With regard to the Libyan intervention, which Pawlenty advocated from the beginning, we are where we are: The United States is in fact at war in Libya, whether or not the White House chooses to admit it. The responsible course now is therefore to press the Libyan operation through to a rapid and successful conclusion by seeing Qaddafi overthrown.
As of March this year, President Obama had three basic options in relation to Libya’s civil conflict. Option No. 1: Do nothing. Option No. 2: Go to Congress in a forthright way and then intervene decisively with deadly airstrikes against the heart of Qaddafi’s regime. Option No. 3: Intervene, but in an excruciatingly half-hearted manner out of multilateral and legalistic sensibilities, while simultaneously insulting Congress. Obviously, No. 3 was the worst possible choice in every sense, and that is the option Obama has chosen. But now that this choice has been made, option 1 is no longer available. That leaves only option 2.
Conservatives are right to be furious with Obama’s flippant mismanagement of the Libyan operation, but for congressional Republicans to actually defund an ongoing U.S. military operation would be an astonishing departure from the GOP’s best traditions. Let’s leave that kind of stunt to liberal Democrats in Congress, who have made a specialty of it over the years.
Whatever one thinks of the current Libyan entanglement, the overarching question is really much bigger, and makes the issue of Libya pale by comparison. A small but vocal and growing minority of conservative opinion leaders and politicians really do seem to be staking out an overall foreign-policy position along the lines long called for Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas), which says that Obama has not retrenched internationally far enough, has not cut defense spending deeply enough, and has not withdrawn from Afghanistan quickly enough. This is not what presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan said under similar circumstances in the 1970s, and it is not the imperative of the moment. Pawlenty has therefore opened up a very useful foreign-policy debate within the Republican party.
The question today is not whether the United States will embark on some colossal new military or international effort — it is whether it will retreat and give up on existing ones. However fatigued Americans are with foreign entanglements right now, the fact is that at the global level, the U.S. has played an indispensable role since World War II in upholding an international order that is astonishingly peaceful, prosperous, and free by historical standards. Will the United States now retreat from that great role, worldwide or comprehensively? Ron Paul says yes. Pawlenty says no.
Grassroots Republicans may be tired of nation-building missions, but they remain strong on national defense, counterterrorism, and American leadership abroad. Most GOP conservatives, including tea-party supporters, are a pretty hawkish bunch at heart, and sensitive to any implication of American decline. The usual conservative instinct is not to retreat in the face of military, political, or international adversity. My guess is that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, the GOP presidential nominee in 2012 will sound more like Reagan — and Pawlenty — than Ron Paul.— Colin Dueck is associate professor in public and international affairs at George Mason University, and the author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II (Princeton, 2010).