Last weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tried his hand at dissecting GOP foreign policy attitudes. I commend the senator for trying to come to grips with this vital question that is getting so little, if any, national discussion. As foreign events grow ever more threatening, the view of the now both culturally and congressionally dominant party -- the GOP -- becomes central to the range of political options that President Obama has, as a practical matter.
There are two factors to assess: 1) Is the pre-tea party GOP in the process of shifting significantly from its free trade, strong, assertive military posture that it has maintained for two generations and 2) do the new tea party members have a discernible position, and if so, what is it?
According to the Washington Post, Graham's position is that with the advent of the tea party members: "The Republican Party is going to have two wings...the isolationist wing and the wing led by (John) McCain, Graham and (Jeff) Sessions that says you'd better stay involved in the world because if you do disengage, you'll regret it."
The senator called lack of candidate debate on national security "stunning" and called on the electorate to "challenge" the newly elected lawmakers "early on" as to their views of the world. He then challenged the freshman lawmakers to go home and explain why no treaty with Russia is a good thing.
He concludes his assessment with a dark warning of what happens when the idea of isolationism during an economic downturn takes hold: "(R)eally bad people get a pass, because the United States starts looking inward."
I share Graham's macro fear of an isolationist America permitting Hitler-like characters to rise and roam the world. It has happened before and it can happen again.
But it is my sense that the senator is laying this danger excessively on the tea party members and movement. In fact, the trend away from a fully muscular, assertive, free trade GOP has been unfolding for years. And that trend has paralleled (or followed) the shifting attitudes of the base GOP electorate.
This is not to say that the GOP is isolationist. Rather, it is to suggest that the inartful and questionable military ventures of the U.S. in the last 50 years have driven both GOP members and voters to want to make a case-by-case assessment of what the U.S. role should be. Likewise, merely invoking principles of free trade no longer convince typical GOP voters that any trade deal is in our interest.
We don't yet know how the tea party members are thinking on these issues. I went to several tea party meetings, moderated some discussions and talked with hundreds of attendees. The topic of foreign affairs rarely came up -- understandably, given the domestic economic crisis that torments the public. But, for what it is worth, my sense is that the tea party members are not dramatically different in their foreign policy attitudes that previous freshman classes have been.
There has always been a tendency for new, inexperienced candidates for federal office to be more focused on domestic issues initially -- because their voters are. But for GOP congressmen and senators, their fundamental values -- a powerful patriotism, a sense of right and wrong, and a practical understanding of human nature as capable of great evil -- tends over time to lead them to a firmer foreign and military policy posture than that held by liberal Democrats.
But my reason for writing this column is that, while I share the senator's concern, I fear that the worst way to gain the objective of infusing the new congressmen with an alert view of foreign danger is to call them names.
The world is shifting, and the senator would do well to hold firm many multi-term congressmen. The way to win their support is to make the strongest objective argument in each individual case.
For instance, regarding the Start treaty with Russia, many of its skeptics are established neoconservatives who don't contest the objective, but seriously doubt the effectiveness of the details. To call such men and women isolationist is risible.
Reaganite foreign policy experts have always been much more skeptical of particular disarmament treaties. And with China rushing ahead on their nuclear program, we need to consider our stockpile requirements in the Chinese context as much as we do with the poorer Russian capabilities.
The clarity of Americans divided between hawks and doves is fading. We are entering the more ambiguous age of owls and vultures. Effective foreign policy arguments will take heed of these, perhaps unfortunate, developments.