Analysis: Back to the future on foreign policy

Analysis: Back to the future on foreign policy

Photo: Ninian Reid via Flickr

By Richard Rubino

Republican Presidential front-runner Donald Trump harbors an aversion to military interventions. This is out-of-step with contemporary mainstream thinking in the Republican Party. Yet non-interventionism in foreign conflicts was once the predominant view in the Republican Party.

Contrariwise, Democrat front-runner Hillary Clinton has exhibited support for a muscular foreign policy. Her interventionist proclivities in the foreign sphere were once the preponderant creed of the Democratic Party. Today, the Democratic Party is far less interventionist.

When Russia annexed the Republic of Crimea from the Ukraine, Trump argued: “This is Europe’s problem much more than ours.” In addition, Trump excoriates the Obama administration for dislodging Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and fears that a successful effort to liquidate Syria’s autocratic President, Bashar al-Assad, could result in a successor state, which “could be worse.” On the campaign trail, Trump is a harsh critic of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Trump maintains the invasion was: “one of the worst decisions ever made” and bemoans that it “destabilized the Middle East.”

In sharp contrast, Hillary Clinton condemned Russia’s action in the Crimea. As U.S. Secretary of State, she spearheaded efforts to oust Gaddafi from the reins of power in Libya. Though she now calls her vote on the Iraq War authorization “a mistake,” at the time, Clinton admonished that “left unchecked … he (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons.” In addition, Clinton supported the Iraq Liberation Act signed by her husband Bill Clinton in 1998, declaring: “that it should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the Saddam Hussein regime from power in Iraq and to replace it with a democratic government.”

Furthermore, during the Obama administration Clinton sided with the hawks in the administration in supporting a surge of 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of a counterinsurgency approach. Other members of the administration, led by Vice President Joe Biden, called for limiting the mission in Afghanistan to training security forces fighting terrorism. Obama ultimately ordered 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

Ironically, in 2016 it may appear unconventional for a Republican nominee to lean toward the non-interventionist camp and for the Democrat nominee to favor an assertive foreign policy. This represents a trip back to the future, in that the GOP once had a redoubtable non-interventionist wing while the Democrats were known for their activist approach to foreign affairs.

Democratic President Woodrow Wilson flexed American military muscle by invading the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico, and Nicaragua, and led the country through WWl. In 1920, the war-weary electorate selected Republican nominee Warren G. Harding, who declared: America “can be a party to no permanent military alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assume any economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any other than our own authority.”

Harding’s Republican successor, Calvin Coolidge, was a signatory to the Kellogg-Briand Pact which renounced war “as an instrument of national policy.” His Secretary of State, Frank B. Kellogg, won a Noble Peace Prize for his role in the writing of this treaty. Coolidge was followed by Republican Herbert Hoover who instituted the “Good Neighbor Policy” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of Latin America, and withdrew U.S. forces stationed in Nicaragua. In 1940 the Republican Party’s platform stated: “The Republican Party is firmly opposed to involving this Nation in foreign war.”

One of the face cards for the Republican Party in the 1940’s and early 1950’s was U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH). In fact, his moniker was: “Mr. Republican.” The conservative Taft was an unreserved non-interventionist, calling his views “the policy of the free hand.” Taft opposed the internationalist Democrat President Harry S. Truman in his effort to institute a peacetime military draft, form NATO, and send U.S. forces to protect South Korea.

Taft lost the Republican Presidential nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Eisenhower ran for president as a Cold War interventionist. However, while he supported the anti-communist South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Dem, he refused calls to send ground forces into the conflict, exclaiming: “I cannot conceive of a greater tragedy for America than to get heavily involved now in an all-out war in any of those regions.”

On exiting the White House, Eisenhower warned of “unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Moreover, he advised his Democratic successor, John F. Kennedy, to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Europe, warning: “America is carrying far more than her share of the free world defense.”

Kennedy was an avowed interventionist and Cold Warrior. He did not heed Eisenhower’s admonishment. In fact, Kennedy increased U.S. Defense expenditures and sent more than 15,000 military “advisors” into Vietnam. Kennedy’s Democratic successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, became enveloped in the conflict, gradually escalating U.S. forces to the point that 543,000 troops were in that nation.

The intervention in Vietnam resulted in an attendant backlash from many younger members of the Democratic Party who were not tethered to the party’s interventionist history. “The new left” now challenged the Party regulars. Unlike the party establishmentarians who prided themselves on supporting a munificent social safety net, labor unions, and an interventionist brawny foreign policy, the new left’s flagship issue was ending the War in Vietnam. They consolidated around the Presidential candidacy of U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) who branded the war, “morally wrong” and “diplomatically indefensible.”

McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Many in the new left refused to vote for Humphrey. McCarthy offered a tepid endorsement of Humphrey, telling his supporters: “I’m voting for Humphrey, and I think you should suffer with me.”

By 1972 there was an internecine conflict in the Democratic Party between the ascendant new left and the party establishment. U.S. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), an interventionist in the mold of past Democratic Presidents and a former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, failed in his bid to capture the nomination. Jackson denounced claims that he was too conservative for the party, claiming: “I am the liberal. The other people have lost their way.” Jackson railed against the new left, branding them “an absolute radical left fringe that is attempting to steal the Democratic Party from the people.”

However, The Jackson wing was now on the decline in the Democratic Party. The ascendant “new left” succeeded in nominating vociferous anti-Vietnam War opponent U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD), whose campaign slogan was: “Come Home America.” Accordingly, the party once known for its bellicosity in foreign affairs was now seen as the party of non-interventionism.

Concomitantly, the Republican Party was becoming more interventionist, as Republican President Richard M. Nixon had been slow to egress U.S. troops from Vietnam. His Republican successor was Gerald R. Ford, who had once been a lonely interventionist voice in a party of non-interventionists. He assured European leaders that the U.S. would not attenuate its foreign commitments and called NATO: “the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.” Ford maintained: “resistance to Soviet expansion by military means must be a fundamental element of U.S. foreign policy.”

By 1980, the Republican Party had become associated with a hawkish interventionist foreign policy. The Democratic Party had become associated with a dovish, less interventionist foreign policy. In 1984, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jean Kirkpatrick, a disillusioned Democrat, accrued rapturous applause at the Republican National Convention by declaring that the Democrats: “treat foreign affairs as an afterthought, as they did, they behaved less like a dove or a hawk than like an ostrich — convinced it would shut out the world by hiding its head in the sand.”

Those Republicans who continued to support a non-interventionist foreign policy became heretics within the GOP. This was showcased during a Republican Presidential debate in 2007, when U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), the only non-interventionist in the GOP field, was roundly booed for suggesting that the 9/11 hijackings were a result of blowback from U.S. interventionist foreign affairs. Paul averred: “They attack us because we’ve been over there.”

A matchup between the non-interventionist Republican Donald Trump and the interventionist Democrat Hillary Clinton would not be a paradigm shift in foreign affairs, as much as it would be a trip back to the future.

Rich Rubino is the author of ‘The Political Bible of Humorous Quotations from American Politics,’ ‘Make Every Vote Equal What a Novel Idea,’ and ‘The Political Bible of Little Known Facts in American Politics’

Follow him on Twitter @RichRubinoPOL

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