US President Barack Obama. (Petar Kujundzic/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Barack Obama’s coming request for Congress to “right-size and update” the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorism will be constitutionally fastidious and will catalyze a debate that will illuminate Republican fissures. They, however, are signs of a healthy development — the reappearance of foreign policy heterodoxy in Republican ranks.

Many events (U.S. military misadventures since 2001, the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, the spinning centrifuges of Iran’s nuclear weapons program) and one senator (Rand Paul) have reopened a Republican debate that essentially closed when Dwight Eisenhower won the party’s presidential nomination in 1952. One reason he sought it was to block Ohio’s Sen. Robert Taft.

Taft’s skepticism about NATO and collective security was not quite isolationism — a label bandied carelessly today by promiscuous interventionists — but was discordant with the postwar internationalism of the Republican establishment and the nation. Eisenhower’s victory (and Taft’s death the next year) sealed the Republicans’ near-
unanimity that had begun to form in January 1945 when another Midwestern Republican senator, Michigan’s Arthur Vandenberg, changed his mind.

He had been a senator since 1928 and an isolationist always. Then his Jan. 10, 1945, Senate speech repositioned him and his party: “I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action. . . . Our oceans have ceased to be moats.”

The Republican schism of the 1960s, between the Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller factions — itself a reprise of the 1912 intra-party conflict between Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft — primarily concerned the proper scope and actual competence of government in domestic affairs. Rockefeller’s credentials as a Cold Warrior, from military spending to fallout shelters for civil defense, were impeccable.

Now, however, Americans generally, but Republicans especially, are thinking afresh about the world. Henry Kissinger’s new book, “World Order,” deftly diagnoses America’s bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy, a condition that is perennial because it is congenital. “The conviction that American principles are universal,” Kissinger says, “has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” This “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.”

A “challenging element,” indeed. It has, Kissinger writes, made the United States uncomfortable with “foreign policy as a permanent endeavor for contingent aims.”

On the other hand, “America’s favorable geography and vast resources facilitated a perception that foreign policy was an optional activity.” Because U.S. principles are assumed to be universal, the inclination to cooperate is assumed to be at least generally latent. Hence Franklin Roosevelt’s reported assurances to his former ambassador to Moscow, William Bullitt: “I think if I give [Stalin] everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige , he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world of democracy and peace.”

The last 11 years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

The coming debate about another AUMF will come in a context conditioned by Obama’s aggressive use of his expansive understanding of executive powers, at home and abroad. Molly O’Toole, writing for Defense One in August, noted:

“The 2001 AUMF that Congress passed in the fearful days following the Sept. 11 attacks has been called the most far-reaching, open-ended expansion of the executive’s powers in U.S. history. Though the AUMF’s mere 60 words made no mention of al-Qaeda or Afghanistan, they provided President George W. Bush the statutory authority for the war in Afghanistan and on ‘terror,’ and the legal underpinnings for almost any use of U.S. military force to counter terrorism anywhere across the globe for the past 13 years.”

The 2001 AUMF could not have anticipated today’s variables. The AUMF of 2002 (Iraq) followed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which passed the House 360 to 38 and the Senate unanimously and declared it U.S. policy to “remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.”

Obama is right that there is much to rethink.

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