President Obama’s intervention in Libya—pardon me, “NATO’s” intervention in Libya—has become a moment of reflection for conservatives. Whereas the Right gave the last Republican president carte blanche on foreign policy despite cries from the Left about abuse of power, many conservatives now mimic those complaints by demanding that our current Democratic president follow the rule of law.
The Libyan intervention Obama promised would last only “days, not weeks” has now lasted over two months—a direct violation of the War Powers Resolution which requires the President to get Congressional authority for such action after 60 days. Writes conservative columnist George Will: “The U.S. intervention in Libya’s civil war, intervention that began with a surplus of confusion about capabilities and a shortage of candor about objectives, is now taking a toll on the rule of law.”
Will isn’t alone in his concern. While the establishment centrists of both the Democratic and Republican leadership continue to shield Obama from the rule of law, some of the loudest demands that this war president be held accountable continue to come from the Right.
In the Senate, some of that body’s most conservative members—Rand Paul, Jim DeMint, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn and John Cornyn—were co-signers of a May 18 letter to Obama insisting that the President respect the War Powers Resolution and rule of law. Needless to say, Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and “maverick” Republican John McCain vocally disagree with these conservative senators.
In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker John Boehner and the rest of the moderate GOP establishment predictably had the President’s back. Likewise, Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich—one of the few antiwar liberals who did not sell out with the election of Obama—predictably launched a full-frontal assault on this war president. Kucinich introduced what the Washington Post called a “drastic” proposal that demands Obama withdraw forces from Libya within 15 days. Kucinich’s co-sponsor was Republican Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana. Indeed, some of Kucinich’s loudest champions concerning this legislation were conservative Republicans. Reports the Post: “Now, a Democratic president has asked the country to support a new military action and missed a legal deadline that required him to get Congress’s authorization. In response, an antiwar movement has appeared in an unlikely place: a House dominated by the Republican right.”
Co-sponsor Burton noted “I think, in the House, there’s probably enough votes to pass this,” and he must’ve been right—after closed door meetings with fellow Republicans the GOP leadership tabled the measure. Said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith, “His intention is not to undermine the commander in chief, at a time when we have troops in harm’s way.”
Never mind that the Founding Fathers’ intended for Congress—especially the “people’s house” in the House of Representatives—to be the governing body that determines what justified putting “troops in harm’s way.” True to his characteristic Bush Republican form, Speaker Boehner obviously believes this important decision should lie entirely with the President in defiance of the Constitution’s explicit instructions that Congress must declare war.
Make no mistake—a majority of Republicans in both the Senate and House still retain the same doltish mindset as Boehner. But then again, a majority of Republicans have never been conservative. This is nothing new. What is new is that the minority of Republicans who are beginning to rethink American foreign policy are almost exclusively conservatives. Kucinich bill supporter, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake perhaps had the greatest insight this week: “There’s been disquiet for a long time. Republicans have been too eager to support some military ventures abroad. And this, (getting out of Libya) I think, is perhaps a little more consistent with traditional conservatism.”
Flake is right. Perhaps more than he realizes.
Known as “Mr. Republican,” in the mid-twentieth century, Sen. Robert Taft led the conservative charge against the prevailing Democratic belief that it was America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy,” as defined by Woodrow Wilson and promoted by Franklin Roosevelt. In 1946, Taft said that the US went to war to “maintain the freedom of our own people… Certainly, we did not go to war to reform the world.” In 1957, author Russell Kirk would write in his “Ten Canons of Conservative Thought:” “In the affairs of nations, the American conservative feels that his country ought to set an example to the world, but ought not to try to remake the world in its image.” Despite neoconservative assertions to the contrary, many historians have noted Ronald Reagan’s distaste for prolonged military conflict and that he had the least interventionist policy of any president in the last 50 years. Wrote Pat Buchanan of his former boss: “Reagan did not harbor some Wilsonian compulsion to remake the world in the image of Vermont.” At the end of his life, National Review founder William F. Buckley called the Iraq War a mistake and suggested that Bush should be impeached. So did Dennis Kucinich.
It is no mistake that many of the GOP’s most conservative members now more closely align themselves with what some might consider liberal antiwar positions, precisely because prudence in foreign affairs has always been the traditionally conservative position. This might become easier to see the more conservatives realize that Bush was this generation’s Wilson and Obama is now the new FDR—promoting big government at home and abroad with utopian rhetoric and reckless abandon.
Concerning foreign policy, traditional conservatives have always been concerned first with America’s interest, caution and restraint, and the rule of law—something Taft and Kirk always knew, Reagan and Buckley were old enough to remember and too many conservatives today have all but forgotten.
This week, more than a few Republicans proved that genuine American conservatism isn’t entirely dead yet—as a Democratic war president unintentionally jogs the Right’s historical memory and helps to revive conservatism’s traditionalist heart.