Perhaps one of the most striking attributes of the current Republican field is their dovishness.
Last week’s forum for presidential candidates made clear scepticism about foreign interventionism isn’t limited to the libertarians Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.
On Afghanistan, frontrunner Mitt Romney said, “I also think we’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation”. On the Middle East, Newt Gingrich opined that, “we need to think fundamentally about reassessing our entire strategy in the region”.
Michele Bachmann cited the US defence secretary’s view that America had no vital national interest in Libya, and Jon Huntsman – not at the forum, but now a candidate – also said that boots on foreign soil was not a necessary part of America’s national security.
Mitt Romney has backed away from his position somewhat, presumably under the theory that a frontrunner must not hold unambiguous views.
And some of this newfound shyness in foreign policy is, obviously, based more on who is in the White House than the merits of military action. Partisans will be partisans.
But the shyness is not limited to Libya and Afghanistan, two conflicts which Barack Obama now owns. A forum at the Cato Institute last year revealed that the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress (“everyone”) now think invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake. You cannot chalk that up to simple hostility about a Democrat president.
So on Sunday John McCain attacked what he saw as the “isolation strand” of the Republican Party which had taken centre stage at the forum.
It’s not fair to call this new attitude ‘isolationism’, but if it was, it’d be an isolationism driven by bitter experience rather than principle.
Nevertheless, isolationism is a cheap slight thrown at the Republicans who want simply to raise the minimum threshold for military intervention. After all, the biggest right-wing critics of America’s recent wars have been libertarians. And their support for expanding free trade and immigration is hardly ‘isolationist’.
It’s a peculiar mindset that characterises opposition to invading foreign countries as a complete withdrawal from the world – as if there was no middle ground between bombing nations on the one hand, and cancelling trade and diplomatic relations with everybody on the other.
The absurdity of this view is even more obvious when you consider that one of those who has been most tarnished with the ‘isolationist’ label is Jon Huntsman – who also happens to be a former ambassador to China. Not a homebody.
So as Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney wrote last week: “what can ‘isolationism’ mean here other than ‘opposition to war against Muslim nations’?”
At the very least, neo-conservatism – which has held sway over Republican thinking for the last decade in both its crude and intellectual forms – no longer has a clear champion.
Neo-conservatives reasonably argued that morality does not stop at the border. The United States could not pretend to be neutral on questions of tyranny and democracy even if favouring the former met a specific American geopolitical interest.
Nevertheless, nearly a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan and almost as long in Iraq has exposed the very real limits of neo-conservative thinking. One may be able to imagine a grand role for the United States exporting liberal democracy across the globe, but that role will hit the wall once the uncomfortable reality of protracted conflict is realised.
Many commentators have attributed the Republicans’ foreign policy shift as simply a response to the cost of war; implying that military adventurism is still desirable, but a luxury for when the economy is doing well.
Nevertheless the new Republican dovishness suits the times in other ways too.
More than two years after the global financial crisis began, the competence and capacity of government action is under serious examination. The program of bailouts and stimulus has been a dreary failure. The federal debt is crippling the recovery. America seems to be contemplating an era of decline, driven by a moribund economy and an ineffective government.
No surprise that anti-government sentiment has splashed over into foreign policy thinking. The Tea Party flirted with opposition to defence spending – an area of government which was supposed to be off-limits. In June 2011, the Tea Party may be in decline, but its scepticism about all government activity has penetrated the Republican mainstream. 56 per cent of registered Republicans now support reducing overseas military commitments, according to a Pew survey this year.
Across the political spectrum, support for the proposition that the United States should “mind its own business” has never been higher, and appears to be on a long term trend further upwards.
Yes, George W Bush came into office rejecting nation building. The new crop of Republicans urging modesty in international affairs could backflip just as spectacularly in office.
But the political environment in 2000 is vastly different to the political environment today. Ten years of continuous war has shaped Republican attitudes to conflict.
The Republican candidates are finally matching their desire for modesty in government with a desire for modesty in foreign affairs. Next time a president – of left or right – pushes for a new war, it would do them well to remember why.