As Daniel Larison argues, Michael Steele’s recent remarks describing the Afghan mess as “a war of Obama’s choosing” and ridiculing the president’s decision to send more U.S. troops into the conflict — “has he not understood that you know that’s the one thing you don’t do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan?” — do not spring from hidden reservoirs of non-interventionist sentiment. Indeed, Steele has already “clarified” his position. The RNC chairman was reflexively attacking a Democratic president’s policy; it just happened to be his foreign policy, in this case.
Steele’s remarks are significant nevertheless. Republicans have previously criticized Obama’s Afghan policy for not being hawkish enough; now, for practically the first time, we see something like the 1990s Republican criticism of “nation-building” (under Democratic presidents, that is) surfacing among the GOP leadership. William Kristol is understandably worried: “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.” Yet one of them is chairman of the GOP, and there are many others who share his views at other levels of the party.
This does not mean noninterventionist conservatives should get their hopes up. Just as the historical record suggests Tea Party Republicans may speedily forfeit their fiscal conservatism once the GOP regains executive power, it seems even more probable that reservations about prolonged wars and nation-building may be muted once the party of Bush is back in the saddle. Left to their own devices, the Michael Steeles of the world will quickly revert to type. What this means, though, is that they should not be left to their own devices — this is the moment to push the party’s leadership and base toward noninterventionism using whatever terms they find most sympathetic. Rand Paul offers a promising direction: by highlighting the financial burdens of these wars, he’s able to reach an audience otherwise deaf to noninterventionist arguments. Steele and company will not pivot on their own; but their opportunism create an opening for more principled anti-interventionist arguments to gain a hearing.
Here’s the Steele video: