Is the Republican party turning isolationist for 2012? No doubt it’s too soon to know--but the responses of GOP presidential candidates to questions about Libya and Afghanistan in Monday night’s debate were striking.
None supported President Obama’s decision to join NATO’s military intervention against the regime of Moammar Gaddafi. “There was no vital national interest,” said Rep. Michelle Bachmann, summing up what appeared to be the prevailing view.
“We to this day don’t yet know who the rebel forces are that we’re helping,” Bachmann said. “There are some reports that they may contain al Qaeda of North Africa. What possible vital American interests could we have to empower al Qaeda of North Africa and Libya?”
Newt Gingrich quickly seconded Bachmann’s view: “I think that we should say to the generals we would like to figure out to get out as rapid as possible with the safety of the troops involved.”
To be sure, Tim Pawlenty has previously supported air strikes in Libya and criticized Obama’s strategy there as too “timid.” On Monday he said he supported drone strikes against al Qaeda targets in Yemen, contrary to libertarian Ron Paul, who predictably declared that he would end American military operations everywhere.
But Pawlenty didn’t speak about Libya, and frontrunner Mitt Romney, who was also silent on the subject, articulated an interesting “lesson” he said had been learned from Afghanistan: “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
All in all this first Republican debate offered a striking change of tone for a party that a decade ago was dominated, in foreign policy, by the neoconservative movement, which favored (and still does) aggressive American intervention abroad. It also differed sharply from the last Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.), who has been one of the strongest advocates of military action in Libya.
You would expect Republicans to attack Obama’s foreign policy performance, particularly in the Middle East. But it will be remarkable if the criticism continues to come from the anti-intervention left, rather than the hawkish right.