The new right: ‘Isolationist’ or ‘watchman on the wall of world freedom’?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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A battle is taking place for the heart and soul of the Republican Party’s foreign policy. Honest disagreements have long existed amongst good conservatives, but, with the exception of a brief time during the Clinton administration (when many Republicans opposed intervention in places like Kosovo), this schism has been largely obscured by the exigencies of defeating Communism and stopping terrorism. No more.

This past weekend, Sen. John McCain, a leading foreign policy hawk, took issue with the emerging “isolationist” trend, which was evidenced during the recent GOP primary debate in New Hampshire when the participants were largely in agreement regarding withdrawal from Afghanistan. (In fairness, it is a bit much to call foreign policy Realists who oppose intervention in Libya and support withdrawing from Afghanistan “isolationists” — though it is equally simplistic to refer to their more internationalist ideological opponents as “neocons.”)

This disagreement is particularly interesting, inasmuch as it transcends the typical liberal versus conservative paradigm observers typically rely on, thus making it hard for either side to argue theirs is the “true” conservative position, though both will try (indeed, McCain summoned the legacy of his old friend Ronald Reagan to argue his point).

Prior to World War II, the GOP was, of course, the party of isolationism. That Old Right viewpoint obviously fell out of favor in the wake of WWII. The rise of Communism transformed things even further, dramatically altering every facet of political life for the remainder of the 20th century. Some traditional conservative ideological concerns were pushed aside. Conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley — men who would normally loathe big government — reasoned that enduring bigger government was worth it if it meant defeating an evil ideology bent on world conquest. (Why quibble over details when the Godless Commies might nuke us?)

The radicalization of the Democratic Party during the post-John F. Kennedy 1960s and 70s further cemented the transition: Liberals were staking out the anti-war “dove” territory, so the GOP would serve a different niche — that of law-and-order “hawks.”

There were exceptions, of course (which is why we have the term “Scoop Jackson Democrat”), but by the time Reagan came along, it was clear which party most believed in using American power as a force for good around the world.

Ironically, Democrats had gotten us into Korea and Vietnam, while the rhetorically bellicose Republicans had — pre-George W. Bush (who ironically campaigned for president, calling for a “humble foreign policy“) — avoided getting bogged down in wars. For this reason, Republicans were able to maintain their status as hawks — without suffering the terrible backlash that comes with war-weariness. As a consequence, even just a few years ago, this debate was a non-issue within the GOP. During the 2008 campaign, Rep. Ron Paul’s anti-interventionist positions appeared fringy when compared to the mainstream positions of McCain (who was right about the surge, by the way), Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, et al.

Since Obama’s election, however, many Republicans have slowly begun backing away from interventionism. To be sure, some of this is pure political opportunism, but some of it may also be a genuine reexamination of conservative principles, especially in lieu of the budget deficit. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that those who favor an internationalist approach are in danger of being marginalized. This is because their primary spokesmen are politicians that many true conservatives frankly don’t trust. The list includes McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.

But the narrative suggesting support for a robust foreign policy is the bailiwick of older moderates is a false one. Sen. Marco Rubio — one of the most exciting young conservative leaders in the nation — has been a leading voice stressing the importance of America as a force for good in the world.

During his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Rubio eloquently argued that America’s “power always has come with a sense that to those that much is given, much is expected,” adding: “A sense that with the blessings that God bestowed upon this land, came the responsibility to make the world a better place. And in the 20th century, that is precisely and exactly what America did. America led in two world wars so that others could be free.”

Rubio went on to add:

You know, one of my favorite speeches is one that talks about our role in the world. It was the speech that President Kennedy was set to give had he lived just one more day. It closes with these words:

“We in this country, in this generation, are- by destiny rather than by choice- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”

Almost half a century later, America is still the only watchman on the wall of world freedom. And there is still no one to take our place.

What will the world look like if America declines?

Meanwhile, his fellow Tea Party conservative Sen. Rand Paul — another compelling new leader — appears to be on the opposite end of the conservative spectrum. One can imagine Rubio and Paul will be fighting this ideological battle for the future of the GOP for years to come. This issue isn’t going away any time soon…

Matt K. Lewis