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

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Africa, Middle East, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    “Doves” don´t hang Teabags on their heads.

  2. mattb says:

    Just checked the transcript (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1106/13/se.02.html) and in response to the possibility of a “Dove” I think it’s also worth parsing what was said between the lines like this comment from Bachmann:

    We need every one of us in a three-legged stool. We need the peace through strength of Republicans, we need the fiscal conservatives, we need the social conservatives. We need everybody to come together because we’re going to win. Just make no mistake about it.

    While “peace through strength of Republicans” isn’t exactly saying one is a hawk, it is a suggestion that this candidate at least probably isn’t going to the the first on to bring up reducing the size of our military expenditure.

    Likewise, while he’s not a serious candidate, Santorum’s “Our enemies no longer respect us.” is a concerning statement as I’m not sure how he imagines we will regain that respect from out enemies without a show of military power.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Huntsman is in. That shakes things up a bit.

  4. Tano says:

    It was Democrats who launched America into both World Wars

    Funny, but I thought the Japs had some determinative role in starting the second war.

    And Bush Sr. Took us into the Iraq.

    So when you add it all up: GOP -Spanish-American War, Gulf War, Afghanistan,, Iraq (plus strong support for the Vietnam war it must be emphasized)

    vs. Dems WWI, Korea, Vietnam, Balkans,

    You can also throw in Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama for the GOP, and the Dominican Republic for the Dems, and Cuba and Somalia for both, just off the top of my head. I am sure I am missing some…
    Bottom line, I think there is really no argument to be made whatsoever about one party being more interventionist than the other.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Tano: We’d isolated Japan and pushed them into a desperation move. Recall that the country was adamantly opposed to going in and FDR promised to keep us out. Pearl Harbor became the excuse for doing what FDR wanted to do all along.

    Republicans were isolationist during the inter-war period but have been “strong on defense” ever since. I don’t know if we’d have done Vietnam had Nixon won in 1960, as that was always a bizarre intervention. But there’s no way to know.

    Anyway, I’m just noting that neoconservatism is a very new strain and a minority one in the GOP. But a party’s politicians tend to back their own president’s wars and be skeptical of the other side’s.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think either party would, more’s the pity.

  7. mattb says:

    James, I’m sympathetic to the historical argument you are making. But I think that has to be balanced with looking at the parties as they exist today. It seems that today’s Republicans are AS if not MORE tied up in Eisenhower’s Military/Industrial complex as the Democrats. And since Regan and the early 80’s, there has been a significant line of Hawkish militarism to the party (hence Bachmann’s appeal to “Peace through Strength” Republicans). Looking further to the current “talking heads” class, being strong on military issues is part of the litmus test for being a real republican vs. a RINO.

    So it is true that Neoconservativism is a relatively new strain, but it’s a currently a cornerstone of today’s party. At this moment, is there any real indication that there is a real end in sight for that?

  8. James Joyner says:

    @mattb: We’re not in disagreement on the major point. See my Atlantic piece from last month, “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology.” We’re not anywhere close to nominating a president, in either party, who will shut down the war machine.

    My only points here are that do-gooder interventionism isn’t a standard part of the Republican platform and that one can oppose those sort of missions without qualifying as a dove.

  9. george says:

    Why does “strong on defense” mean getting involved in overseas conflicts? Isn’t invading others an aspect of “strong on offense”?

    There’s an aspect of “the best defense is a good offense”, but most of these conflicts didn’t involve any risk to the US itself, just to its “interests” – which is the language of empire.

  10. We’d isolated Japan and pushed them into a desperation move.

    This is Japanese revisionism. We stopped trading them only after they’d already invaded four countries and made it explicitly clear that all they had to do to get the embargo lifted was call a cease fire. The only sense that this ‘pushed them into a desperation move’ is it made it infeasable for them to continue invading China. To blame that on us is like saying we forced Germany to invade France because we refused to let them take Poland unopposed.

  11. Rob in CT says:

    No, the GOP will not nominate a dove. When is the last time either party nominated a dove (a real dove, as opposed to someone painted that way by his opponent)?

  12. CB says:

    Why does “strong on defense” mean getting involved in overseas conflicts? Isn’t invading others an aspect of “strong on offense”?

    ah, you just hit the one idea that drives me absolutely bonkers. this idea of ‘defense through offense’ and the attempts to tie overseas adventurism to imminent domestic threats strikes me as exactly the type of thing that orwell had in mind.

  13. CB says:

    as to the topic at hand…it would be nice, but no.

  14. mattb says:

    @James — I remember the article (and liked it very much, along with your other contributions to The Atlantic – again ‘gratz on that gig). And I agree with the points you raised in it.

    I am holding out some hope that if Obama gets a second term, there might be a possibility to walk back some of this trend — granted it’s a small glimmer at best. I think more realistically, in the present (last 30 years or so) political climate, that a Republican president probably has a better chance of being able to accomplish this.

    The problem, of course, is getting a non-neocon in place. In some respects, Romney might be the best hope for this in the immediate future. But even that appears a very slim sliver of hope.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Why does “strong on defense” mean getting involved in overseas conflicts?

    Because that’s how defense contractors make the big bucks?

  16. Liberty60 says:
  17. Because that’s how defense contractors make the big bucks?

    This is one of those things everyone thinks is true but actually isn’t. Defense contractors actually hate real wars. The place they make all their money is in procurement and R&D, and when there’s actual fighting going on, those tend to take a back seat to the operations budget.