Sen. John McCain, whose life is a continuing exemplar of the American heroic ideal, regretfully has got it quite wrong when he says that growing GOP opposition to the Libyan and Afghan wars is evidence of isolationism.
On weekend television, he said, “Well, I was more concerned about what the candidates in New Hampshire the other night said. This is isolationism. There’s always been an … isolation strain on the Republican Party - that Pat Buchanan wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak. … If we had not intervened, [Col. Moammar] Gadhafi was at the gates of Benghazi. He said he was going to go house to house to kill everybody. That’s a city of 700,000 people. What would we be saying now if we had allowed for that to happen? …
“[Ronald Reagan] would be saying: That’s not the Republican Party of the 20th century, and now the 21st century. That is not the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people all over the world, whether it be in Grenada - that Ronald Reagan had a quick operation about - or whether it be in our enduring commitment to countering the Soviet Union.”
It certainly is the Republican Party of Eisenhower/Reagan internationalism. Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s expressions of doubt regarding continuing Afghanistan and Libyan war policies are completely in line with the pragmatic internationalism of the post-World War II GOP.
At the end of President Eisenhower’s two terms, he proudly declared that on his watch, America had not lost a foot of international ground nor a single American combat death. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s two terms brought down Soviet communism, held the line through surrogate wars in Central America, almost bloodlessly removed communists in Granada - suffering as our primary troop loss during his two terms about 250 Marines killed by a truck bomber in Lebanon.
However, after a decent interval, Reagan withdrew our troops. He judged that keeping troops in a location where they could do no good would be an act of pride, not rational policy. Neither great internationalist president committed our country directly to bloody wars, though both were prepared to do so if necessary.
Reagan’s decision to place Pershing nuclear missiles in Europe was manifest evidence of his willingness to risk war on behalf of our broad international interests. The gambit succeeded without bloodshed, as it turned out.
In 1956, for example, when Egyptian President Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and our great allies Britain and France along with Israel invaded Egypt to retake the canal, Eisenhower firmly opposed that war and ruthlessly forced our NATO allies to remove their troops.
Pointedly, however, Eisenhower did send out the word that if the Soviets intervened, he would order American military intervention. Decades before the War Powers Act was enacted, the president - out of respect for the legislative branch - asked for and received from Congress authority to go to war in the Middle East if the Soviets came in first. The Soviets never did. That is an example of prudent and principled American internationalism.
However, Ron Paul is part of the isolationist tradition and, as a result, has no chance of being nominated by the GOP primary electorate. Even Pat Buchanan correctly does not claim to be an isolationist. During the Cold War, he was a great champion of effective American internationalism. After the fall of Soviet communism, he judged that the threat was less - and so also should be our engagement. That is not isolationism - it is merely differently judging the utility of American intervention.
So too, one may oppose current efforts in Afghanistan and Libya and not be isolationist. I supported both the Afghan and Iraq wars (as did Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Romney and most other GOP candidates) as necessary responses to the rising threat from radical Islam after Sept. 11, 2001. I continue to support the still likely winning effort in Iraq and have written on that in this space recently.
But almost two years ago, I was one of the first GOP internationalist-oriented commentators or politicians to conclude that the Afghan war effort had served its initial purpose, but it was time to phase out the war. As a punitive raid against the regime that gave succor to Osama bin Laden, we removed the Taliban government and killed as many al Qaeda and Taliban as possible.
But as the purpose of that war turned into nation-building, even GOP internationalists have a duty to reassess whether, given the resources and strategy, such policy is likely to be effective (see about a dozen of my columns on Afghan war policy from 2009-10).
Now many others in the GOP and in the non-isolationist wing of the Democratic Party are likewise judging failure in Afghanistan to be almost inevitable. That is not a judgment driven by isolationism. Neither are we - along with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and almost the entire uniformed chain of command - isolationist when we see no national interest in Libya.
This is not isolationism. It is a rational effort at judging how best to advance American values and interests in an ever-more witheringly dangerous world. The charge of isolationism should be reserved for the genuine article. Such name-calling advances neither rational debate nor national interest.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.