There was a dustup almost two weeks ago when GOP Chairman Michael Steele got in trouble for claiming the war in Afghanistan is essentially unwinnable. The war was one of “Obama’s choosing,” Steele proclaimed, but as Bill Kristol aptly pointed out, it was first prosecuted by President George W. Bush and only after that taken up by Obama. Kristol suggested that for the good of the Republican Party, Steele should resign.
Next, conservative journalist Ann Coulter jumped in. In her weekly column, she argued that Obama’s motive in ramping up the war wasn’t “based on a careful calculation of America’s strategic objectives. He did it because he was trapped by his own rhetorical game of bashing the Iraq war while pretending to be a hawk on Afghanistan.” Calling Afghanistan “Obama’s war,” she added: “Everyone knows it’s not worth the trouble and resources to take a nation of rocks and brigands”
One can disagree, as do most conservatives who write for the Weekly Standard, including military expert Max Boot, defense writer Gabriel Schoenfeld, and Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, who make the case that Afghanistan is actually a winnable war. Coulter and others certainly have the right to disagree. Polls show that the majority of Americans have their doubts that it is winnable. But in her concluding remarks, Coulter went way beyond arguing for a change in policy on this particular war: “I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too.”
However, because Republicans like Kristol argue that Afghanistan is a just and even winnable war does not mean that they favor a permanent war. And by demanding facetiously that Kristol and Liz Cheney “resign,” (from what?) Coulter comes dangerously close to the paleocons and right-wing isolationists of the Buchanan and American Conservative camp. So it did not come as a surprise to find Pat Buchanan enthusiastically praising Coulter the morning after her column appeared on the Morning Joe TV program on MSNBC, before going on to say to fellow panelist Dan Senor that “you people have brought us into Iraq and now Afghanistan.”
The dangers of this were spelled out brilliantly by writer John Avlon in a recent Daily Beast column titled “The War That Will Split the GOP.” Avlon may be exaggerating the threat that such a split might occur, but I think he is correct that “this latest distraction was deeply revealing. It exposed the growing influence of a grassroots neo-isolationist movement that is springing up as a backlash to both Presidents Bush and Obama, while reviving an old debate thought long-dead within the Republican Party between the isolationists and the internationalists.”
This is a debate that I have been studying for quite a while. As they say, there is nothing new under the sun. A report I wrote for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies nine years ago focuses on it, as does a new introduction to a reprint of one of my old books, Prophets on the Right: Profiles of Conservative Critics of American Globalism:
The themes … are to be found in the arguments presented by this disparate group of old liberals, who by the 193os and 40s, ended up on what most people considered to be the far Right. They opposed FDR and what they saw as his duplicitous means of pushing the US into a world war; they opposed the Truman and Eisenhower administrations’ tough measures against the Soviet Union, and like their left-wing counterparts, tried to explain why the Soviets were taking tough measures, which they said were necessitated by an aggressive and expansionist post-war America. Like those on the Left, they too sought to blame America first for any of the tensions which emerged in the decades of Cold War. And when Presidential power was invoked to legitimize military incursions, they demanded debate and votes in Congress, and accused the nation’s leaders — as they accused Truman during the Korean War — of negating the Constitution and usurping the power of the Congress to declare war. While most Americans look back at the Marshall Plan and NATO as two great accomplishment of the postwar generation, those on both the Left and the Old Right saw them as unnecessary and dangerous manifestations of a new imperialism.