Jacob Heilbrunn

Is the GOP Turning Isolationist?

John McCain is unhappy with the Republican presidential contenders. "There has always been an isolationist strain," said McCain, in the GOP. He is right. There has. In the 1930s the GOP fervently opposed entry into any European war, as did much of the country. After World War II, Senator Robert Taft opposed entry into NATO. No entangling alliances was the watchword of the party, though some have argued that it was really an Asia-first policy that Republicans such as California Senator William Knowland wanted to pursue in the early 1950s. In any case it wasn't until the election of Dwight Eisenhower that the party went mainstream on foreign policy. But what about today? Does McCain have it right? Are Mitt Romney and others flinching from the freedom crusade? And does that make them isolationists? What is really taking place in the GOP is a showdown between the neoconservative view of the world that has dominated the party—a Wilsonian freedom crusade—and the more traditional view of using American military power in a restrained fashion—much as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is advocating. Gates has, of course, conveyed his deep unease about the idea of further wars of choice. Does McCain think Gates is representative of an isolationist strain as well? The surprising thing is not that Romney and others are calling upon Afghans to shoulder more of the burden. It is that it took the GOP until now to take another look at the costs and burdens of what amounts to a prolonged exercise in nation building. Right now a race is taking place between President Obama and his rivals to detach themselves from Afghanistan after a decade of war. To stake out a position to the right of Obama, as Tim Pawlenty is doing, may well be politically suicidal. It is interesting that the isolationist charge is seldom hurled at Obama. Instead such terms as cowardice and so forth are hurled at Democrats. When Republicans suggest curtailing America's posture abroad, then they often get tarred with the isolationist tag. In each case history is the culprit. Democrats are wary of being accused of being soft on national security, dating back to Vietnam—a charge that Obama is trying to avoid. Republicans have the legacy of the true isolationist sentiments that they once espoused. There are undoubtedly Republicans such as Rep. Paul who see nothing wrong with what amounts to a policy of fortress America. But it seems far-fetched to believe that Romney and others, in raising doubts about Afghanistan, are going down that road as well. Judging by the latest polls, the electorate isn't in an isolationist mood. It is simply weary of warfare as the main expression of American foreign policy.