As the Obama administration goes to Congress to seek support for a resolution authorizing a military strike against Syria, the deep divisions in both the Democratic and Republican parties are at present making it problematic, at best, that he will gain the votes he needs for a consensus in favor of action.
The divisions today are eerily reminiscent of those at the beginning of the Cold War, when pre-war isolationists or, to use the term they preferred then and prefer now, non-interventionists once again came forth on both the Left and Right to oppose a strong response to Soviet expansionism.
Before Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt had to face convincing a strong isolationist sentiment at home, as well as a reluctant Congress, to do anything that could involve the United States in war. After running for the presidency with a promise to keep the nation out of war, once in office Roosevelt acted to strengthen the British resolve through the Lend-Lease program as well as putting through the famous trading of bases for destroyers.
At home, the America First Committee, headed by Charles Lindbergh and which included old liberals and progressives such as John T. Flynn and Oswald Garrison Villard as well as conservatives such as Col. Robert McCormick and William H. Regnery, became very influential. During the years of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the American Communist Party created its own front group, the American Peace Mobilization, which argued that FDR was seeking to wage an imperialist war for oil and urged Americans to keep out of war and focus their opposition on the nefarious plans for intervention favored by the British Empire.
Pearl Harbor put an end to the America First Committee’s efforts, as the nation united behind the president and thousands of young men flooded the recruiting centers to volunteer to fight against the threat to America’s security. At the war’s end, as the Soviets moved effectively to use the turmoil and insecurity to expand communism as far as they could in the East and the West, a new opposition emerged on both Left and Right against taking a firm stand against Stalin and his cadre.
On the Republican side, “Mr. Republican,” as Senator Robert A. Taft was called, vigorously opposed anything that he thought would lead the United States to “globalism” and a new empire. Taft opposed every measure that the Truman administration took to offset Soviet advances — including the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the Korean War. When the communists took over Czechoslovakia in a coup in late February of 1948, Taft argued that it did not indicate any aggression and that the country had been placed in Russian hands and was in their “sphere of influence.”
It was not surprising that the pro-communist fellow traveler Henry A. Wallace, who was running for president as the nominee of the communist-created “Progressive Party” in 1948, praised Taft as the leader “most liable to keep the peace in the next few years.” Norman Thomas, the perennial Socialist Party candidate for president and leader of his movement, supported Taft as well and praised the Republican understanding that the United States could not “afford to go crusading around the world.”
Today, as Bret Stephens pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, isolationism seems to be rearing its ugly head, although he writes, “Most Republicans don’t want to become, again, the party of isolationists.” But, he cautions, “the Syria debate is also exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple.” His fears were justified at yesterday’s Foreign Relations Committee hearing, especially when Sen. Rand Paul got engaged in a testy exchange with Secretary of State John Kerry.
As Stephens writes, Sen. Paul would be right at home with the views of Robert A. Taft, since Taft in his day and Paul today are oblivious to how failing to use American power to create a safe world endangers our vital national security goals. Writing at his “Postmodern Conservative” site at First Things, political scientist James Ceaser, like Stephens, urges his fellow conservatives to support an authorization of force resolution in Congress. “Nor is there any way,” he cautions, “to get around the fact that this vote begins to set the future direction of the Republican Party — whether it will be an internationalist or an isolationist party.” He worries that “many in the Republican Party are itching to use Obama’s mishandling of this situation to establish a new isolationist center of gravity for the Republican Party in international affairs. That’s not the place the Republican Party should be.”
I agree with Professor Ceaser. If the Rand Paul followers in the conservative movement and the libertarians and paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan gain the upper hand, and if they succeed in forming a working alliance with Democrats on the far Left who also use much the same arguments against American use of power, it will only lead to a complete collapse of America’s ability to influence the outcome of world affairs, as well as strengthen the hand of our enemies. Any president in our future, including any Republican commander-in-chief, would find it difficult if not impossible to take any kind of military action should it become necessary.
Our country cannot afford the luxury of the weakening of presidential power and authority, which could stifle the ability to act when it is most needed in the future. Supporting the authority of the chief executive to act does not mean conservatives and Republicans should stop being critical of the policy of the Obama administration, its half-way measures, its contradictions, and its overall embarrassing incompetence. But to weaken the authority of any chief executive to act, including President Barack Obama, will only hurt the nation and stifle our ability to respond to aggression effectively, now and later.
The Taft Republicans, we all thought, went the way of the dodo bird. We are finding, sadly, that they were not as extinct as most people believed. If we want a safe and secure future, and a future effective conservative opposition to liberalism, we must act responsibly and support the president now, whatever reservations we may have about his own worldview and policies.