COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nearly half of all Republican primary voters say it's time the U.S. stops intervening in world affairs and focuses on domestic priorities instead, signaling a persistent rift that is playing out in the party's presidential nomination battle.
In the latest poll from The Washington Times and JZ Analytics, 48 percent said the U.S. should maintain a policy of intervening where its interests are challenged. But 46 percent disagree, saying the country is "in a new global era" where it can no longer take such an active role.
"That makes me say that the party is fundamentally fractured, and not only along the obvious lines of the social conservatives, the libertarian conservatives and the moderate conservatives," said John Zogby, who conducted the poll.
The Paul factor
The split is most obvious in the candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who in Monday night's Republican presidential debate drew some cheers but also loud boos when he called for an international "Golden Rule" that would dramatically curtail U.S. power projection throughout the world.
"This idea that we can't debate foreign policy, that all we have to do is start another war — it's warmongering," Mr. Paul said, chastising the other four candidates on stage, who he said were pushing for a war against Iran.
Mr. Paul has made "non-interventionism" — he bristles at the label of "isolationist" — the hallmark of his campaign, along with calling for a return to constitutional principles at home.
He has called for bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan immediately and wants to end American military commitments that have U.S. troops stationed around the globe, though he says that doesn't necessarily mean having a smaller Defense Department.
Before Iowa's caucuses, the congressman from Texas questioned whether the U.S. should take steps to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and said killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan violated international rules. In Monday's debate, he seemed to back away from, then later embrace, his belief that the U.S. violated international rules. That was when he called for an international Golden Rule.
Critics call it unrealistic
There is little doubt that Mr. Paul's non-interventionist stance has fueled his rise in the GOP presidential field, helping him to a third-place finish in Iowa and a second-place finish in New Hampshire.
But John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Mr. Paul's poll numbers reveal more about the status of the debate on foreign policy than they do about a groundswell of support for the congressman.
Mr. Paul's rise, he said, reflects "three years of almost no debate on international affairs" under President Obama.
"What I think the problem is, is that people's attention has turned away from the international sphere, and it's a big mistake because you can't have a strong economy without the ability to protect American interests around the world," said Mr. Bolton, who last week endorsed Mitt Romney in the presidential contest.
Mr. Bolton, who was considering a presidential run last year, said Mr. Paul ties himself in knots on international affairs.
"Last night revealed that Paul is not only an isolationist, but incoherent, and the gap between his view on the one hand and essentially everybody else on the stage was exposed as dramatically as ever," he said.
He said Mr. Paul's answers were so disqualifying that if he had been part of the debate he would have told the moderators that he wanted to yield his own time to the congressman to hear what else he would trip over — "Give my 90 seconds to Ron Paul and have him talk more about foreign policy," he said.
Mr. Paul defended his debate performance, saying the underlying question of whether the U.S. should be negotiating with the Taliban is a discussion that should have happened 10 years ago.
He said the real isolationists are his opponents who want to put sanctions on Iran, which he called an act of aggression.
"If we don't want people to ban oil imports to our country, why should we do that to other countries," he said.
Poll shows a schism
The Times/JZ Analytics poll asked 500 likely Republican primary voters — which includes a small number of Democrats and a greater number of independents who said they would vote in the GOP primaries — to select which statement they agreed with more.
The first statement read: "America is the most powerful nation in the world not only because of its strong military but because of the values of personal freedom it represents. America must intervene in the affairs of the world whenever its interests are challenged." The second statement read: "America is in a new global era and cannot afford to spread its resources too thin. It must rely on strong alliances with other nations and take care of its domestic priorities first."
While 48 percent chose the first statement, 47 percent chose the second. The rest said they weren't sure.
Colin Dueck, a professor at George Mason University who has studied the Republican Party and foreign policy, said the GOP used to be riven by debates over the robustness of U.S. power overseas. But he said the Cold War seemed to settle that issue, and from the 1960s through the 1980s, mainstream Republicans accepted the need for U.S. engagement to fight communism.
Isolationism re-emerged in the early 1990s in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but President George W. Bush's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks swung things back again.
Isolationist strain overstated?
As voters across the political spectrum wearied of those wars, the call to focus on domestic issues has understandably grown, Mr. Dueck said — but he cautioned that doesn't mean the GOP's electorate is becoming isolationist.
He said the way the poll question was framed forced people to choose between one activist option and another sensible option about curtailing involvement but still maintaining alliances. He said neither captured the true extent of Mr. Paul's foreign policy.
"That's not necessarily people saying, 'I demand the end of NATO. I demand the end of alliances with Japan and South Korea,' " Mr. Dueck said. "I actually think that the Paul position maxes out at 20 percent among Republicans."
Mr. Bolton guessed an even lower figure of 10 percent or 15 percent.
Mr. Dueck said Mr. Paul does have a distinct foreign policy that helps attract a core of support, but makes it tough for him to go beyond that.
"This idea that there's a huge latent support for isolationism — I don't actually believe that," he said. "To tell you the truth, I think it's more of a liability for him beyond a certain point. I don't think mainstream Republican voters are going to embrace it."
Indeed, talking with supporters at Mr. Paul's events, it's clear many of them are not rank-and-file Republicans but rather independents who have been brought into this year's campaign because they are attracted to his views.
But they are deeply committed to his foreign policy views, often listing them tied with his monetary policy views as reasons they back him.
On Tuesday, as he campaigned in Spartanburg, S.C., one supporter asked him to defend his Golden Rule proposal.
"You look at the six or seven large religions in the history of the world, one way or another they recognize, you treat people the way you want to be treated," Mr. Paul said.
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