In the early 1900s, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt sent America’s spanking new Great White Fleet of battleships around the world in a display of US naval might. He also declared that the US had a God-given right to intervene in Latin American countries to prevent chronic wrongdoing.
His view, as University of Virginia scholars put it, that “the exportation of American values and ideals would have an ennobling effect on the world” has been a hallmark of many Republican presidencies since, perhaps most notably in recent years those of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
So when the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls appeared to abandon that philosophy during their first debate June 13, it sent shivers down the spines of some Republican Old Guard such as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham. It began when the candidates ganged up in criticism of the policies of President Barack Obama rather than explain how they differed from each other.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the Republican front-runner for the moment said: “Our troops should not go off and fight a war of independence for another country,” referring to US involvement in Afghanistan. “Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”
He and the other announced Republican candidates questioned the wisdom of US involvement not only in Afghanistan but Iraq and Libya as well. Rep. Michele Bachmann, from the party’s far right Tea Party wing, sharply criticized US involvement in Libya. Rep. Ron Paul favors US disengagement worldwide.
If Ronald Reagan were alive today, “He would be saying: That’s not the Republican Party of the 20th century, and now the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people for all over the world,” Senator McCain said on ABC’s This Week program.
Senator Graham said he agreed that isolationism was moving to center stage his party and added: “If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama’s left on Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, you are going to meet a lot of headwinds.”
The development may well signal Republicans are abandoning internationalism and becoming as Democrat as Democrats on foreign policy.
“There’s always been an isolation strain in the Republican party, that Pat Buchanan (a former Republican presidential contender) wing of our party,” Mr. McCain said. “But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak.”
Recent polls seem to bear that out. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in May found that 39 percent of conservative and 34 percent of liberal to moderate Republicans felt it best to be active in world affairs, compared to 58 percent of conservatives and 43 percent of liberal and moderate Republicans in 2004.
“The proportion of conservative Republicans supporting U.S. activism in world affairs has fallen by 19 points to 39 percent. Since 2004, liberal Democrats and independents also have become less supportive of U.S. global engagement, but the change has been most dramatic among conservatives,” Pew’s report on poll results said. “This shift is part of a broader blurring of partisan differences in opinions about America’s role in the world.”
Only former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty among the candidates offered a strong defense of US engagement abroad. He is scheduled to deliver what aides described in a news release as a “major foreign policy speech that will touch on the need for the Republican Party to continue its support for a strong foreign policy.”
The speech will focus on the challenges and opportunities presented by the Arab Spring, it said.
Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star among Republicans, also believes the US must be “the watchman on the wall of world freedom.” Their voices have been overshadowed, however, by the calls for retreat within the party.
As Republicans seek cover, Mr. Obama seems to be trying to fill the space with a modified version of Mr. Roosevelt’s “Walk softly and carry a big stick” policy.
During his speech to the nation on Afghanistan last week, Mr. Obama said: “Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security, and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America overextend ourselves, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.
“We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force — but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”
The Republican shift may be but more proof that a sour US economy will shape the tone of the upcoming presidential election. An economy bedeviled by high unemployment, runaway home foreclosures and a trillion dollar national deficit is believed by some to be behind President Obama’s decision to accelerate planned US troop withdrawals from Afghanistan to more speedily end the war there that is costing the US $10 billion each month.
There is bipartisan concern about the cost of maintaining an extensive military presence abroad, as the government struggles with a massive debt, the Pew poll found. It said 49 percent of Republicans polled felt the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed “a great deal” to the nation’s debt than felt that about increased domestic spending, 38 percent, and that even higher percentages of Democrats felt that way (67 percent).
“Consistent with this view, there is broad support for reducing overseas military commitments to cut the spiraling debt. More than half of Republicans (56 percent) – as well as 72 percent of independents and 63 percent of Democrats – approve of scaling back foreign military commitments to reduce the debt,” the Pew report said.
(Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. is a veteran national and foreign correspondent who has worked at The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. He can be reached at: email@example.com)