The Magazine

'The GOP of Old'

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Kentucky senator Rand Paul said Thursday to the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?” he added coyly.

'The GOP of Old'

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The names he had in mind were of course those of John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Those spokesmen for “the GOP of old” had the bad form to call out Rand Paul after he took to the Senate floor to speculate glibly about American presidents and American military and intelligence officers calling in unprovoked domestic drone strikes against innocent Americans. McCain and Graham, advocates of what Paul calls an “aggressive” foreign policy—i.e., the foreign policy of the Republican party for the last 70 years—also challenged Paul’s general foreign policy prescription.

What does Dr. Paul prescribe? In an interview last week, Paul appealed to the wisdom of Vice President Joe Biden. In the 2012 vice presidential debate, Paul said, Biden had a good response to Paul Ryan on Afghanistan: “We’re coming home.” And, Paul continued, “I think that’s what people want. I think that’s what people are ready for, that we’re coming home.” And why does Paul think the American people are now ready for this McGovernite message? “War weariness.”

Are the American people war weary? Yes, to some degree. Could there be a worse prescription for American foreign policy than giving in to popular war weariness? No.

It was (well-deserved) war weariness after World War II that led to a precipitous drawdown in Europe that in turn helped make possible Stalin’s subjugation of Eastern Europe. It was understandable war weariness after Vietnam that produced the shameful abandonment of Vietnam and Cambodia and the subsequent disastrous weakness of the Carter administration. It was (somewhat inexplicable) war weariness after the Cold War that led to a conviction in the 1990s, as Haley Barbour put it just last week, trying to accommodate the Paulistas, that “We’re not the policeman of the world.” 

And thus we had the failure to finish the job in Iraq in 1991, the retreat under fire from Somalia in late 1993, inaction in Rwanda in 1994, years of dithering before confronting Milosevic in the Balkans, passivity in the face of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and weak responses to al Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. embassies in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000. That decade of not policing the world ended with 9/11.

Now we’re weary again. And there are many politicians all too willing to seek power and popularity by encouraging weariness rather than point out its perils. Foremost among those politicians is our current president. It’s hard to blame the American people for some degree of war weariness when their president downplays threats and is eager to shirk international responsibilities. The rot of war weariness begins at the top. One can’t, for example, be surprised at the ebbing support of the American public for the war in Afghanistan years after the president stopped trying to mobilize their support, stopped heralding the successes of the troops he’d sent there, and stopped explaining the importance of their mission.

That task of Republicans is to confront Obama on his irresponsibility, not compete with him. The task of a serious opposition party is to rally the nation to its responsibilities and long-term interests. The task of GOP political leaders is to educate the public about the dangers of the world and to inspire people to rise above their weariness. The task of American conservatives is not to let an understandable Obama-weariness turn into weariness in fighting the nation’s enemies or in supporting our troops in the field.

It fell to a freshman congressman, speaking at CPAC on the same day as Rand Paul, to tell some hard truths. “I know there is war weariness among the American people, just like there is war weariness among conservatives, and in this audience, no doubt,” said Tom Cotton from Yell County, Arkansas. “It’s no surprise, though, that the American people are war weary when their commander in chief is the weariest of them all.”

But, Cotton reminded his audience, “We’re fighting .  .  . a war against radical Islam and jihad.” He continued, “Our president often says 10 years of war are ending. Wars are not movies. They do not end. They are won or they are lost. The quickest way to end a war is to lose it.” And Cotton pointed out the obvious: “We have the manpower to win the war. We have the matériel to win the war. The question is, do we have the most essential element to combat power? Do we have the will to win the war? Our enemies certainly have that will. They question now whether we do.”

Cotton is 35 years old. He’s not stale or moss-covered. A combat veteran, he understands real war weariness. But he also understands it needs to be resisted and overcome. Above all, he understands, as did the GOP of old, the GOP of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush, that while we may not be interested in war, our enemies remain interested in us.

And so, Cotton concluded his remarks, “We as conservatives must have the will to win.”

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