John McCain watched the first big Republican presidential-primary debate, and he didn’t like what he saw. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) was saying that America had no vital interest in Libya. Herman Cain seemed to say the same thing. Rep. Ron Paul (R., Tex.) said, “I’d bring [the troops] home as quickly as possible.” Mitt Romney’s answer to a question about Afghanistan emphasized his desire to bring the troops home, too. A few days later, on This Week with Christiane Amanpour, McCain said, “This is isolationism.”
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, another of the candidates in that debate, echoed McCain’s comments. “I don’t like the drift of the Republican party toward what appears to be a retreat or a move more towards isolationism,” he told Politico. Sen. Lindsey Graham expressed similar concerns.
The resurgence of Republican isolationism became a journalistic theme. On the front page of the New York Times, Jeff Zeleny reported, “The hawkish consensus on national security that has dominated Republican foreign policy for the last decade is giving way to a more nuanced view. . . . The evolution also highlights a renewed streak of isolationism among Republicans, which has been influenced by the rise of the Tea Party movement and a growing sense that the United States can no longer afford to intervene in clashes everywhere.” Republicans “would turn the country inward,” worried liberal columnist Richard Cohen, who invoked the 1930s as an unhappy example of the results of this type of turn.
All of this is terribly overblown.
Let’s start with a fact none of these analyses and lamentations mention: The Republicans’ “streak of isolationism” must be set against a larger streak of hawkishness. When President Obama announced troop withdrawals from Afghanistan in mid-June, Republican foreign-policy officials mostly criticized him for it. True, Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said he wanted a faster drawdown. But the chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Relations Committee, Buck McKeon (R., Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), respectively, said that we should not withdraw until military leaders said it was safe. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a middle-of-the-road Republican who runs his caucus’s campaign committee, said the same thing.
Romney greeted Obama’s speech with an ambiguous statement that drew complaints from some supporters of the Afghan war: “We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. This decision should not be based on politics or economics.” Left unanswered was whether Romney thought Obama’s decision was correct. But the next day, after Gen. David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill, Romney condemned the troop withdrawal for not being based on military advice. Romney isn’t taking an isolationist position. He’s hedging his bets politically. (McCain criticized him during the 2008 primaries for hedging on the surge in Iraq.)
No new Republican senator enjoys more tea-party support than Marco Rubio of Florida. He supports the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has even criticized Obama for not moving more forcefully in Libya. The Republican party’s much-heralded tea-party-influenced isolationist streak does not appear to have had any effect whatsoever on his popularity.
Second, opposition to a particular deployment of the U.S. military abroad — or to several of them — is not the same thing as opposition in principle to overseas intervention. It could simply be a judgment that particular interventions are imprudent. Representative Bachmann believes “we’ve got to finish the job” in Afghanistan, for example, while opposing the Libyan intervention. She isn’t an isolationist just because she isn’t an undiscriminating enthusiast for all interventions. And conservatives are supposed to be skeptical of government programs, are we not?
The bar for “isolationism” has been set so low that one can favor continuing to spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined; preserving our troop presence in Japan, South Korea, and Europe; and maintaining our security guarantees to Israel and Taiwan — and still be stuck with the label. Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) is often taken as the leading spokesman for anti-interventionists in D.C. When he was running for office, however, his campaign manager said that Paul was “not for wholesale withdrawal” from Afghanistan and Iraq. “Now that we’re there we have to win,” he added.
The only actual isolationist in the Republican party is Patrick Buchanan. He wants to cut the country off from trade and immigration. He would have kept out of not only the Iraq War but also World Wars I and II and the Civil War. But Buchanan is a marginal figure in the Republican party, which he felt compelled to leave during his last run for president. Even Buchananites generally reject the term “isolationist” as pejorative. (Their opposite numbers, meanwhile, generally prefer to say they advocate a “robust foreign policy” rather than label themselves “warmongers.”)
In short, there simply isn’t a sizable isolationist faction within the Republican party. At most one could say that the less interventionist Republicans are more isolationist than Senator McCain. It’s a true but not terribly informative statement — like saying Ronald Reagan was more socialistic than Ron Paul is.
Look away from the distraction of “isolationism,” and two trends in Republican foreign-policy views can be seen. One is a tidal shift in foreign-policy partisanship. At the height of George W. Bush’s administration, it was easy to misunderstand the relationship between the president’s popularity and the party’s foreign-policy views. Many Republicans supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because they supported Bush — not vice versa. Their enthusiasm for foreign intervention has declined along with their congeniality toward, and trust in, the commander-in-chief overseeing it. For similar reasons, the Left, while it wants out of Afghanistan, seems unwilling or unable to organize the kind of protests we saw against Bushitler.
Second, Republicans are, like the public at large, tired of the wars and concerned that we are overextended abroad, especially in light of our budget disaster. So they are increasingly receptive to arguments for retrenchment and for letting other advanced countries relieve us of some of the burden of global leadership. That does not mean that they believe an American withdrawal from the world is possible or desirable. (That is true even if the impulse is expressed carelessly. When President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman say it is time for “nation building at home,” presumably they do not mean that we should employ violence to reconstruct our society and its politics, as we have attempted in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Whether these attitudes are justified is a matter of judgment, because the answer depends on an assessment of particular circumstances and not on the goodness or badness of American engagement in general. At some point, even someone who has strongly supported all of our military actions over the last two decades might conclude that it was time to draw back — and without becoming an isolationist.
Looking at the question from the other direction, it is also true that the desire to scale back our efforts overseas may be mistaken even if it is not isolationist. Nearly every argument for leaving Afghanistan emphasizes that we have been there for ten years. George Will often notes how much shorter our involvement in World War II was. The impatience is understandable, but impatience is not an argument. If we had been doing the same thing there for ten years with no progress to show for it and no plan but to continue, that would be a good reason to abandon the effort. But by most accounts, our current strategy in Afghanistan, which we have pursued in full force for only a year, has been working.
That’s the case that supporters of the war in Afghanistan, including Senator McCain, should be making, instead of jousting with imaginary isolationists.