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Mitch McConnell’s Fight Against Phantom Isolationists

Prioritization isn’t a rejection of American interests abroad.

Senators Meet For Policy Luncheons On Capitol Hill

In perhaps the least surprising political development of 2024, albeit as a follow-up to one of the most surprising developments, Mitch McConnell explained why he plans to hang around after departing his leadership position later this year. He wants to fight the “isolationists” in his own party.

“I’m going to concentrate, as I’ve said, inside on this isolationist issue, and outside on trying to get us to the majority in the Senate," McConnell said.

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It was precisely this difference in priorities that made McConnell’s continued leadership of a changing GOP so difficult, in addition to his obviously fraught relationship with the former and perhaps future President Donald Trump. (Though McConnell has endorsed Trump even as he has pledged to roll back the changes to the Republican Party that the 45th president has made—and that have in turn made Trump the presumptive GOP nominee for the third straight election.)

For many years, there was nothing remarkable about McConnell’s foreign-policy views at all, at least within the Republican coalition. His biggest legislative accomplishments and battles concerned domestic policy. It was only once the GOP foreign-policy consensus was challenged after the disastrous failure that was the Iraq War—not least by McConnell’s fellow Kentucky senator, Rand Paul—that his fight against the dissenters took on new salience.

A lot has changed since Iraq, as both the people who view that war as a cautionary tale for future interventions and the McConnell Republicans who are irritated about being called neoconservatives both frequently observed. Mitch’s militants are right that some of their preferred targets are aggressors in a way Baghdad wasn’t circa 2003 or have extraterritorial ambitions that exceed Saddam Hussein’s during that time period.

Today’s Republican hawks are generally less enamored of democracy or idealistic about what they can accomplish via military power than the neocons of George W. Bush’s era. On the positive side, that makes them more realistic about what kind of people would actually get elected if we brought democracy by force of arms to various trouble spots around the world. On the negative side, it can easily lend itself to the kind of dehumanizing rhetoric that Bush and, in his better moments, John McCain generally sought to avoid—and with it, the risk of the deeds that often come with such words.

To put it more simply, Republicans are less likely to think bringing democracy to Gaza will produce favorable outcomes rather than the election of Hamas. But they are perhaps more likely to talk about nuking Gaza.

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If the term “neocon” doesn’t quite fit the more hawkish side of today’s intraparty foreign-policy debate, “isolationist” has seldom been much more than a term of abuse since McConnell and Joe Biden were small children. Few Republicans reject the notion that the United States has vital interests outside the Western Hemisphere. The i-word is often applied to Republicans who would adopt something approaching a Cold War posture toward China, whose views on the Israel–Hamas war barely differ from McConnell’s, and who might even be more hawkish on Ukraine if they shared the Senate minority leader’s belief that Russia could take over NATO territory in Europe. (Believe it or not, some conservatives in good standing who hold no brief for Vladimir Putin don’t think his war in Ukraine proves this.)

It is also noteworthy that the Republicans in this camp tend to be the most clear-eyed about our country’s problems with the national debt, fueled by popular but not particularly well-funded entitlement programs, while arguing we can practice global leadership on the cheap. Just a few billion dollars for weapons here, a few Ukrainian casualties there, and the wolf can be kept from the door.

Some of the most exuberant proponents of this viewpoint are among the same people who believe the American system is fragile at home, endangered primarily by their current or former side of the political aisle. 

The challenges at home or abroad don’t call for recklessness or willful disregard, of course. But they require setting priorities because neither domestic nor international leadership can be sustained indefinitely without picking and choosing. 

That’s why the next generation of conservative leadership, called to govern in a much different era than immediate decades after the Second World War, will nevertheless find it is once again a time for choosing. But that doesn’t mean the choices will always look the same.

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