Nicholas Wapshott

The return of isolationism

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 29, 2013 13:07 UTC

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.

Uniting court — and country

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 26, 2013 22:14 UTC

The comedian Peter Cook once joked, “I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin.” Instead, he became a coal miner. “They only ask one question. They say, ‘Who are you?’ And I got 75 percent for that.” As the laughter subsided, Cook added a satirical kicker. “Being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with the judges.”

It seems that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may have been listening to some of Cook’s old records. Ahead of this week’s landmark hearings in which the Supremes hear two cases in which they are being invited to decide whether same-sex marriages are constitutional, Kennedy made a sharp and surprising critique of the role the court has played in recent years in settling awkward matters that would have been far better decided by Congress. “A democracy,” he declared, “should not be dependent for its major decisions on what nine unelected people from a narrow legal background have to say.”

It is a strange admission for a Supreme Court justice. Cook made fun of the fact that senior judges are mostly old and doddery, and the older and more doddery they become, the more detached they are from normal life. Many who believe that justice should be impartial welcome the rarefied atmosphere in which judges tend to live and make their decisions. Kennedy, meanwhile, is suggesting the opposite ‑ that if justices have to be brought in to decide issues that would better have been solved by Congress, they should be more of an age and closer to the backgrounds of the ordinary Americans who must live with their decisions.

Sarah Palin and the rejection of scientific method

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 22, 2013 18:56 UTC

The most recent episode in the long-running Punch and Judy show between Sarah Palin and Karl Rove is shedding light on the schism between old-school Republicans and the Tea Party insurgents who are steadily pushing them aside. It appears it is not merely Palin’s personal antipathy to Rove that drives her spleen but a contempt for the dark arts he employs.

It is no surprise, perhaps, that the anti-intellectualism that underpins many of the Tea Party’s most absurd and offensive stances – the insistence that evidence of global warming is invented; the notion that women who are raped do not conceive; the belief that Darwin’s theory of evolution is contradicted by the Bible; the failure to understand that all economics is Keynesian; and so on – also informs Palin’s assault on the science practiced by Rove and every other established political strategist around the world.

In a zinger directed at Rove, Palin blamed Mitt Romney’s defeat on the “top-down political process” directed by a “permanent political class” in “permanent political mode” in Washington that is “busy worrying about their own political future.” “Now is the time to furlough the consultants, and tune-out the pollsters, send the focus groups home and throw out the political scripts, because if we truly know what we believe, we don’t need professionals to tell us,” she declared.

Has military Keynesianism come to an end?

Nicholas Wapshott
Mar 15, 2013 15:34 UTC

The outcome of the sequester ultimatum appears to have taken everyone by surprise. Two long summers ago, when the president and House speaker John Boehner conjured a prospect so terrible that even spending on defense would be deeply cut, they both assumed Congress would buckle rather than approve such a blow to the nation’s pride. According to Bob Woodward’s The Price of Politics, Boehner said, “Guys, this would be devastating to Defense. This is never going to happen.”

But neither man appears to have taken account of the clearly stated views of the Tea Party. There are few better ways of appreciating how the Republican Party has transformed in the last two years from a party of defense hawks to a party of deficit hawks than tracking how the sequester has turned from a threat to the nation’s defenses to an unparalleled opportunity to bring the government to heel.

If Obama and Boehner had taken heed of the strident voices offstage, they might have guessed their ostensibly idle threat to the Pentagon would be taken as a chance to reduce the size of the federal government. They didn’t, and the sequester is upon us, promising, according to the Central Budget Office and IMF, to throw 750,000 out of work and slow down already anemic economic growth by 0.6 points. No surprise there: If you take money out of an economy, activity flags and the economy shrinks.