Great Divide

By

In Boston last month, Democrats wowed the press with their unity. In
New York this week, Republicans appear just as united--and the press
barely considers it a story. That's partly because journalists
expect unity from the hierarchical, disciplined GOP. And it's
partly because, on the biggest issue of the day, Iraq, 96 percent
of Republican delegates agree with President Bush that "the United
States did the right thing in taking military action," according to
The New York Times. By contrast, 86 percent of Democratic delegates
essentially disagree with their nominee, John Kerry. If Democrats
are deeply divided over foreign policy and Republicans are not, a
united Democratic convention is more surprising and thus more
newsworthy.Journalists aren't the only ones who assume the GOP is of one mind
on national security. When Republicans are challenged on the
discrepancy between anti-abortion, anti-gay rights delegates and
culturally liberal prime-time convention speakers, such as Rudy
Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Pataki, and John McCain,
they usually cite the war on terrorism as the glue that holds the
party together. When Tim Russert asked the pro-choice Giuliani last
Sunday how he felt about the GOP platform's call to outlaw
abortion, Giuliani replied, "[t]he largest part of this platform,
however, is the thing that I think is the most important thing in
this country, which is defending America, carrying on the war
against terrorism." Later in the interview, he repeated the point:
"The core views on which a political party should be organized are
national defense and the economy, and on those things ... ninety-
five percent of these delegates agree."

But do they really? Most Republicans backed the Iraq war for the
reason President Bush originally offered: After September 11, we
couldn't take chances with a tyrant who had weapons of mass
destruction and ties to terrorists. As National Review has put it,
Iraq "was broadly supported by the Right as a war of national
interest. The primary purpose of the war was always to protect U.S.
national security." Most Republicans still back the Iraq war because
it is Bush's signature initiative--to oppose it would be tantamount
to endorsing John Kerry. But it is not at all clear that most
Republicans support the rationale for Iraq that Bush has put
forward, partly out of necessity, since the failure to find WMD:
that it marks the start of a broader effort to democratize the
Muslim world.

Asked by the Times this week whether the United States should "try
to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can," 41 percent
of GOP delegates said yes, while 48 percent said no or that it
depends on circumstances. Among Republican voters, the view is even
more negative. And, as the Iraq rationale has shifted, a growing
number of Republicans have cried foul. Late last year, Nebraska
Senator Chuck Hagel warned of the dangers of "ideology" in foreign
policy and called for a "principled realism that ... face[s] the
world as it really is, in all of its complexities." In May of this
year, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate
Intelligence Committee, told an audience at Kansas State
University, "We need to restrain what are growing U.S. messianic
instincts--a sort of global social engineering where the United
States feels it is both entitled and obligated to promote
democracy--by force if necessary." Later that month, Illinois
Representative Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International
Relations Committee, said, "It would be foolish, not to say
ruinously arrogant, to believe that we can determine the future of
Iraq." And this month, Nebraska Representative Doug Bereuter,
former vice-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called
his support for the war a mistake. "From the beginning of the
conflict," he wrote, "it was doubtful that we for long would be
seen as liberators."

Notice where all these dissenters come from: the Midwest, the
Republican Party's historic base and the historic home of American
isolationism. In the 1940s, it was Midwestern isolationists,
clustered around Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who battled for control
of the GOP against the Northeastern internationalists who backed
New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Those divisions eventually faded,
with Midwesterners deciding that the Soviet threat required
sustained U.S. involvement around the world. Anti-communism unified
the GOP, and, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan made it the centerpiece
of a Republican electoral majority.

Giuliani seems to think the war on terrorism is to this decade what
the cold war was to the '80s: the issue that united the GOP and won
over the country. But, in the '80s, the Soviet Union combined an
ideological challenge with a genuine military threat. Today, a
growing number of isolationist and realist conservatives suspect
that Islamic radicalism represents only the former. As the
conservative political theorist Francis Fukuyama recently wrote in
The National Interest, "[T]he Soviet Union could have annihilated
us physically and conceivably could have subverted democracy in
North America. But it is questionable whether any such existential
threats exist now." And, partly as a result, these conservatives
are unwilling to put American troops and money behind an
ideological struggle they are not sure we know how to win.

During the presidential campaign, much of this foreign policy
discontent will remain below the surface as Republicans focus on
defeating John Kerry. But, if Kerry gets elected and tries to use
military force to prevent the spread of Islamist extremism (say, by
intervening in a failed state where Al Qaeda could take root), the
Republican Party could well split, just as it did over humanitarian
intervention in Kosovo in the '90s. And, even if President Bush
wins reelection, it is hard to imagine Republican realists like Pat
Roberts supporting a preemptive war against another dictatorship,
say Iran, whose missiles can't yet reach U.S. shores.

At least one such Midwestern realist, Hagel, seems interested in
taking on hawks like Giuliani or McCain for the 2008 presidential
nomination. If he does, the Taft-Dewey split may resurface with a
vengeance. And Rudy Giuliani may find that foreign policy isn't the
balm that heals Republican divides. It's the greatest divide of
all.

By Peter Beinart

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