The return of isolationism
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.
Until this Congress, Paul, Senator for Kentucky, was a way outsider, the son and ideological heir of the former failed Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ron Paul, who ran for president in 1988 as the Libertarian Party candidate. Rand Paul, having recently drawn attention to himself by mounting a filibuster over whether the CIA could use drones to kill domestic suspected terrorists, has become a darling of the GOP’s libertarians and a frontrunner to become the 2016 presidential candidate. A straw poll for presidential nominee at the recent CPAC powwow put him neck and neck with another Tea Party favorite, Florida senator Marco Rubio.
It is a mark of how quickly the once staid and stolid Republicans have been over-run by revolutionary Tea Party types that Paul can instantly gain such wide backing. Only last year, his father, who holds near-identical views, could at best muster only about 10 per cent support in the presidential primaries. Rand Paul is more ambitious than his father inasmuch as he is wary of being thought of as too extreme and is cagey about how he presents his libertarian views. Interviewed at length on Fox (strangely there was not a single question about defense), he looked anxious ‘lest he let slip something that would upset mainstream Republicans. Still he is bold enough to advocate the GOP in 2016 offering “something maybe a little different than the cookie-cutter Conservatives that we’ve put out in the past.” He means, of course, they should choose him.
It was the moderate “cookie-cutter Conservative” leadership that agreed with the President to impose the sequester — automatic profound cuts to public spending, including half of them coming from the Republican holy cow, defense – if a deficit reduction package could not be agreed by Congress. By steaming through the sequester deadline and allowing the savage, often arbitrary cuts to start, Paul’s Tea Party supporters in Congress tacitly agreed an immediate sharp reduction in the defense budget. Paul’s remarks about the need for America to draw in its horns, cut foreign aid, start shutting military bases and bring troops home unless “our national interests were impacted” explains why Republicans, traditionally the party of a strong defense and a large military, are now leading the charge to shrink the defense budget fast.
Paul’s arch-rival Rubio takes issue with Paul over defense and American involvement in the world, thereby establishing an important point of difference in determining the direction of the post-Romney GOP. Conceding that “we can’t solve every humanitarian crisis on the planet, we can’t be involved in every dispute, every civil war and every conflict,” Rubio insists that “we also cannot retreat from the world. It’s not that America will continue to function as the world’s police officer. The problem is that like anything in the world, if you pull back from it, a vacuum will be created. … The alternative to U.S. [engagement] on the global stage is chaos.” Isolationism is simply not an option, he argues. Like saving money on maintenance, withdrawing from our global responsibilities is short-sighted. “Every single time that nations have retreated from the world, every single time this nation has retreated from the world, we have paid for it in the long run,” Rubio said. “We have paid for it dearly.”
Rubio is right. The failure of America to follow Woodrow Wilson’s lead in joining the League of Nations after World War One indicated to the dictators Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo they would not be challenged if they embarked on the territorial conquests that eventually dragged the democracies into World War Two. And the strength of the isolationists in America through the Thirties, and the succession of neutrality laws that insisted we remain aloof from foreign entanglements, delayed the day of reckoning, allowing the dictators a head start, and did nothing to prevent our inevitable entry into World War Two.
While Rand Paul is proposing isolationism as a means of achieving his real libertarian aim, a shrunken, weakened federal government, he has yet to make the geo-political case for an American withdrawal from the role it inherited from the bankrupt and defeated British in 1945. Nor has he explained that if we shrink our military we will not bring the troops home to serve at home but to fire them to save money. For every young voter tempted by Paul’s apparent radicalism and his softness on drugs there will be a military family who will no longer vote Republican. All credit to Paul, though, for daring to think the unthinkable and for shifting his party away from the stale sectarianism that currently makes it unelectable. However, giving the dangerous nations of the world a free hand to bully and plunder as they wish merely to save a few dollars in the short term is plain crazy.
PHOTO: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky gestures at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland March 14, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque