In the 2010 election the New Hampshire Republican party took 298 out of 400 house seats, 19 out of 24 state-senate seats, and all five seats on the executive council. A little over a year later, in the state’s presidential primary, the same (more or less) electorate gave over 56 percent of its votes to a couple of moneyed “moderates,” one of whom served in the Obama administration and the other of whom left no trace in office other than the pilot program for Obamacare. Another 23 percent voted for Ron Paul. Supporters of the three other “major” candidates in the race argue that, if only the other two fellows would clear off, a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney would emerge. In fact, even if you combine Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum’s share of the vote, it adds up to a mere 19.5 percent: Were Bain Capital to come in and restructure the “conservative” candidates into one streamlined and efficient Newt Perrtorum, this unstoppable force would be competitive with Jon Huntsman.
According to George Mason University’s annual survey of freedom in the 50 states, New Hampshire is the freest state in the union, so one would expect there to be takers for Ron Paul’s message. On the other hand, facing a very different electorate in Iowa, Paul pulled pretty much an identical share of the poll. It may be time for those of us on the right to consider whether it’s not so much the conservative vote that’s split but whether conservatism itself is fracturing.
No candidate is ideal, and we conservatives are always enjoined not to make the perfect the enemy of the good — or in this case the enemy of the mediocre: Sitting next to me last Tuesday on Fox News, the pollster Frank Luntz said that Romney in his victory speech was now starting to use words that resonate with the American people. The main word he used was “America.” On Tuesday night Romney told us he wants to restore America to an America where millions of Americans believe in the American ideal of a strong America for millions of Americans. Which is more than your average Belgian can say. The crowd responded appreciatively. An hour later a weird goofy gnome in a baggy suit two sizes too big came out and started yakking about the Federal Reserve, fiat money, and monetary policy “throughout all of history.” And the crowd went bananas!
It’s traditional at this point for non-Paulites to say that, while broadly sympathetic to his views on individual liberty, they deplore his neo-isolationism on foreign policy. But deploring it is an inadequate response to a faction that is likely to emerge with the second-highest number of delegates at the GOP convention. In the end, Newt represents Newt and Huntsman represents Huntsman, but Ron Paul represents a view of America’s role in the world, and one for which there are more and more takers after a decade of expensive but inconclusive war. President Obama has called for cuts of half a trillion dollars from the military budget. In response, too many of my friends on the right are demanding business as usual — that the Pentagon’s way of doing things must continue in perpetuity. It cannot.
America is responsible for about 43 percent of the planet’s military expenditure. This is partly a reflection of the diminished military budgets of everyone else. As Britain and the other European powers learned very quickly in the decades after the Second World War, when it comes to a choice between unsustainable welfare programs or a military of global reach, the latter is always easier to cut. It is, needless to say, a false choice. By mid-decade the Pentagon’s huge bloated budget will be less than the mere interest payments on U.S. debt. Much of which goes to bankrolling the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. Nevertheless, faced with reducing funding for China’s military or our own, the latter will be the easier choice for Washington.
So the assumptions of the last 60 years are over — and not just because of the cost. If America’s responsible for 43 percent of global military expenditure, why doesn’t it feel like that? Why does the United States get so little bang for the buck? It is two-thirds of a century since this country won a war (and please don’t bother writing in to say what about Grenada? or Panama?). In the days after 9/11, many Bush-administration officials assured us that this time it would be different, and even liberals believed them. A decade later, Washington can’t wait to get the hell out of the Hindu Kush, and the day after they do it will be as if they never set foot on that benighted sod. Illiterate goatherds with string and fertilizer have tied down the hyperpower for twice as long as it took America to win the Second World War. Something is wrong with this picture.
Ron Paul says he would pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan “as quickly as the ships could get there.” Afghanistan is a landlocked country, but hey, that’s just the kind of boring foreign trivia we won’t need to bother with once we’re safely holed up in Fortress America. To those who dissent from this easy and affordable solution to America’s woes, the Paul campaign likes to point out that it receives more money from America’s men in uniform than anybody else. According to the Federal Election Commission, in the second quarter of 2011, Ron Paul got more donations from service personnel than all other Republican candidates combined plus President Obama. Not unreasonably, serving soldiers are weary of unwon wars — of going to war with everything except war aims and strategic clarity. I would hazard that the recent video of U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban corpses is a coarser comment on the same psychosis, and the folly of fighting a determined and murderous enemy by distributing to your officers bulk orders of that charlatan’s bestseller Three Cups of Tea. There is a logical progression from three cups of sweet tea to those acts of micturition that the Pentagon would do well to ponder.
That said, the isolationists are delusional. Two centuries ago, when Napoleon sold a constrained Appalachian republic the port of New Orleans, he crowed, “I have given England a maritime rival who sooner or later will humble her pride.” Instead, a young America enjoyed (excepting one or two hiccups) the blessings of the Pax Britannica for over a century. It’s relatively easy to be a romantic isolationist republic when the Royal Navy’s out there enforcing global order. Likewise, after 1945, Britain’s imperial decline was cushioned by Washington’s assumption of the old lion’s role as order maker. But the notion that America can retain all the comforts and prosperity of global dominance while shrugging off all the responsibilities is fantasy. “Fortress America” is less a fortress than a state of denial, yet it’s one with increasing appeal to many Republican voters.
With characteristic timidity, Mitt Romney says that as commander-in-chief his Afghan strategy would be determined by the “commanders in the field.” More tea and sympathy! But a lazy deference to the inviolability of the present arrangements for another two-thirds of a century of unwon wars will not suffice. I am in favor of a leaner, meaner military — emphasis on both adjectives. A broke America will perforce wind up with the first. But, if we want the second, the foreign-policy Right will have to make a better case than it has this primary season.
— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2012 Mark Steyn