everywhere.
But Pawlenty didn’t speak about Libya, and frontrunner Mitt Romney, who was also silent on the subject, articulated an interesting “lesson” he said had been learned from Afghanistan: “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
All in all this first Republican debate offered a striking change of tone for a party that a decade ago was dominated, in foreign policy, by the neoconservative movement, which favored (and still does) aggressive American intervention abroad. It also differed sharply from the last Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), who has been one of the strongest advocates of military action in Libya.
You would expect Republicans to attack Obama’s foreign policy performance, particularly in the Middle East. But it will be remarkable if the criticism continues to come from the anti-intervention left, rather than the hawkish right.
First, while McCain has managed, it’s pretty hard to critique Obama from the right. He’s continued Bush’s planned slow drawdown in Iraq, doubled down on Afghanistan, committed us to a third war in Libya, and ordered Osama bin Laden killed and buried at sea. One could argue we should be more aggressive in Libya–or start a fourth war in Syria!–but there’s not much upside to that.
Second, McCain was an aberration. While “strong on defense” has been a Republican mantra for decades, the party’s leadership has generally been anti-interventionist. It was Democrats who launched America into both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Balkan Wars, often against Republican opposition.
Yes, it’s true that Bush took us into Afghanistan after 9/11, but that was almost universally viewed as necessary. He also took us into Iraq, which was much more controversial and became even more so in retrospect. But he campaigned on “no nation building” and a “humble foreign policy.”
Third, let’s face it, there’s a partisan aspect to all this. Candidates in the out party almost always criticize the wars started on a president’s watch. Had McCain been elected in 2008 and events otherwise unfolded as they have, we’d have gone into Libya much earlier and much harder. And all these folks–except, naturally, Ron Paul–would be cheerleading for it.
Finally, the only American president in modern memory who could even arguably be called a dove was Jimmy Carter. Opposing intervention in other people’s civil wars when no vital US interests are at stake isn’t being a dove; it’s been the rational, bipartisan consensus for most of our history.
Photo credit: CBS