Jacob Heilbrunn

Wacko Birds And Republican Foreign Policy

Senator John McCain has apparently become a foreign policy ornithologist. He recently dismissed his fellow Senator Rand Paul and others who share his views on a less expansive American foreign policy as "wacko birds," a term, one might think, that would most appropriately apply to the woman from the frozen wasteland of Alaska that he selected to become his vice-presidential candidate. Paul's feathers appear to be unruffled. At the CPAC convention, Paul, fresh off his drones filibuster triumph, which earned him kudos on both the left and right, gave as good as he got, suggesting that McCain and his chum Senator Lindsey Graham are mossbacks, relics of a past era.

These verbal fusillades have prompted the media to conclude that a civil war is taking place in the GOP on foreign affairs (though the current attacks look more like preliminary shots than all-out combat). A case in point is an article about the GOP by Michael D. Shearer in today's New York Times. Shearer correctly suggests that the GOP is starting to revisit the question of whether America should intervene abroad or mind its own knitting. He quotes Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass (the author of a new book called Foreign Policy Begins At Home), who appears to approve of some aspects of Paul's approach to foreign affairs and worry about others. He also zeroes in on the views of neocons such as Dan Senor who profess to be worried about the prospect of a Pauline conversion in the GOP. Shearer's conclusion:

The question for the Republican Party is whether Mr. Paul and his followers will emerge as a vocal enough part of the Republican electorate to reshape the party’s foreign policy without taking it back to the strictly isolationist approach.

It's true that the GOP was strictly isolationist before World War II. At the outset of the cold war, however, the GOP was more interested in Asia than Europe. To call it isolationist is a bit of a misnomer. Still, the point is clear. Paul does represent a challenge to both the realist-internationalist and neocon wings of the GOP. Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush were realists rather than neocons. But that didn't mean that they scanted the importance of international relations. Quite the contrary.

But it's premature to concludes exactly where Paul will land in these debates. For one thing, it's hard to believe that a truly isolationist platform would have much electoral appeal beyond a hardened rump of libertarians. The significant thing is that, after about a decade of neocon suzerainty, the GOP is recognizing, however belatedly, that it needs to entertain ideas other than the reflexive interventionism championed by the old guard. Once a realist, McCain, for reasons known only to himself, has turned himself into the handmaiden of the neocons. These days he doesn't espouse realism, but mindlessness. It is good to see him get his comeuppance. Wacko bird indeed.