Politics & Policy

Not So Hawkish: Republicans after the Iraq War

U.S. Army tanks in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, November, 2003.
Has the GOP become the less interventionist party?

Are Republicans no longer the party more inclined to military interventions and an assertive foreign policy?

It’s a question raised by the enthusiastic response to Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster and to his not-very-interventionist foreign policy.

#ad#It’s raised also by House Republicans’ willingness to accept the budget sequester, which includes defense cuts that former defense secretary Leon Panetta called “devastating.”

Barack Obama thought those cuts would be so unpalatable that Republicans would agree to increase tax revenues to avoid them. A decade or two ago, that would have been true. Not so today.

And it’s a question raised by the silence on the part of most Republican officeholders and the contrition of others on the tenth anniversary of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Only John McCain and a few others have been defending a war that almost all Republicans and many Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, initially supported.

Historically, neither party has always been either hawkish or dovish. Democrats supported the Mexican War; Whigs were against it. Republicans backed Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; many Democrats wanted a compromise peace. Republicans supported the Spanish-American War and suppression of the Philippine insurrection; Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against “imperialism.”

For half a century, Democrats were the party more supportive of military intervention. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, after winning reelection as the man who kept us out of war, called for a declaration of war against Germany six months later. He got it, with 50 dissents in the House and six in the Senate. In the 1930s, Republican ranks included more isolationists than interventionists, and vice versa for Democrats.

Franklin Roosevelt scrambled to send arms to beleaguered Britain and cut off oil sales (when the U.S. produced most of the world’s oil) to hostile Japan. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, all but one member of Congress voted to declare war. But some notable Republicans, including Chicago Tribune publisher Colonel Robert McCormick and former president Herbert Hoover, charged that FDR had maneuvered us into what people today would call a war of choice.

Democratic presidents led America into wars in Korea and Vietnam, with death tolls more than ten times what we have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was the history Bob Dole was referring to when he talked of “Democrat wars” in the 1976 vice-presidential debate. But by that time, the term was obsolete.

Only two Democrats (and no Republicans) voted against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which Lyndon Johnson used as his license to send up to 550,000 U.S. troops to Vietnam. But by 1968, opposition to that war was welling up, primarily but not entirely within the Democratic party. LBJ was opposed for renomination by antiwar Eugene McCarthy and dropped out of the race. In 1972, Democrats nominated the dovish George McGovern. For nearly half a century, they have been the party less supportive of military intervention.

Not that Republicans have invariably supported it. Ronald Reagan aided the Nicaraguan Contras and intervened in Grenada but withdrew from Lebanon. He built up the military but didn’t find much occasion to use it. George H. W. Bush got approval from the United Nations before asking Congress to authorize the Gulf War. George W. Bush sought U.N. approval for Iraq, too.

Democrats remained obsessed with Vietnam. Their speeches opposing Contra aid and the Gulf and Iraq wars were full of arguments more relevant to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution than to the issue at hand. Some Democrats disagreed. Bill Clinton used force (without U.N. approval) in Serbia and Kosovo. Almost all Democrats supported intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11.

But almost all congressional Democrats tried to stop George W. Bush’s successful surge strategy in Iraq. Hillary Clinton found cause to question the veracity of General David Petraeus. The surge came too late to salvage the reputation of the Iraq War. Polls now show majorities think the war was a mistake. Most Republican politicians seem disinclined to suggest we should intervene anywhere else.

World problems loom: North Korea, Iran, Syria, North Africa. Barack Obama may choose to respond militarily. He has just beefed up missile defense in response to North Korea. If he follows up on his threat to attack Iran’s nuclear program, we could have a 2016 presidential race in which Republican Rand Paul criticizes military action and Democrat Hillary Clinton defends it.

That would be a political turnabout as stark as the one in the 1960s. Could it happen?

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2013 The Washington Examiner. Distributed by Creators.com

Michael Barone — Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2018 Creators.com

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