Great Divide

by The New Republic | September 13, 2004

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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