While I have been away, Republican opposition to the Libyan war has intensified, and at the first New Hampshire primary debate the candidates generally expressed support for withdrawal from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The flurry of predictable “isolationist” charges followed as usual. When those inevitably proved bogus, since there are no isolationists alive today (and arguably there have never been any actual isolationists), there were the charges of opportunism and partisanship. Of course, it is true that partisanship is a major factor in explaining new Republican skepticism of military intervention, just as it was a major factor in accounting for the sudden, odd collapse of the antiwar movement after Obama’s election. Chait explains:
Republicans have a hawkish faction that supports every military intervention, and Democrats have a liberal faction that opposes every military intervention. But large numbers of both parties make their decision about any particular intervention based on whether they trust the president — which means whether he’s in their party or not.
That’s true. Most Republicans became increasingly critical of Clinton’s military interventions as time went on because their distrust and indeed contempt for him eventually exceeded their instinct to support military action. That is certainly part of what is happening again now. Trust in Obama’s judgment has been a significant reason why so many liberals have fallen in line on Libya, or at the very least they have muted their criticisms of the war. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the President’s partisans assume that he knows what he’s doing. This is how otherwise astute critics of the Bush administration give Obama the benefit of the doubt when he engages in illegal warfare or claims unreviewable authority to order the assassination of U.S. citizens.
I have long been very skeptical when some Republicans suddenly rediscover prudence and restraint in foreign policy as soon as their party no longer controls the White House, because I have assumed correctly that opportunism and partisanship explained almost all of this. Since opportunism and partisanship explain almost all of it, there is normally no reason to attach undue significance to it, and it will change back to the old pattern as soon as the out-party takes over. There has nonetheless been something unusual about the GOP reaction to the Libyan war. The customary support for military action once it has begun, the standard deference to the executive on matters of national security, and the normal acquiescence to outrageous executive abuses of authority that we expect from almost all Republican politicians are noticeable by how lacking they are among House Republicans and many presidential candidates.
When I described a shift in conservative attitudes towards military intervention a few weeks ago, I wasn’t arguing that the shift was huge, but I would insist that it is significant. I was careful not to make extremely broad claims that this proves that the GOP is undergoing a massive shift on foreign policy, much less that it is going to be reliably non-interventionist or antiwar in the future, but there is some real movement going on. It is important to emphasize that the actual antiwar votes for the Kucinich resolution in the House represented a minority of Republicans, and the most vocal opponents of the Libyan war among the 2012 candidates are generally considered second-tier or long-shot candidates. Even so, the number of antiwar votes was remarkably high, and the number of candidates opposed to the Libyan war is much greater than anything we’ve seen in the past. Republican and conservative opinion on military intervention has never been monolithic, but until recently skeptics and opponents of such policies have been almost completely unrepresented in Congress and in presidential debates.
The difference between the field of candidates now and in 1999-2000 is real. Despite similar partisan reactions to Kosovo in 1999, there were hardly any opponents of the Kosovo war among the Republican candidates in the 2000 race. This time there are almost as many opponents as there are supporters. On one level, the candidates are taking advantage of the fact that the Libyan war has incredibly weak support from the public, and that is a product of the public’s general weariness with foreign conflicts. Romney clumsily pandered to war weary voters in the first debate, but if there is one thing we can learn from his pandering it is the mood of the voters inside the GOP.
Up until now, Romney has been doing his best to make himself appear as hawkish as possible, but he seems to be picking up that this is not what most Republican voters want to hear. Huntsman is attempting to repeat McCain’s 2000 and 2008 strategies, but he is doing so by running as a less hawkish internationalist. Despite the best efforts of activists and pundits to build up Pawlenty as an acceptable alternative to Romney, he continues to languish at the back of the pack. Bachmann has found an opening for a message that is at once nationalist, anti-Obama, and critical of unnecessary war, and so far she has been flourishing at Pawlenty’s expense.
We can also detect some shifts in the party’s mood in Congress. Twelve years ago, Sen. Lugar was a vocal supporter of bombing Yugoslavia, and he once insisted that NATO had to go out of area or “go out of business,”* but he has nonetheless been one of the leading critics of the Libyan intervention and he has criticized it on both constitutional and strategic grounds. It is probably not a coincidence that Lugar faces a primary challenger and will be running for re-election next year. Lugar has had a generally very close relationship with the administration on foreign policy, so it is all the more remarkable that Lugar has chosen to use Libya as an issue that separates him clearly from Obama. There is broader bipartisan support for the Libyan war in the Senate than in the House, but there is more vocal opposition there on the Republican side than one would expect.
Finally, when Ross writes a column in which he sides with Rand Paul over Marco Rubio on foreign policy, something has definitely started changing for the better on the right.
* Of course, if Lugar’s formulation was right, the proper response to this was to let NATO go out of business.