03.22.11

The New GOP Warmongers

The Republican Party blasted Obama for being slow to open fire on Libya.  Matt Latimer on how the GOP has betrayed its roots—and attacks anyone not urging all combat all the time.

The United States military can handle any foe thrown against us, so why not give them a few more?  Such is the sentiment of a dominating faction of the Republican Party—a group always eager to deploy America’s sons and daughters to war zones, but who never do the fighting themselves.

Recently President Obama instituted a no-fly zone over parts of Libya—a gamble that puts many American pilots at serious risk. Yet this is not nearly enough for the 42 mostly Republican foreign policy “experts” who recently demanded such action from the president. The group’s head honcho, magazine columnist and professional opiner Bill Kristol, is quite blunt about what is to come: Young Americans must be deployed into the vast, forbidding deserts to weed out Libya’s longtime, erratic ruler “sooner rather than later.” “We need to get rid of Gaddafi,” says Mr. Kristol, who before becoming the Man Who Cannot Be Questioned on all things military was better known as the brains behind the organizations of Dan Quayle and Alan Keyes.  Removing the loathsome Gadaffi would be quite nice, of course.  But if we do that, can we also rid ourselves of Mr. Kristol’s advice?  You know, before he gets our overworked American soldiers into still more trouble?

Removing the loathsome Gadaffi would be quite nice, of course.  But if we do that, can we also rid ourselves of Mr. Kristol’s advice?

I have forgotten how many countries Mr. Kristol and his co-conspirators have wanted America to have conquered by now, if only President Bush, and then Barack Obama, hadn’t gotten in their way.  There’s Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.  But also North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. Oh, and let’s not forget Russia, where according to Mr. Kristol’s foreign policy guru Robert Kagan, World War III was supposed to have already started. Maybe next year. Egypt would have been a natural for their literal hit list if only Hosni Mubarak had not been one step ahead of Sheriff Kristol, Deputy Kagan, and their pugnacious posse. 

How did Republicans become the party of reflexive, perpetual war?

It was not always thus.  For most of its history, the Republican Party considered itself the party of peace—“peace through strength,” to borrow a phrase.  The first Republican commander-in-chief, Abraham Lincoln, said he would prefer to live with the evil of slavery if it meant avoiding armed conflict.  Teddy Roosevelt’s legendary maxim “speak softly and carry a big stick” was meant to deter a war, not hasten one. General Eisenhower expressed reluctance to enter the conflict in Vietnam and ran for office to end, not prolong, the war in Korea.  For most of the 20th Century, in fact, various Republican leaders labeled the Democrats as the party of trigger-happy warriors—a charge made most infamously by Vice Presidential candidate Robert J. Dole in 1976 when he referenced “the killed and wounded in Democrat wars of this century.” 

In response to what was then the worst terrorist attack ever committed against Americans—the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut—Ronald Reagan did not authorize a surge of American forces into Lebanon, but instead called for a complete withdrawal.  When pressed by his vice president—a fellow named Bush—to invade Panama and arrest its corrupt dictator, Reagan bridled. As historian James Mann recounts, the Gipper cited the potential loss of life from a Panamanian invasion and the fallout across Latin America, replying, “I just think you are as wrong as hell on this.” Reagan’s preferred strategy was to deploy American firepower as a last resort, relying instead on covert action and native liberation movements to achieve regime change. He would put pressure on our enemies’ armies and treasuries, not on our own.  How quaint. Today the Gipper would be considered lily-livered, a “ surrender monkey,” another member of the “cut-and-run crowd.”

I bear some responsibility for moving the party of the parsimonious and prudent use of force to “all war all the time.” As a senior speechwriter for the Secretary of Defense and later for President Bush, I happily drafted many speeches blasting opponents of the war (or our policies) for timidity or naiveté on Afghanistan or Iraq—sometimes more brazenly than either of my bosses preferred. I believed the efforts underway to defund a war with troops on the ground was disgraceful and still do, and I had no problem savaging liberals in Congress or politically motivated organizations like Code Pink (which conveniently has all but disappeared from the headlines now that the wars they opposed are being overseen by a Democrat). But I didn’t consider the long-term consequences such rhetoric can have, and I certainly did not expect the vigorous and honorable defense of an embattled president to turn into a reflexive tar-and-feather session of critics, even fellow conservatives, who held a different view.

But that is what has happened.  In 2003, for example, to the delight of the Bush White House, William F. Buckley’s National Review published an article entitled, “ Unpatriotic Conservatives.” The piece, as one can deduce, attempted to strip away not only the patriotism but the conservative bona fides of anyone who opposed, or even raised uncomfortable questions, about the invasions of Afghanistan or Iraq. Notable conservatives such as Patrick Buchanan and Robert D. Novak among others were labeled defeatists who were “appeasing enemies” and “at war with America.” Ironically Mr. Buckley himself later questioned the wisdom of Bush’s “surge” into Iraq in 2007; in response, operatives in the Bush White House made efforts to ban the father of the modern conservative movement from talk radio programs. When the respected conservative columnist, George Will, argued in opposition to President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan, he too found himself at the wrong end of the Republican Party’s loyalty enforcers.  Peter Wehner, the former Bush aide and designated henchman for that administration, attacked Will—once a confidante of Ronald Reagan—for a “loss of nerve,” drawing parallels to the defeated Japanese aboard the USS Missouri in World War II and, in perhaps the cruelest blow, to liberal activist Michael Moore. Even the chairman of the party has not been immune to having his loyalty questioned, as evidenced by Bill Kristol’s demand last year that he do the “patriotic” thing and resign his post once he criticized the deployment of more Americans into Afghanistan.  Gov. Haley Barbour, a longtime Republican luminary, also met the sting of Kristol’s “you are with us or you are a coward” worldview for questioning our military goals in Afghanistan. The governor was denounced by Kristol as an “irresponsible” panderer lacking foreign policy “seriousness.” (Did I mention that Mr. Kristol was once a promoter of Alan Keyes?) A few weeks ago, Glenn Beck came under attack for questioning our goals in Egypt, at least as Mr. Kristol sees them. The attack on Beck was entitled “Stand for Freedom,” the obvious implication being that if you don’t agree with Mr. Kristol you don’t believe in liberty, truth, justice, and the American way.  Nice how that works, isn’t it? (I would not accuse Mr. Kristol of McCarthyite tactics, however, since that would be an insult to McCarthy.)

For years a number of prominent conservative leaders have grumbled privately about the mentality that has taken hold of the GOP.  They even worry that a neo-con "cabal" has co-opted internal party debates, just as liberals have long maintained. Those complaints finally are becoming public. One of last year’s surprise GOP primary winners, Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, won election on a platform questioning the wisdom of military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  His father, Ron Paul, has built an army of supporters within the party, saying he would not have supported the Iraq invasion. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Bush appointee, mind you, pointedly noted that a future president wanted to deploy large numbers of troops to the Middle East “should have his head examined,” (Gates has now been added to Kristol’s ever growing traitors’ list). Even commentator Ann Coulter—who would introduce anyone calling her a squishy sellout to the business end of a bazooka—recently asked whether it is now “the official policy of the Republican Party to be for all wars, irrespective of our national interest.”  Sadly, that seems to be a “yes.”  At least for the moment.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.