The politics of U.S. foreign policy are governed by the tides of partisan warfare, the ebb and flow of the constant struggle between “left” and “right.” Which means that, every decade or so, the political spectrum switches polarities: Witness the transformation of the “isolationist” Old Right of the 1940’s into the warmongering conservative movement of the Cold War era. A similar case of role reversal occurred on the left in the 1990’s, when the previously “antiwar” liberal wing of the Democratic Party allied with the neoconservatives to bring us U.S. intervention in the Balkans, and conservative Republicans in Congress threatened to withdraw funding from Clinton’s conquest of Kosovo. That spurred neocon grand strategist Bill Kristol to vow to walk out of the GOP if it succumbed to “isolationism.” For some reason, the end of the Cold War did not possess most conservatives with the urge to “crush Serb skulls,” as Kristol so memorably put it in The Weekly Standard.
September 11 derailed the developing anti-interventionist consensus on the right, but the Republican ascendancy also played a role. With George W. Bush in the White House, and in the tender care of his neoconservative duennas, the stage was set for a solid decade of war.
Now that the partisan pendulum has swung the other way, and the Democrats control the foreign-policy dashboard in the Oval Office, the anti-interventionist instinct encoded in the DNA of every authentic conservative is reasserting itself.
The seed, planted by Ron Paul and his movement, is sprouting in the oddest places. In answer to Kristol’s demand that Michael Steele step down because the GOP chairman had dared call Afghanistan “Obama’s war,” Ann Coulter replied,
Republicans used to think seriously about deploying the military. President Eisenhower sent aid to South Vietnam, but said he could not “conceive of a greater tragedy” for America than getting heavily involved there. . . . But now I hear it is the official policy of the Republican Party to be for all wars, irrespective of our national interest. What if Obama decides to invade England because he’s still ticked off about that Churchill bust? Can Michael Steele and I object to that? Or would that demoralize the troops?
Ann, of course, is a provocateur. But what about Haley Barbour? A more solid pillar of the Republican establishment would be hard to imagine—so when he begins to voice doubts about our apparently perpetual occupation of Afghanistan, as he has, it’s time to sit up and take notice. “What is our mission?” Barbour asked a reporter. “How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. . . . Is that a 100,000-man Army mission? I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy.”
Now comes Obama’s Libyan adventure, and the reflexive interventionism of the right has finally worn off. Writing on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace website, created by the media mogul to mock the peace movement during the Bush years, Charles C. Johnson condemns the Libyan war as a war for oil—not for us, but for our French and British allies:
What does this have to do with America? Absolutely nothing. But don’t expect our government—or our media—to understand that. To defenders of our military adventurism that we have no national security or strategic interest is the very reason that we have to be involved.
Ever since the Gulf War, paleoconservatives have defined themselves, in part, in terms of their opposition to our policy of global intervention, particularly in the Middle East. The angular anti-interventionism of a Pat Buchanan, or a Ron Paul, served to isolate us, at first, from the conservative mainstream—but now the tide has truly turned. The Iraq debacle, the ten-year futile crusade in Afghanistan, and now the Libyan adventure have discredited the neoconservatives and their dogma of perpetual war. We are back to where we were at the end of the Cold War—with conservatives reverting to their temperamental indifference to the fate of faraway peoples, and refocusing on the financial and spiritual crises that threaten us on the home front.
The interventionist consensus on the right has been broken, and conservatives are returning to their roots—to the Founding Fathers—for proper instruction in the foreign-policy field as well as in matters domestic. It’s time to redouble our efforts. This is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.