Nearly ten years after seizing control of Republican foreign policy, neoconservatives and other hawks appear to be losing it.
That is at least the tentative conclusion of a number of political analysts following Monday’s first nationally televised debate of the party’s declared Republican candidates — none of whom defended the current U.S. engagement in Libya, while several suggested it was time to pare down Washington’s global military engagements, including in Afghanistan.
“This sure isn’t the Republican Party of George Bush, [former Vice President] Dick Cheney, and [former Pentagon chief] Donald Rumsfeld,” exulted one liberal commentator, Michael Tomasky, in the Daily Beast. “The neocons are gone.”
“Is the Republican party turning isolationist for 2012?” asked Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, a liberal interventionist who has often allied himself with neoconservatives in support of “regime change” against authoritarian governments hostile to the U.S. or Israel.
“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 favor] aggressive American intervention abroad,” Diehl wrote on his blog.
Of particular note during the debate was a comment about Afghanistan by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is widely acknowledged to be the current front-runner in the Republican field.
“It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the [Afghan] military in a way that they’re able to defend themselves,” Romney said, adding, perhaps fatefully, “I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
What precisely he meant by the latter sentence was left unclear, but it was sufficiently negative for one prominent neoconservative, Danielle Pletka, to tell Politico that her inbox had been flooded Tuesday morning with emails calling Romney’s remarks a “disaster.”
“I’d thought of Romney as a mainstream Republican — supporting American strength and American leadership, but this doesn’t reflect that,” Pletka, who heads the foreign policy and defense division of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), told Politico, adding that perhaps the front-runner was “a little bit of a weathervane.”
Whatever Romney meant, Monday’s debate — and the candidates’ apparent lack of enthusiasm for the military adventures of the near-decade that followed the 9/11 attacks — marked at least an “incremental… shift,” as the New York Times put it, in the party’s foreign-policy stance from “the aggressive use of American power around the world” to a “new debate over the costs and benefits” of deploying that power, particularly in a time of “extreme fiscal pressure.”
Since the mid-1970′s, Republicans have been divided between aggressive nationalists, like Cheney, and Israel-centered neoconservatives — who also enjoyed the support of the Christian Right — on the one hand, and isolationists and foreign-policy realists on the other.
The balance of power between the two groups has shifted more than once in the nearly four decades since. Under most of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, for example, the nationalists and neoconservatives largely prevailed until they were overcome by the combination of the Iran-Contra scandal, Secretary of State George Shultz, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Under President George H.W. Bush, the realists gained virtually total control.
The two factions spent much of President Bill Clinton’s eight years fighting each other. Indeed, it was during that period that the nationalists, neoconservatives, and Christian Rightists formed the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) — initially to counteract what they saw as growing isolationism and anti-interventionism among Republican lawmakers in Congress.
PNAC’s founders, neoconservatives Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, backed John McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries, against George W. Bush — whose calls for a “more humble” and “modest” foreign policy conjured bad memories of his father.
Once in office, however, President George W. Bush chose leaders of both factions as his main advisers — most importantly Cheney and Rumsfeld, both nationalists surrounded by neoconservatives; and Colin Powell, a classic realist, as his secretary of state. For the first eight months, the two sides locked horns on virtually every major foreign-policy issue.
But the 9/11 attacks changed the balance of power decisively in favor of the hawks who, even as they gradually lost influence to the realists within the administration during Bush’s second term, retained the solid support of Republicans in Congress for all eight years. The fact that McCain, whose foreign-policy views were distinctly neoconservative, won the party’s presidential nomination in 2008 testified to the hawks’ enduring strength.
But the Sep 2008 financial crisis — and the economic distress it caused — laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the party’s realist-isolationist wing, according to political analysts.
“The economic duress is undermining the national greatness project of Bill Kristol and the neocons,” according to Steve Clemons, a national-security expert at the New America Foundation (NAF), whose washingtonnote.com blog is widely read here.
“What we are seeing evolve among Republicans is a hybrid realism with some isolationist strains that believes the costs of American intervention in the world at the rate of the last decade simply can’t be sustained,” wrote Clemons.
That evolution has gained momentum in the past few months, particularly since President Barack Obama yielded to pressure from a coalition of neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and nationalists like McCain, to intervene in Libya, and, more importantly since the May 2 killing by U.S. Special Forces of the al-Qaeda chief in Pakistan. The killing of Osama bin Laden, according to Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “symbolized a closure in some ways to the wars that began after the 9/11 attacks.”
Indeed, in just the last month, 26 Republican congressmen deserted their leadership and joined a strong majority of Democrats in calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan, while last week, in an action that drew charges of “isolationism” from the neoconservative Wall Street Journal, 87 Republicans voted for a resolution that would require Obama to end military action in Libya within 15 days. And each new day seems to offer a story about yet another Republican insisting that the defense budget should not be exempt from major cuts to reduce the yawning federal deficit.
“The party was moving in this direction quite decidedly before 9/11, and then 9/11 silenced the voices of restraint and neo-isolationism,” Kupchan told IPS. “And now, they are finally coming back with a vengeance.”
“That emergence may make for some interesting alliances across partisan lines where you have left- leaning Democrats uncomfortable with the use of force lining up with Republicans interested in bringing down the deficit,” Kupchan noted.
Tomasky observed, Republican candidates might now be changing their tune not so much out of conviction as out of the desire to win elections.
Just last week, the Pew Research Center released its latest poll on U.S. foreign policy attitudes which found that “the current measure of isolationist sentiment is among the highest recorded” in more than 50 years.
While, for much of the Bush administration, only one in four Republicans said the U.S. should “mind its own business” internationally, that percentage has nearly doubled since Bush left office. The Pew survey also found a 50 percent increase in Republican support for “reducing [U.S.] military commitments overseas” — from 29 percent in 2008, to 44 percent in May, 2011. Moreover, 56 percent of Republicans said they support reducing those commitments as a way to cut the budget deficit.
Similarly, Republicans appear to have lost virtually all interest in promoting Bush’s and the neoconservatives’ “Freedom Agenda” abroad. According to the Pew poll, only one in ten Republicans said they believe democracy-promotion should be a long-term U.S. priority.