To neoconservatives, the thought of a Republican questioning American foreign policy is like a man questioning a woman about her weight—they’re just not supposed to do it. When last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dared to question President Obama’s wisdom in continuing to fight a land war in Afghanistan, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol immediately snapped back, “There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican party.”
Perish the thought. You see, the RNC chairman can question Obama about healthcare, climate change, stimulus, immigration, financial overhaul, his birth certificate, his wife’s fashion sense, his vacation schedule, but when it comes to arguably the most expensive, expansive and enduring aspect of our federal government—foreign policy—heaven forbid any Republican dare challenge this Democratic president.
The reason Kristol and his neocon pals (Liz Cheney, Charles Krauthammer, Lindsey Graham, John McCain) are now calling for Steele’s head is not because they merely disagree with the RNC chairman—but because he committed heresy. Neoconservatives, in conjunction with their allies on talk radio and in the mainstream press, have worked hard for years to make sure the only questions Republicans should ever ask about war are “where?” and “when?,” and never, “why?” or “what for?” Steele asked the latter, and in doing so undermined the single-issue orthodoxy demanded by George W. Bush’s GOP, beloved by neoconservatives and rightly described by many as the “War Party.” Pat Buchanan nails it: “This campaign to censure and remove Steele is designed to censor debate and stifle dissent on Obama’s war policy, as long as Obama’s war policy closely tracks the agenda of the War Party.”
Steele is being attacked for the same reason the GOP establishment tried to shun presidential candidate Ron Paul during the 2008 election. Candidates like McCain or Mitt Romney never had a particular problem with Paul’s limited government message, and in fact, in this current Tea Party environment, both politicians now try to mimic it. But when Paul called for bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—something a majority of Americans, both then and now, still support—Paul immediately became persona non grata. As Brad Pitt told Ed Norton’s character in the 1999 movie “Fight Club,” “The first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.” In the “fight club” that was the GOP in 2008—a party-wide fetish for fighting endlessly in Iraq, Afghanistan, possibly Iran—Paul dared to talk about fight club, thus breaking the Republicans first and only unbreakable rule.
But in 2010, does the rule still apply? Not surprisingly, the only major Republican leader to come to Steele’s defense has been Paul, whose influence has grown significantly since the last presidential election. The American Conservative’s Sean Scallon notes that the mere fact that Paul’s defense of Steele has been given so much media attention—coupled with the fact that Steele is not being forced to resign—“show(s) that Paul, after being laughed at, scorned and booed in GOP debates about his views three years ago, is now recorded far more respect in the party and in the media and his views have at least a subtle influence. The neocons attacks upon Steele only showed their fear of this influence.” A recent Politico poll even showed the Tea Party movement to be split between its allegiance to the libertarian Paul and the more social issues-oriented Sarah Palin.
Here’s what the pro-war, any-war Right fears most—that a Tea Party movement with zero tolerance for government spending might also turn a critical eye toward the neocons’ eternal pet project of perpetual war and American empire. If Obamacare and its $1 trillion price tag really got the Tea Party brewing—what might happen if grassroots conservatives finally realize that our foreign policy costs far more? In the neocons’ mind, Steele committed the unpardonable by raising such questions among Republicans, foolishly talking about fight club at the same time Paul’s antiwar voice gets louder in proportion to his influence. Paul’s defense of Steele was something that had to burn neocon ears: “Michael Steele has it right and Republicans should stick by him.”
Steele is no Paul, and even though his questioning of Obama’s policy in Afghanistan contained much truth, the RNC chair backed away from his comments as fast as his critics jumped on him. As Buchanan notes, “While Steele has spent every waking hour since his words hit the airwaves explaining, and declaring his commitment to victory, of far more interest is the alacrity with which neoconservatives piled on the chairman.”
Of far more interest indeed. Will the GOP finally become a conservative party that questions the size government in its entirety, or will it remain the same, old neoconservative party it was under Bush, forever expanding the size of government to support an exorbitant foreign policy that no one is ever allowed to talk about? Two things are for sure: You can bet that Ron Paul—to the neocons chagrin—will keep talking about it. And you can bet that Michael Steele—under strict neocon orders—will probably never bring it up again.