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.
When President Bill Clinton moved against Serbian aggression and the ethnic cleansing practiced by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in what remained of Yugoslovia, and finally called in NATO bombing sorties to put a stop to their aggression against Muslims in Sarajevo and Bosnia, both the Left and the remaining adherents of the Old Right moved to join together in an attempt to stop what they saw as a U.S.-sponsored aggression.
The result was the start of what I called a Red-Brown coalition — the uniting of far Right and far Left — culminating in an antiwar rally at which both Pat Buchanan and the Stalinist journalist Alex Cockburn of The Nation were featured speakers.
This division goes back to the early days of the Cold War, when the isolationist wing led by “Mr. Republican,” Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, was beaten in the 1952 GOP primary by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who then won the presidency. With Ike’s victory in the presidential campaign, the United States continued along the bipartisan path formed earlier by President Harry S. Truman, assuring that Republicans as well as Democrats were willing to do what was necessary to fight the Cold War against the Soviets.
Now, polls show that isolationist sentiment is growing rapidly and resonates especially with some conservatives. At last year’s CPAC conference, the John Birch Society was welcomed as a sponsor, and the forces of Ron Paul combined with them to create a new antiwar bloc. Long forgotten, Robert A. Taft and those who adhere to his views have suddenly made a return to the conservative ranks. The Old Right view, Avlon writes, “is fueling grassroots conservatism with an ideologically coherent critique of both Bush and Obama, against foreign wars and the growing federal debt.”
The reason such a development is dangerous? Go back and ask yourselsf what would have happened had the Taftites and the Old Right won over the Eisenhower center-right coalition. The answer is simple. The United States would have not helped create NATO; the Marshall Plan might have been defeated; and with the support of the pro-Communist Left, Joe Stalin and his minions would have had an American government willing to follow a policy of appeasement that would have allowed Stalin to take over not just Eastern Europe, but countries like France and Italy as well. Now the new neo-isolationists are promoting a policy that stands at odds with that which under Truman, Eisenhower, and later Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. It also opposes the steps taken by George W. Bush during his administration to fight radical Islam and the War on Terror.
This return to isolationist prescriptions once again echoes the views and outlook of those on the political anti-war Left. As I wrote in my old Boston Globe article, the Buchananites promise to “champion a number of causes that also find support on the political left: protectionism to keep workers’ wages high in America, opposition to globalism (‘we will point to the pitfalls of the global free trade economy;); and the struggle against ‘global hegemony.’ Noam Chomsky probably would not put it differently.” And that is why when readers picks up The American Conservative, they might be excused for wondering if they had accidentally picked up The Nation.
So will the neo-isolationists fuse with the paleoconservatives, as Avlon fears might well happen? The danger is that those who now believe the Afghanistan war is unwinnable, and that we should scuttle our Afghanistan policy and withdraw, will soon be moving on to demand acceptance of the entire neo-isolationist agenda. If Republican leaders decide to join Coulter, Ron Paul, and Buchanan in a new alliance, hoping to benefit politically, the split could prove disastrous for the Republicans in 2012. As Avlon points out, any serious Republican nominee will have to campaign on being “strong on national security.” That is not exactly the strong point of the neo-isolationists.
While recognizing that our resources are finite and must be utilized effectively, given the very real threats we face from Islamic radicalism, among others, we can ill afford to withdraw from the world. If we do, not only will we not bequeath a solvent America to our grandchildren, they may be walking around with beards and burqas.