When former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty gave a foreign policy speech this week, he didn’t limit his criticism to the man whose job he’s seeking, President Barack Obama. He also called out fellow Republicans.
Pawlenty, who’s seeking his party’s presidential nomination, said some Republicans “seem to be trying to outbid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.”
While Pawlenty didn’t name names, his comments underscored a division on national security among the rival candidates, as in the rest of the party, that is helping shape the primary. That’s alarming some Republicans and may hinder their efforts to challenge Obama on the issue.
Republican candidates are increasingly at odds over national defense, with some -- such as Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- pressing the interventionist stance that has traditionally defined their side. Others -- including former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Representative Ron Paul of Texas -- argue for limiting U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts, partly based on cost.
“The Republicans are more split now than they’ve been since 9/11,” said Peter Feaver, a Duke University security studies professor who served as an adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “What you’ve seen in the last year or two is a softening of the Republican consensus.”
Among the reasons for the shift, Feaver said, are the length and cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mounting concern about the national debt, and a waning public appetite for U.S. involvement in military conflicts, especially among Tea Party activists, who want to rein in the government’s role.
“There is public weariness with the nature of the challenges after Sept. 11,” said Kori Schake, an international security studies professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. “And a lot of the most vibrant and active part of the Republican Party right now -- people on the small-c conservative right -- you really need to persuade them to take an activist role in the world,” said Schake, who advised Senator John McCain of Arizona during his 2008 presidential bid.
Obama hasn’t made that case with respect to continuing the Afghanistan war or U.S. participation in the NATO mission in Libya, Schake said, leading his rivals to “test-drive” various ways of differentiating themselves from him and each other.
Pawlenty, 50, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on June 28, lamented the trend.
“America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It doesn’t need a second one,” he said in a speech about the Middle East that also condemned Obama’s foreign policy as ineffective, incoherent and weak.
Jobs Top Concern
Unlike in some recent elections, foreign policy -- and national security in particular -- isn’t registering as a major issue with the public so far.
A Bloomberg National Poll conducted June 17-20 found that unemployment and jobs is the public’s top concern -- with 42 percent calling that the most important issue facing the U.S., followed by government spending, the federal deficit and health care. Just 5 percent cited the war in Afghanistan, including 4 percent of Republican respondents. The poll of 1,000 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
And foreign policy divisions aren’t confined to the Republicans. Among Democrats, an increasingly vocal antiwar wing is voicing frustration with Obama for failing to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and for inserting U.S. forces into the Libyan conflict without congressional authorization.
‘Freedom to Maneuver’
Still, the Republicans’ internal divisions over national security could deprive them of what would otherwise be a ripe issue to use against Obama.
“When the president has a Congress that is divided and a political opposition that is divided, it gives him more freedom to maneuver,” said William Keylor, a Boston University professor of international relations and history. If Republicans were taking a “very hard line,” he said, “then it would raise that old question about Democrats being soft on foreign policy, leaving them vulnerable to charges that they are isolationist and unwilling to project American power. Now some are raising those questions about Republicans.”
Such skepticism is coming from prominent Republicans who say they worry they’re witnessing a dangerous trend.
“This is isolationism,” McCain said on ABC television’s “This Week” on June 19. “There’s always been an isolation strain -- isolation strain in the Republican Party, the Pat Buchanan wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage.”
No ‘Vital’ Interest
McCain said he “strongly” disagrees with the position of Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her presidential candidacy on June 27, that the U.S. has no vital national interest in Libya. In her announcement, Bachmann called herself a “peace-through-strength” conservative.
McCain, 74, also expressed concern about assertions Romney made on Afghanistan during a June 13 debate in New Hampshire. Romney said the U.S. should “bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals.” The former governor cited as a takeaway lesson from the mission that “our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
Romney, 64, has since made it clear he isn’t rushing for a withdrawal and suggested after Obama’s speech last week that the president’s schedule for drawing down troops was counterproductive and being made for the wrong reasons.
“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan,” he said in a statement.
Pawlenty has come closest to articulating the Republican hawkishness that has defined the party for decades, arguing for a more aggressive policy in Libya, against swift withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and against substantial defense spending cuts or closing military bases overseas.
Huntsman, 51, has strayed further from the longtime party line, saying during his presidential campaign announcement speech that the U.S. must “manage the end” to conflicts abroad and arguing that at a time of record debt, cost should help determine military policy.
After Obama’s speech, Huntsman called for “significantly fewer boots on the ground” in Afghanistan than Obama’s plan envisions.
“With America mired in three expensive conflicts, we have a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world in a way that makes sense for our security as well as our budget,” he said in a statement.
While that stance might be attractive to some in the party and independent voters, Feaver argued, it would be a risky political strategy for Huntsman or any Republican candidate.
“There’s substantial angst among Republican primary voters on the cost of the war and the length of the war and perhaps the hopelessness of making Afghanistan into a robust democracy, but that’s not the issue that motivates them,” Feaver said. “In the long run, Republicans do not win when they run on the dovish side of Democrats.”
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