The Folk Who Live on the Hill

December 1, 1999 Topic: Great Powers Regions: Americas Tags: AcademiaBusinessNew LeftSuperpowerSociology

The Folk Who Live on the Hill

Mini Teaser: Talk of vital interests has become canonical on Capitol Hill. But when pressed to identify these interests, too many congressional Republicans fall silent.

by Author(s): James Kitfield

When Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the American Century as the nation's youngest president in 1901, he promptly rallied the Republican Party behind his unique brand of foreign affairs activism. In short order, the former Rough Rider and hero of the Spanish-American War put down insurrection in the Philippines, abetted a revolution in Panama that led to U.S. acquisition of the Panama Canal, and won the Nobel Peace Price for mediating the quarrel between Russia and Japan. In 1907 he dispatched the Great White Fleet on a cruise around the world. An America in the "prime of our lusty youth", Roosevelt proclaimed, would "speak softly and carry a big stick" in world affairs.

At the end of the twentieth century, with American power and influence ascendant to a degree unimaginable in Teddy Roosevelt's time, emissaries from a far different Republican Party called a Capitol Hill press conference to allege presidential malfeasance. This time it was not campaign finance irregularities, personal indiscretions or technology transfers that were denounced by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). What irked the three Republicans was, rather, the discovery that the President of the United States had been spending too much money on trips to faraway places like China, Africa and Chile.

When queried about their own official travels, Thomas and Craig exhibited a disdain for the world beyond America's borders that is increasingly echoed in Republican ranks. Both boasted through staff that they had ventured out of the country only twice in the previous two years. This despite the fact that Thomas is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Craig is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee with jurisdiction over foreign operations, foreign aid and defense.

The press conference was revealing, too, as political theater. That three Republican senators thought there were political points to be scored by criticizing the travel budget of the leader of the sole remaining superpower says much about the mood of the Republican Party today. Indeed, theirs was but the latest shrug in a string of gestures of indifference made by Republicans, who seem rapidly to be tiring of the burdens that attend America's status as lone superpower. After refusing to support U.S. involvement in the Kosovo conflict, which a number of prominent Republicans dubbed "Mr. Clinton's war", many in the gop began espousing an anti-interventionist doctrine that would preclude U.S. military action save when a narrowly defined set of vital interests is threatened.

Proposed Republican cuts in next year's foreign affairs budget would abdicate U.S. commitments to the Middle East peace process, slash funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, and abandon a program to dismantle Russian nuclear weapons. Republican leaders have refused to pay back dues to the United Nations for so long that the United States is in danger of losing its vote in the General Assembly, where Republicans had left U.S. interests unrepresented for a year by holding up the nomination of UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

Despite the fact that a Republican serves as secretary of defense, congressional indifference to national security matters extends to the Pentagon as well. Uniformed leaders who once counted congressional Republicans as their most reliable boosters were shaken by recent Republican-led efforts to kill the air force's next generation F-22 fighter plane; to pass a tax cut that would have reduced military spending by nearly $600 billion over the next decade; to shutter the army's School of the Americas; and to slash funding for the production of a theater-based missile defense system. Republican leaders have also continually blocked efforts by the Pentagon in recent years to close obsolete military bases and production lines in order to save desperately needed funds. And in a move that echoed one of the most infamous roll calls in history--the 1941 vote in which a majority of congressional Republicans refused to support military conscription--the Republican-led House recently voted 232 to 187 to stop requiring young Americans to register for the draft.

What accounts for this transformation of a party that not so long ago promoted itself as a champion of muscular internationalism? Explanations include the retirement of an aging cadre of internationalists within the party; the ascendance of a generation of Republican lawmakers with minimal interest in foreign and defense matters and an instinctive aversion to big government; an American public largely indifferent to the world around it; and, finally, a deeply held animus toward Bill Clinton. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and long-time Senate Armed Services Committee member, discerns an ominous current in Republican thinking. As McCain noted,

"Partly out of dislike and distrust of President Clinton, and an understandable feeling that his foreign policy has been conducted on an ad hoc basis, I am concerned by what I see as a growing isolationism in the Republican Party. . . . Fewer and fewer members of Congress today have any real interest in national security issues, and they don't appreciate that we live in a less dangerous but far less predictable world."

A Historical Pendulum

Confrontations between the legislative and executive branches over the extent of America's international entanglements are of course as old as the Republic itself. When Congress threatened to withhold funding for the proposed around-the-world tour by U.S. naval forces in the early 1900s, for instance, Teddy Roosevelt reportedly promised to pay for half the trip out of executive funds, daring Congress not to appropriate monies to bring the fleet home. More recently, in the 1970s Congress withdrew the funding necessary to back U.S. military commitments to South Vietnam as U.S. forces exited the region.

Such partisan showdowns have on occasion reshaped the essential world-view of the political parties. When, for example, Senate Republican Henry Cabot Lodge took the lead in rejecting the League of Nations after World War I, as Professor Donald Kagan has observed, it was less because he was a committed isolationist than because "he was just so damn angry at Woodrow Wilson that he wanted to deny Wilson a victory. But that helped drive the Republican Party into a flight from American responsibilities around the world." The analogy is apt. Indeed, a year after Lodge's defeat of the League of Nations, Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding won the White House running on a rallying cry of "a return to normalcy."

By the 1930s "normalcy" for the Republican Party had evolved into a strident isolationism that culminated in GOP sponsorship of the Neutrality Acts of 1935. The creed's chief exponent was Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio), son of Republican President William Howard Taft. Known as "Mr. Republican", Taft was himself a three-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and his isolationism persisted well into the Cold War. But the 1952 election of war hero Dwight Eisenhower set the Republican Party back on the path of American leadership. Having organized the forces of NATO as its Supreme Allied Commander, Eisenhower ended the Korean War, adopted the Truman administration's policy of containment, committed the United States to an active role in the Middle East, and authorized numerous covert interventions.

After the trauma of Vietnam it was the Democrats' turn to flirt with isolationism, a phase neatly exemplified by presidential candidate George McGovern's 1972 summons to "Come Home America" (penned by current National Security Adviser Samuel Berger), and President Jimmy Carter's defense cutbacks and threats to pull U.S. troops out of South Korea. The modern zenith of Republican internationalism, meanwhile, came with President Reagan's massive defense build-up and aggressively anti-communist policies in the 1980s. Apart from strengthening U.S. forces in Europe and the Far East, deploying medium-range nuclear missiles to Europe, and nearly accomplishing the aim of a six hundred-ship navy, Reagan deployed peacekeepers to the Middle East, bombed Libya, supported anti-communist insurgencies in Central America and Afghanistan, and invaded Grenada.

The New Minimalists

The recent furor surrounding Pat Buchanan's latest book, A Republic, Not An Empire: Reclaiming America's Destiny, is but one symptom of a new tug of war within the gop. Arguing that the United States need not have been drawn into World War II, Buchanan was swiftly denounced by the major Republican presidential candidates. Buchanan's primary contention, however, is that "arrogant" elites have committed America to going to war in regions where the nation has no vital interests, while tying its fortunes to agencies of "an embryonic new world government."

Rep. Herbert H. Bateman (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Readiness, has heard much the same argument from his colleagues in Congress:

"I'm very much aware of a body of opinion within the Republican Party which holds that America is trying to be the world's policeman, and too often we do undertake missions that are not really vital to U.S. national security. . . . At the same time, I've certainly never been an isolationist or 'Fortress America' type, and it's a major embarrassment that a meaningful number of Republicans can be identified as the 'Get out of the United Nations crowd.' It embarrasses me that those people even exist in the Republican Party."

But they do. Republicans were set philosophically adrift with the demise of the Soviet threat. The defeat just three years later of Republican standard-bearer George Bush by Democrat Bill Clinton, whose campaign mantra was "It's the economy, stupid", taught Republicans an important lesson: foreign policy activism no longer has a political constituency. That the GOP had taken this lesson to heart became evident with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. The "Contract with America"--Newt Gingrich's poll-tested battle plan for electoral success--barely mentions foreign policy or national security apart from a cursory plug for the national missile defense system popularized by Reagan. Even more important, the Republican revolution of 1994 signaled a generational transition within the Republican Party, shifting power from an aging cadre of cold warriors to a younger generation, which proved more committed than its predecessors to reducing the size and scope of the federal government. And these reformers soon discovered that no government agencies were larger and more costly than those that maintain America's superpower status.

Douglas Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, believes that the Republican Class of '94 sympathizes with Cato's limited view of America's role in the world and its calls for reduced military expenditures:

"Because they didn't spend their political careers at a time when the Cold War was the reigning paradigm, and are willing to see that period as an anomaly in our history, a lot of the younger Republicans elected in 1994 are more skeptical of these massive government institutions and interventionist policies that went along with the Cold War. . . . A lot of older Republicans, however, still can't imagine a world where the United States is not totally predominant. They have a very hard time giving up that notion. I think those two groups represent a real cleavage in the Republican Party today."

Though an internationalist himself, then-House Speaker Gingrich may have furthered that divide by concentrating so much power in his own office, by-passing the committee seniority system, and elevating trusted allies to the chairmanships of key committees such as Appropriations, Commerce and the Judiciary. Gingrich further undermined the committee structure by limiting the terms of chairmen and affording the new class of Republican revolutionaries greater leeway to challenge their committee chairs on legislation. When Gingrich retired, this power promptly reverted to House leaders with a decidedly less internationalist bent, such as Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.). After being queried last year about his opposition to additional funding for the International Monetary Fund, Armey responded with the increasingly familiar Republican refrain: he had not traveled outside the United States since 1986, his freshman year in the House. "I've been to Europe once, I don't need to go again", Armey claimed, adding a similar comment about Asia. Soon after, it was revealed that a sizeable number of House Republicans had never held a passport.

Significantly, in the early days of the Republican revolution the seniority system was left intact in the House International Affairs and Armed Services Committees. In fact, the average age of the chairmen of the four primary committees with jurisdiction at that time over foreign affairs and national security was eighty. As opposed to years past when the heads of these committees were revered as lions within the party, the new chairmen--Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Rep. Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) and Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.)--seemed neither predisposed nor sufficiently powerful to protect their committees from the efforts of the younger Republican revolutionaries.

As a former majority staffer on the House Armed Services Committee under Chairman Spence for much of the 1990s, Thomas Donnelly experienced that marginalization first-hand:

"When Newt Gingrich came in and pushed aside guys who were in line for seniority on various committees, he didn't bother with the foreign affairs or defense committees. Great American that Mr. Spence is, he worked tirelessly to try and increase defense spending and stop the decline of our military forces. But he was unable to carry the day. It just wasn't a high priority for the Republican leadership in Congress."

This divide between an aging cadre of internationalists and a younger generation of Republican lawmakers with little interest in foreign or defense affairs, but a natural skepticism toward big government, will surely become more pronounced as the former group recedes from the stage. Noted retirements from the internationalist wing of the party in recent years include Senators Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.), Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kans.), William Cohen (R-Maine), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Robert Dole (R-Kans.). "I don't think there's any doubt that there's a serious identity crisis in the Republican Party right now, and it's probably been worsened by the departure of committed internationalist leaders like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich", says Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The Cold War generation, he notes, "is being replaced by a new generation of political leaders that is just not deeply involved in foreign policy issues. They don't see American leadership in the world as particularly important."

Atlas Shrugs

Both the Senate and House voted this summer to cut the administration's budget for international affairs by nearly 14 percent, or more than $2 billion. These cuts come despite the fact that the United States devotes less than one-tenth as much of its GDP to foreign aid today than it did a generation ago, putting it last among industrialized nations in this category. Fundamental disagreements about the level of foreign affairs funding have been sharpest on the subject of paying arrears to the United Nations, to which the United States owes approximately $1.7 billion in back dues. Republicans in general, and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms in particular, have traditionally cast a skeptical if not jaundiced eye toward the UN. But Helms and ranking committee Democrat Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) fashioned a compromise bill two years ago that combined payment of U.S. funds with demands for stringent UN reform. And for two years running, the bill has been held up by anti-abortion language attached at the behest of Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.). This is the kind of freelancing that would have been rapidly quashed in the days of Arthur Vandenburg. As it was, the stalemate lasted for most of Clinton's second term, before a tentative agreement was reached in November 1999.

Chairman Helms has also deftly used his power to block administration nominations, thwart arms control agreements, and reorganize the State Department. Yet, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not reported out a foreign aid authorization bill in nearly fifteen years. Former Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) notes that the committee today is a faint echo of its activist predecessors. As Lugar says,

"In fairness Chairman Helms hasn't been feeling well, but the truth is the committee hardly meets anymore. . . . Back in those days I would travel around the world as chairman at the President's request, helping take care of crises in the Philippines or Guatemala, or being on hand for the transition to democracy in Latin America or South Africa. That just doesn't happen anymore."

Then, too, there is the waning Republican attachment to matters of national defense. Republican lawmakers become irate when their bona fides as champions of a strong military are called into question. To be sure, Republicans have twisted the administration's arm on behalf of a national missile defense system. But the ongoing efforts of budget hawks such as Chairman of the House Budget Committee John Kasich (R-Ohio)--who in 1995 joined with eighty like-minded Republicans in an attempt to kill the B-2 bomber program--beg the question nonetheless. Republican budget cutters have been aided in their efforts to slash military spending by the Defense Working Group, a group of libertarian-minded Republicans who advocate lasting reductions in Pentagon expenditures.

That Republicans would attempt to kill the F-22 aircraft and enact a major tax cut, especially at a time when the armed forces are desperately short of funds and the nation is running a budget surplus, struck many observers as an indication that Republican budget hawks have already triumphed in the struggle for the party's soul. Defense proponents were particularly alarmed by an analysis of the proposed Republican tax cut by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research group in Washington, which suggested that not only would the Republican tax plan allocate $174 billion less for defense over the next decade than the administration's proposal, but unless highly unlikely cuts in domestic programs were secured, another $595 billion in defense cuts might be required.

In the words of Rep. Bateman,

"Because I think it was larger than it needed to be, I voted for the tax cut with a great deal of reluctance, and some degree of certainty that it was not the tax cut that would be ultimately approved. . . . If you look closely at the Republican conference, you'll also find Republicans from the Midwest who vote for every amendment to reduce the size of the defense budget, because they don't see a threat to justify it. . . . As for defense hawks--if that term even applies anymore--it is demonstrably the case that we are not as dominant or effective today as we were in the 1970s and 1980s."

The Hutchison Doctrine

Disagreements among Republicans are nowhere more pronounced than over the question of when to use military force. These tensions boiled over recently in a bizarre showdown during the war in Kosovo, when the House voted to require congressional approval for the use of ground troops; deadlocked on a vote authorizing U.S. involvement in the air war despite the fact that it was already under way; and yet doubled the emergency funds that the Clinton administration had requested to conduct that war. "Give peace a chance"--in this instance the words of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), not of some fringe pacifist group--became the Republican war cry.

Clearly exasperated by what they complain is a promiscuous use of military force by the Clinton administration, a number of Republican leaders have articulated an anti-interventionist policy that would preclude military entanglements in all cases except where vital U.S. interests are directly at stake. In their view, only a dramatic reduction of military deployments can avert a looming crisis in military preparedness.

Certainly there is ample evidence to suggest that America's military is nearing a critical phase as it enters the twenty-first century. In recent years the armed services have suffered chronic shortfalls in the areas of recruiting, military readiness, and equipment modernization and acquisition. At the same time, the rate of overseas deployments has increased more than 300 percent over the Cold War average. Lately, for example, the U.S. military has been entangled in stressful and draining conflicts in, among other places, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Iraq, Haiti and Somalia. Despite this expanding catalogue of missions, the armed forces still have as their primary responsibility deterring, and if necessary fighting and winning, two major theater wars, a task that requires the maintenance of forward-deployed, combat-ready forces in Asia and the Middle East.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), a member of the Armed Forces Committee, says,

"We are stretching our forces so thin today that we have a crisis in military readiness, retention and recruitment. . . . We've so dissipated our resources and energies by getting involved in regional conflicts and misguided peacekeeping operations that our allies and others could do as well as the United States, that we've threatened our core capability to accomplish those missions that only a superpower can do."

Hutchison has in fact been among the most vocal of the Republican proponents of a minimalist foreign policy. In some ways her efforts hearken back to a doctrine promulgated by Reagan-era Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who detailed six "tests" that should be passed before the United States placed its forces in harm's way. The country's vital interests must be imperiled, and the United States must be willing to commit sufficient forces to triumph quickly. Both the political and military objectives of the mission should be clearly defined and the military forces structured to achieve them. There must also be a reasonable likelihood that the American public will support an intervention, and, finally, U.S. forces will be committed to action only as a last resort.

The strategy advanced by Hutchison goes even further. Under her proposal, the United States would redefine its strategic role by providing itself and its allies protection under a missile defense umbrella, while maintaining air superiority and strategic lift capabilities. But the United States would leave the burden of pacifying regional conflicts and the vast majority of peacekeeping operations to its allies. Hence, in the Fiscal Year 2000 Defense Authorization, Hutchison inserted a provision calling on the administration to examine where the United States might reduce its global commitments and withdraw its forces from missions whose time has passed, including those in South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Given the obvious strains on the military resulting from a frenetic pace of deployments and operations, such a hard-headed and realistic approach to military intervention is certainly defensible. It is nonetheless difficult to fathom exactly how America is to retain its superpower status if it eschews all regional crises and insists that its allies shoulder the risks on the ground. For nearly three years, the Clinton administration adopted such an arms-length policy while Bosnia burned, European allies vacillated, and the Balkans imploded. The calamitous results of this indifference are by now well known.

Many Republican internationalists claim that if one of their own were to win the White House in 2000, the non-interventionist wing of the party would be vanquished, à la Taft and the Old Guard. In this view, the Republicans would benefit from the unifying influence of a commander in chief in the White House, much as the election of Bill Clinton masked fissures between globalists and protectionists in the Democratic Party.

And, indeed, the leading Republican presidential candidates have all proclaimed fealty to a robust brand of internationalism. In officially announcing his candidacy in September, Sen. McCain devoted much of his speech to the importance of American leadership. If elected, McCain has promised to spend more on defense, military training and missile defense:

"I believe that President Clinton has failed his first responsibility to the nation by weakening our defenses, but he's not the only one to blame. Both parties in Congress have wasted scarce defense dollars on unneeded weapons systems and other pork projects while 12,000 enlisted personnel, proud young men and women, subsist on food stamps. That's a disgrace."

As for George W. Bush, despite his disdainful references to peacekeeping and nation-building operations, and his apparently tenuous grasp of world affairs, the Texas governor has assembled a brain trust that reads like a "Who's Who" of assertive internationalists. The team includes former Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, former Secretary of State George Schultz, former National Security Council analyst Condoleezza Rice, former Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. On issues ranging from relations with China and Russia to confronting rogue states, they depict a Bush foreign policy as one that will be more muscular and assertive than the Clinton-Gore approach in its promotion of American interests. As Rice was at pains to assure:

"I think Governor Bush is one of those people who believe that America pursues its national interests best by involvement in the international system, rather than letting that system buffet us around because we withdrew from it and left a huge, global vacuum. At the same time, I think he'll work very hard to establish a more coherent foreign policy driven by some central priorities, because despite our unmatched historical power, there's a sense of drift in American foreign policy right now."

Of course, two other possibilities exist. One is that, even if a Republican president were to be elected in 2000, he would soon find his foreign policy aims being undermined by an obstructionist Republican Congress. Representative Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), who has lately been directing the crusade to close down the army's School of the Americas, explained: "Any Republican president who expects the House members and probably the newer members of the Senate to merrily go along and rubber-stamp" his national security policies "will be very disappointed." The second possibility is that a Democrat will win the presidency, in which case, after four more years of partisan positioning on foreign policy issues, the Republican Party may find itself drifting into unsettling but all too familiar waters. Just as Henry Cabot Lodge's fierce opposition to Woodrow Wilson begat Warren Harding's "return to normalcy", and opposition to Franklin Roosevelt yielded Robert Taft's anti-interventionism, so might strident Republican opposition to Bill Clinton's successor herald a new era of isolation. The party has been down that road before, with nearly disastrous results for the nation.

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