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Antiwar Conservatism Isn’t Going Away

The GOP's '90s noninterventionism didn't last—here's why this time is different.
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House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor support President Obama’s proposed military strikes against Syria. Despite their lofty titles, they may actually find themselves in the minority—in the chamber, perhaps, and almost certainly in the Republican caucus.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to take a similar stand. His Tea Party primary challenger, Matt Bevin, has been pounding him for not taking an identifiable position at all. Bevin’s campaign e-mailed around a collection of their candidate’s antiwar comments and contrasted them with McConnell’s silence.

“We have no business being there,” Bevin is quoted as saying again and again. “These kinds of police actions we’ve been doing for decades are wrong, they’re unconstitutional,” he told a TV station. Bevin’s team illustrates McConnell’s Syria position with an empty page.

In Chris Christie’s New Jersey, longshot Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan has been similarly trying to pin down his Democratic opponent Cory Booker. “Mayor Booker claims he cannot say whether he will support or oppose President Obama’s proposed military attack on Syria allegedly because he has no access to classified information,” Lonegan said in a statement.

“Cory Booker is afraid to admit he supports the President’s proposed war in Syria,” Lonegan concluded. The conservative former mayor of Bogota described the American people as “sick of being the world’s policeman.”

Bevin and Lonegan might be dismissed as libertarian-leaning outliers or no-hope candidates flailing around for a winning issue. But Marco Rubio, a rising Republican star who has regularly fretted about “isolationism” inside his party voted no to the Syria authorization in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John Cornyn, the number two Republican in the Senate, is reportedly leaning no.

Sarah Palin has come out against the bombing. John Bolton, a hawk’s hawk, has said he would vote against the Syria war resolution. Conservative talkers Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have warned intervention could trigger World War III. Two major polls released Monday showed at least 70 percent of Republicans oppose Syrian airstrikes. A Washington Post/ABC News survey found GOP opposition climbing 16 points in just a week.

Rand Paul and Justin Amash may have emerged as the leaders of the Republican opposition on Syria, but that opposition is much bigger than the Paul-Amash wing of the party—as a congressional vote is likely to reveal.

Even Bill Kristol concedes that supporting U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war will be “temporarily unpopular with the base.” But at the end of the day, the Weekly Standard editor says GOP voters will be unlikely to support primary challengers “whose key plank is that Republicans should have voted to let an Iran-supported, terror-backing dictator with American blood on his hands off the hook after he’s used chemical weapons.”

How about a primary challenger who says Republicans should not have turned the American military into al-Qaeda’s Air Force, a framing no more tendentious than Kristol’s and one actually accepted by both much of the rank-and-file and Tea Party lawmakers like Ted Cruz? It’s also worth noting how actual Republican primary challengers, and the incumbents who have to worry about facing them, are handling the politics of Syria.

Yet it’s not the first time Kristol and company have urged Republicans to shun the base. His magazine weathered canceled subscriptions after backing Bill Clinton on military intervention in the Balkans and tendering this sort of advice to GOP politicians: “When the ‘conservative street’ is wrong, it should be corrected—or ignored.”

Kristol is betting that most Republicans who oppose attacking Syria are playing an anti-Obama game. All it would take is a Republican commander in chief, a less humanitarian intervention or a more familiar foe—say, the Iranian mullahs—to return the conservative street to a fighting mood.

Indeed, a Republican-controlled House denied Clinton authorization to bomb Kosovo. Leading Senate Republicans also voted against Clinton. When Clinton ignored Congress, several GOP legislators joined antiwar liberals in suing the administration.

Conservatives outside of Congress were similarly steamed. Hannity called Kosovo “a very ill-conceived military action.” He dismissed comparisons to Adolf Hitler as “propaganda.” Hannity summed it all up: “I say, back out of it, because innocent people are going to die for nothing. That’s why I’m against it.”

Few Republicans who opposed Clinton on Kosovo later opposed George W. Bush on Iraq. Bush himself had promised a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed nation-building. One of the congressmen who sued Clinton, Tom Tancredo, talked casually about bombing Mecca.

There are nevertheless a few reasons to hope that the current revival of anti-interventionist conservatism is not as fleeting as it was in the 1990s. Back then, large numbers of Republicans voted for a presidential candidate who thought country was fighting too many foreign wars.

But Pat Buchanan’s most adamant supporters in those primaries were social conservatives, followed by those responding to his economic populism. Ron Paul attracted somewhat fewer voters than Buchanan, but foreign policy and civil liberties were central to their identity.

Second, Paul’s campaigns birthed several grassroots organizations that have so far shown real staying power. This is likely to produce more activists pushing for a less warlike conservatism and to keep them involved in political debates. Some of these groups are involved in primaries, and even regular Republicans compete for their endorsements, donations, and votes.

Third, there is a difference in the leading anti-interventionist members of Congress. There is a critical mass who opposed Bush’s wars as well as Obama’s, a good indication of future consistency. The non-opportunists among them are prominent figures, not backbenchers. Their ranks aren’t yet large enough that they could withstand many primary defeats—or a setback for Amash or the younger Paul as they try to seek higher office—but they may be able to provide the kind of countervailing influence that has been missing since Robert Taft died during the Eisenhower administration.

Potentially the most important difference is that the fiscal conservatives and libertarians who were quietly skeptical of interventionism during the Bush years, but stayed quiet for the sake of party and movement unity, are speaking out. FreedomWorks, one of the largest Tea Party organizations, has come out against the war. Grover Norquist has been increasingly skeptical of his party’s hawks. So have some older conservative movement figures like David Keene, recently of the American Conservative Union and the National Rifle Association, and Richard Viguerie.

Some of these organizations and activists have a lot of sway in Republican primaries, others are helpful for campaign fundraising. All of them have the potential to create a lasting conservative foreign-policy debate, as opposed to a neoconservative monologue.

In 2002, when mainstream Republicans like Dick Armey were skeptical of the Iraq War, they had no institutional support and no friendly institutions encouraging their initial antiwar impulses. If present trends continue, they will. Flipping Armey against the authorization of force could have pried loose dozens of Republican votes, and might have shamed more Democrats into voting their conscience.

None of these trends are guaranteed to last forever. And certainly the Syria debate has already reminded us of one sad fact: even if a president like Rand Paul got elected, there is a paucity of Republican foreign-policy advisers who would share his views. It now seems clear that not even Chuck Hagel or Jon Huntsman would fit the bill.

But even more than in the days of Clinton and Wag the Dog, conservatives for foreign-policy restraint have something to build upon.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?