The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY)

Will GOP go back to heeding its voters on foreign policy?

- Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

President Biden’s inept execution of his — and his predecesso­r’s — policy of withdrawal from Afghanista­n was a political gift to the GOP. It has made foreign policy, at least temporaril­y, a unifying issue on the right. For conservati­ves, whether you supported or opposed withdrawal, Biden’s shambolic implementa­tion has something for everybody to attack.

But there is a real divide on the right about foreign policy. It splits party leaders and right-wing pundits from rank-and-file voters, who are significan­tly more coherent and unified on foreign policy.

This fact has been obscured by the overriding imperative to support Donald Trump among conservati­ve elites. Trump has been a passionate advocate of bugging out of Afghanista­n and the Middle East generally, in and out of office.

But as Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Jordan Tama of American

University noted in May, when it came to “America’s largest military deployment­s of recent years, Afghanista­n and Iraq, there’s no sign that Trump substantia­lly influenced Republican attitudes.”

In fact, the belief that the Iraq and Afghanista­n efforts were worth the costs not only increased during Trump’s presidency, it’s actually strongest among pro-trump Republican­s. Some 55% of “strong Republican­s” said the wars were worth it compared with only 43% of less committed Republican­s. The same Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that durable majorities of Republican­s favored “long-term U.S. military bases in Afghanista­n (61%), Iraq (69%) and Kuwait (71%).”

But given a choice of supporting Trump or supporting the policies preferred by Republican voters, elected Republican­s and many pro-trump pundits opted for the former.

Even if Trump’s influence shrinks over time, the GOP’S foreign policy approach is unlikely to return to that of the Bush era. Presidenti­al partisansh­ip often overpowers foreign policy attitudes. One need only remember how many anti-interventi­onist Democrats did a 180 in favor of military action in Libya under President Obama to understand that. If a Republican is elected president in 2024, we’ll likely see the party faithful rally to whatever foreign policy he or she pursues.

That said, what constitute­s “conservati­ve foreign policy” among elites is a more open question these days (beyond a unifying commitment to checking China’s ambitions).

This, too, has a lot to do with Trump. People can debate whether Trump’s version of “America first” was meaningful­ly isolationi­st, but what’s clear is that it had little in common with the “America First” movement of the late 1930s or the non-interventi­onist tradition going back to George Washington’s warning about foreign entangleme­nts in his farewell address.

The old isolationi­sm (on the left and the right), as flawed as it was, was premised on two ideas: that America was too special to lower itself into the muck of European politics, and that foreign wars would erode democracy and cherished liberties here at home. “Nothing is more likely than that the United States would go fascist through the very process of organizing to defeat the fascist nations,” the New Republic editoriali­zed in 1937.

World War II and the Cold War effectivel­y killed the second argument. As for the first? It’s complicate­d.

Trump viewed our foreign alliances in an entirely transactio­nal way, believing we were “suckers” to support NATO, to protect South Korea or, if reports are true, even to fight in World War I.

But very few advocates of a new nationalis­t or America-first foreign policy (the labels are all in flux) talk this way. Rather, as with so many issues during the Trump era, champions of a “new” conservati­ve approach to foreign policy try to graft the populism on the right to their own ideology or partisan agenda. That’s why Biden’s stumble is so useful. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-texas), for instance, supported Trump’s withdrawal policy but now has a free hand to attack its implementa­tion. For others, Afghanista­n’s implosion has become a stand-in for anti-immigratio­n extremism or simply one more example of American decline.

With the exception of partisan attacks on Biden, which are well deserved, these ideas don’t have much purchase in mainstream politics. That’s because most conservati­ve voters may like the adornments of old-fashioned nationalis­t politics — everything from calls to support the troops to military flyovers at football games after the national anthem — and they certainly like to praise Trump. But true conservati­ves still have a deeper commitment to American national security and America’s role as the leader of the free world. That commitment may too often take a back seat to partisan politics, but it survived the Trump presidency. Let’s hope it will endure going forward as well.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States