Isolationism is back in the news. The big thinkers of the Tea Party, in their pursuit of slashing taxes, lowering public spending, and severely shrinking the size and power of the federal government, have revived an idea that has not been respectable among senior Republicans for more than 70 years. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky believes that, to encourage more young people to vote for the GOP, the party should stop chasing divisive social issues, like incarcerating people for petty drug offenses, and take up civil liberties issues, like protecting American suspected terrorists on American soil from being summarily executed by American drones.
But that is just a start. According to a recent speech in Cincinnati, Paul thinks that, for the GOP to win younger voters, “even bigger to me than the social issues is the idea of war.” “If we didn’t have to be everywhere all the time, if maybe we tried to reserve it for when our national interests were impacted or a vital interest of ours was . . . [he left the thought unfinished] — and if Republicans didn’t seem so eager to go to war — I think we’d attract more young people.” He would prefer it “if we had a less bellicose approach, if we were for a strong defense but a little bit less aggressive defense around the world.” Paul is not suggesting pacifism. What he means by “a less aggressive foreign policy” is that he wishes America would stop taking its international responsibilities so seriously because it costs taxpayers a lot of money.
This is an extraordinary about-face for a leader of a party that in the post-war world has always proudly defended America’s right to intervene with force when and wherever it wishes. The GOP has always been the natural home for isolationists. The “Irreconcilables” that kept America out of the League of Nations were overwhelmingly Republican and it was largely Republican isolationists who advocated the neutrality laws in the Twenties and Thirties. Robert Taft nudged the party towards isolationism in his many failed bids to become the Republican presidential candidate through the Forties and Fifties. And rogue isolationist Patrick Buchanan gave the GOP establishment a scare when in both 1992 and 1996 he prospered in early primaries.
But internationalism and support for the military has been the GOP’s backbone since Abraham Lincoln. Despite Dwight Eisenhower’s belated warnings about the “military-industrial complex,” he was the most accomplished military figure to occupy the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. Richard Nixon had no compunction about secretly bombing Cambodia and Laos in an attempt to bring the Vietnam War to a close. Ronald Reagan may have wanted to trade away our nuclear weapons, and his finest hour as commander-in-chief may only have been the invasion of Grenada, but no one doubted his resolve to counter the Soviet threat by military means if necessary.
After a wobble, George H. W. Bush successfully prosecuted the Gulf War with admirable restraint. And his son, in thrall to neo-conservative hawks, waged war simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the casus belli of the Iraq War proved to be a tragic red herring, expensive in monetary and military and civilian losses. Navy fighter pilot John McCain, taken prisoner and tortured by the Vietnamese, was likely only half joking when he urged, “Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of “Barbara Ann.” Romney, who dodged the draft by trying to convert France’s Catholics to Mormonism, was the beginning of the end of the fighting tradition. Now, merely to attract fickle younger voters, decades of the GOP’s warrior tradition is to be jettisoned.