Will austerity turn Republicans away from war?

Fairly or not, Mitt Romney’s approach to national security during the 2008 presidential race can be captured by a single phrase: “Double Guantanamo.” When asked about the U.S. prison camp for terror suspects, the eager-to-please former Massachusetts governor’s first instinct was to propose super-sizing it like a McDonald’s value meal for hungry Republican primary voters.

That was when Romney was trying to compete with John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, both more natural national-security hawks than he. But even as he launched his second campaign in 2010 with the release of his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney endorsed in its pages what William Kristol and Robert Kagan described in a 1996 Foreign Affairs essay as “benevolent global hegemony”—the idea that if the United States is not the world’s dominant military and ideological power, the void will be filled by countries advancing values that are much worse for peace and human freedom.

So it was surprising when at a June GOP candidates’ debate in New Hampshire, Romney said of the war in Afghanistan, “It’s time for to us bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can.” With this pale imitation of “Come home, America,” Romney found himself drawn into a critique by his former rival McCain and other hawks that the Republican Party was becoming too “isolationist.”

“There’s always been an isolation strain in the Republican Party, that Pat Buchanan wing of our party,” McCain lamented, irritated by Republican diffidence over Afghanistan and Libya. “But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak.”

McCain’s ally, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, concurred. He worried to the Hill that it “doesn’t take long before the [GOP] finds a war-weary nation and exploits it.” He fretted about an alliance between Ron Paul on the “far right” and Dennis Kucinich on the “far left,” though he was apparently unbothered by a left-right interventionist coalition consisting of himself, McCain, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton.

Some of this was overblown, even by McCain and Graham’s characteristically elastic definition of isolationism. The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes admitted on Fox News that Romney’s mild Afghanistan comment “had Republican hawks, policy analysts emailing one another, what does he mean? Is he calling for immediate withdrawal?” But Hayes reassured viewers at home, “I talked to people who are familiar with his thinking. And they said no, look, he misspoke. That’s not what he intended to say.”

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, quick to spy “unseriousness” in the form of incipient dovishness upon the part of Republican aspirants—like such notorious McGovernites as Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour—absolved Romney of any foreign-policy heterodoxy. While Rubin was initially concerned that “the entire GOP field was now hopping on the isolationist bandwagon in some odd attempt to scrounge votes from the Ron Paul contingent,” Romney and Tim Pawlenty ultimately passed her “strong foreign policy” test. (As later did Michele Bachmann, who “firmly planted herself at the grown-ups’ table” by telling the Weekly Standard we must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.)

Pawlenty had taken to lecturing the rest of the Republican field about their disturbing “move more towards isolationism,” as he told Politico. Meanwhile, Romney foreign-policy adviser Mitchell Reiss was quick to tell Rubin that Romney felt the United States was “under-investing” in national defense.

It is nevertheless significant that Romney, his finger ever in search of the primary voter’s pulse, has had to defend himself against the charge of isolationism. Much of his double-Gitmo chest-beating last time around was overcompensating for the perception that he wasn’t as gung-ho as the other candidates for George W. Bush’s foreign policy. At the time, conservative journalist David Freddoso pointed out that Romney “is unique among the serious Republican presidential contenders because he has never said he would do [the Iraq War] all over again, and they all have.”

In one debate, Romney twice refused to answer when asked if the Iraq invasion was a mistake. He called the question “an unreasonable hypothetical,” a “non-sequitur,” and even a “null set,” as if it simply did not compute. At another debate he drew McCain’s harsh rebuke for saying the surge was “apparently” working. “Governor, the surge is working,” McCain snarled. When Romney protested that was what he had just said, McCain shot back, “Not apparently. It’s working.”

In the New Republic, Eli Lake has reported that Romney’s foreign-policy advisers are divided. Lake described Reiss—who ironically was the man dispatched to convince Jennifer Rubin of Romney’s hawkishness—as a surge skeptic, while Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who later sent a distress signal to Republican hawks about the dovishness of senate candidate Rand Paul, was pro-surge. Reiss and Senor still advise Romney today and are similarly at odds over Afghanistan.

Yet Reiss’s doubts about Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government are a far cry from mythical isolationism, or even real-world non-interventionism. Other than Ron Paul and fellow libertarian Gary Johnson, Jon Huntsman is the only Republican presidential candidate who has come close to calling for a fundamental reevaluation of American foreign policy. But as Lake notes, “the penny-pinching mood among Republicans” has made GOP leaders “less inclined to sound the kinds of grandiose and expensive notes about foreign policy that were considered par for the course in 2008.”

Nowhere was that clearer than in this summer’s debt-ceiling battle. In their eagerness to identify spending reductions that would offset an increase in the federal debt limit, congressional Republican leaders were willing to put the Pentagon on the chopping block. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan had long been a skeptic of trimming the defense budget, preferring to reinvest any savings from eliminating waste or from procurement reform in other military expenditures. But Ryan included former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s requested defense cuts in the official Republican budget for fiscal 2012, reinvesting some of the savings and applying the rest to deficit reduction.

The eventual debt ceiling compromise—which passed the House with more Republican than Democratic votes—caps security spending at $684 billion, about $4.5 billion below the enacted 2011 amount. The law also sets up a joint “super committee” tasked with finding another $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction for the next decade. If the committee flunks its assignment or Congress fails to pass its recommendations, another $600 billion in cuts to defense and other security spending kick in. Romney, Pawlenty, and Bachmann all cited the defense cuts in their opposition to the legislation, with Bachmann saying the armed forces “will be the ones who take the biggest, most severe haircut.”

McCain, ever on the watch for isolationism, swallowed hard and supported the deal. So did House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, despite warning, “Our senior military commanders have been unanimous in their concerns that deeper cuts could break the force.” Yet fiscal conservatives like Sen. Tom Coburn were willing to contemplate $1 trillion in defense cuts. Coburn argued that knocking defense spending back to levels seen before the surge in Iraq was hardly isolationism.

Penny-pinching is one thing. Rethinking the projection of American military power is another. Republicans didn’t want to pay for the wars launched under President Bush either, but barely a handful voted against waging them. Yet a large number of Republicans opposed President Obama’s war in Libya, going so far as to vote for defunding it and invoking the War Powers Resolution to question its legality—the latter move putting 87 House Republicans on the same page as left-wing Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich.

This would have been unthinkable under Bush. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that it should still be unthinkable now, predictably decrying an “isolationist turn” in the GOP and designating those 87 “the Kucinich Republicans”—which included Bachmann and other Tea Party favorites.

In many ways, this is a replay of the 1990s. With the Cold War over, the Republican foreign-policy consensus shattered. And with Bill Clinton in the White House pursuing humanitarian military interventions, the Republican temptation to resist what Bob Dole memorably called “Democrat wars” grew. Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns, like Ron Paul’s today, also revived interest in an older, less militaristic conservative tradition.

All of which had the neoconservatives hopping mad. For throwing out some red meat against Bill Clinton’s Kosovo War—like Obama’s Libya adventure, totally unauthorized by Congress—in a speech to the Heritage Foundation, the New York Post editorial page accused Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of “Kay Bailey Isolationism.” Hutchison, a fairly conventional Republican, was supposed to be dragging the party into the “fever swamps” of Buchanan and the “era of Robert A. Taft.”

In a similar vein, the Weekly Standard’s opinion editor urged Republican officeholders to ignore the “conservative street”—a play on the phrase “Arab street”—and its opposition to military involvement in the Balkans. This lack of Republican unanimity on foreign policy was what prompted Kristol and Kagan to write their Foreign Affairs essay calling for “neo-Reaganite” benevolent global hegemony.

Much of the GOP’s 1990s antiwar shift turned out to be partisanship. But it took a terrorist attack on U.S. soil that killed 3,000 Americans to push many Republicans—including George W. Bush, who had famously campaigned on a “humble foreign policy”—in a warlike direction. The aftermath of 9/11 elicited a considerably different mood from the conservative street a decade after the Cold War’s “peace dividend” failed to produce peace.

Moreover, during the 1990s conservatism had trended in a libertarian direction. Increasing skepticism about government at home reinforced doubts about Uncle Sam’s capacity for complex nation-building projects abroad. A more statist tide swept conservatism in the Bush years, as compassionate conservatism at home traveled with the “freedom agenda” overseas. But with their emphasis on balanced budgets and limited government, Republicans and conservatives today seem to have regained that 1990s feeling.

Here is where Republican penny-pinching could have an enduring influence on the party’s foreign policy. The federal government’s rapidly deteriorating financial condition is putting the expensive foreign policy favored by the neoconservatives and other hawks on a collision course with the anti-tax stance of many fiscal conservatives. This will not change the next time a Republican president takes the oath of office.

When the super committee mandated by the debt-ceiling agreement meets, there will be tremendous pressure on Republicans to compromise on either taxes or defense spending. Grover Norquist, who holds 234 House members and 40 senators to an ironclad pledge not to raise taxes, has made clear which he prefers. Before long other Republican and conservative leaders will make their preferences known too. In a fragile economy, the choice may be easier than the hawks would like.

The only responsible way to cut defense spending is to reassess existing military commitments and adopt stricter criteria for when the use of force is necessary. Pairing defense cuts with interventionism conspicuously failed in the 1990s and would be even more disastrous in an age of austerity. But that doesn’t mean a readjustment will come easily to the upper echelons of the Republican Party, if it comes at all.

While Romney’s foreign-policy advisers may not agree on everything, those who are known to the public stretch from the respectable Republican continuum of Condoleezza Rice-style semi-realism to full-throated neoconservatism. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is taking cues from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Bachmann the Kucinich Republican is close to Frank Gaffney, who is hawkish but not a neoconservative. Doves have no measurable presence in these campaigns.

And no matter who is advising the candidates now, neoconservatives remain a large part of the foreign-policy establishment that will wind up staffing any future Republican administration. When it comes to war and military spending, the strongest contrary voices will probably not belong to the quasi-realists and the non-interventionists. It will be the fiscal conservatives who doubt that doubling Gitmo is such a hot bargain.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

The American Conservative needs the support of readers. Please subscribe or make a contribution today.