The Buzz

Who's Afraid of the Isolationists?

The New York Times reports that the entry of Rand Paul, Mike Lee, and similar figures into the Republican foreign-policy debate has provoked worry in the party:

Now, a new generation of Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is turning inward, questioning the approach that reached its fullest expression after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and signaling a willingness to pare back the military budgets that made it all possible.

That holds the potential to threaten two wings of a Republican national security establishment that have been warring for decades: the internationalists who held sway under the elder President George Bush and the neoconservatives who led the country to long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.

Members of both camps said this week that they fear returning to a minimalist foreign policy . . .

Is it really true, as the article implies, that both the neoconservatives and the internationalists (i.e. the realists) feel threatened by those who question “the approach that reached its fullest expression after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001” and who are willing to “pare back the military budgets that made it all possible”? The post-9/11 Republican foreign policy, and those big military budgets, are really the sole property of the neocons. It’s the neoconservative consensus—not the non-isolationist consensus—that the isolationists threaten. The chief impact of 9/11 on the Republican Party, after all, was a rapid rise to dominance of the neoconservatives at the expense of the realist wing. Realist figures within the Bush administration, like Richard Haass (quoted in the article) and Colin Powell, became isolated. Others of a quasi-realist bent, like Condoleezza Rice, underwent miraculous conversions to the neocon faith. And until very recently, the range of acceptable foreign-policy views within the GOP mainstream has remained narrow and neoconservative.

That’s why realists shouldn’t see the rise of the isolationists as a threat. They are creating intellectual breathing room within the Republican Party, breathing room that realists can exploit. Even better, the isolationists are adopting realist rhetoric and symbols. Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy address was essentially a paean to George Kennan and the Cold War containment doctrine. He expressly disavowed the isolationist label and called himself a realist.

It’s entirely possible that Paul is using realism as a mask, but this is an immaterial matter for realists. As long as the neoconservatives dominate the GOP, the isolationists and the realists have a common enemy. Both can agree that the neoconservatives have overextended America. Both can agree that the neoconservatives have perverted the Republican foreign-policy discourse. Both can agree that the neoconservatives are a bit paranoid. Both would favor relatively more diplomacy and trade and relatively fewer wars. As long as these things are true, the realists and the isolationists can work together.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Elgaard. CC BY-SA 3.0.