Amid rising calls from Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress to reduce American foreign intervention, three figures who are influential with GOP hawks fought back Sunday morning against what they see as a dangerous, short-sighted rise of isolationism.
The three men—outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.—warned that retreating from conflicts across the globe could have long-term consequences.
McCain, the last Republican nominee for president, was the most pointed in his critique. Appearing on ABC News’s This Week, the longtime foreign policy hawk said he felt concerned after watching the GOP presidential candidates during last week’s debate, in which several of them criticized war efforts in Libya and Afghanistan.
“There’s an always been an isolationist strain in the Republican Party, the Pat Buchanan wing of the party,” he said. “But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak.”
During the debate, the field of Republican presidential candidates appeared to signal they are taking their party’s foreign policy in a new direction, one that relies less on foreign intervention. Putative primary front-runner Mitt Romney, for instance, said Afghan citizens, not Americans, need to fight their own war of independence.
Even as Romney also said economic and political factors shouldn’t determine the speed of the country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, his comments drew widespread media attention. And on Sunday, it drew a rebuke from McCain, who said he wishes the former Massachusetts governor would meet with the man leading the military’s counter-insurgency strategy there, Gen. David Petraeus.
“I do want to send a message: We cannot move into an isolationist party,” said McCain, who was Romney’s chief rival during the 2008 campaign. “We cannot repeat the lesson of the 1930s. We are the lead nation in the world.... Sometimes that leadership entails sacrifice, sadly.”
Graham, another chief hawk in the Senate, warned that a more isolationist stance isn’t just bad policy, it’s bad politics.
“If you think the pathway to the GOP nomination in 2012 is to get to Barack Obama’s left on Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, you’re going to meet a lot of headwinds,” he said during an appearance on NBC News’s Meet The Press. “This is not a war of Afghan independence, from my point of view. This is the center of gravity against the war on terror, radical Islam. It is in our national security interests to make sure the Taliban never come back.”
Graham and McCain’s pushback also comes against the backdrop of increased questions from congressional Republicans, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, about the country’s actions in Libya, where U.S. forces are assisting with NATO airstrikes. McCain chastised those critics, saying Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi would have massacred the rebel city of Benghazi without foreign intervention.
The shift in conservative foreign policy is driven in part by the rise of the tea party, which is more ambivalent toward an aggressive foreign policy because of the accompanying high cost.
That sentiment has made isolationist viewpoints—ones expressed only by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, during the 2008 primary—more mainstream within the GOP. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who will declare his candidacy for president Tuesday, has also expressed skepticism about aggressive foreign intervention, while former pizza magnate Herman Cain blasted the Libya conflict during last week’s debate.
But the shift has stirred concern even in the less hawkish Gates. During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, he said only examining the bottom line is short-sighted.
“I think that it’s a mistake particularly to couch the question in terms of the cost of the war,” said Gates. “Because my question is, what’s the cost of failure? What was the cost of 9/11 because we left Afghanistan in 1989? How much money have we spent since 9/11 trying to deal with that problem?”
He added that “there’s nobody more war-weary than our troops.”
“But the president’s responsibility—and I have seen this in his predecessors—his responsibility is to look out for the long-term national security interests of the United States,” he said. “He has to have a longer view. And frankly, other than the first couple years of World War II, there has never been a popular war in American history.”