WASHINGTON — The two figures most prominent on the Republican side making arguments for and against using military force in Syria are John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., senators from different generations who represent the fight for the heart and soul of the GOP. To win McCain’s support, the resolution that passed the Senate Armed Services Committee was rewritten to include President Obama’s promise that air strikes would not be purely symbolic, but designed to affect the momentum on the ground in Syria — not to take down the regime, but give the rebels a fighting chance to win on their own.
McCain’s support is critical, which is why Obama hosted him and U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., McCain’s frequent sidekick, at the White House Monday. Sen. Paul is unlikely to be won over by Obama’s entreaties, and it doesn’t appear that anyone at the White House is trying to win over Paul, who along with his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, is a libertarian and Tea Party favorite.
The younger Paul likes to cast himself as the wave of the future, a Republican who says no to military force and, just as his father, is likely to do well on college campuses should he decide to run for president, which he seems angling to do. The young people looking to Paul should be forewarned that his views are nothing new. They hearken back to a Republican era of isolationism that was well entrenched before Dwight Eisenhower became president and steered the GOP in a different, more internationalist direction.
In 1952, the battle for the Republican nomination came down to Eisenhower versus Ohio Senator Howard Taft, a formidable legislator known as “Mister Republican,” who had opposed the United States entry into World War II along with FDR’s New Deal and any measures he saw as big government. Eisenhower kept his views vague about foreign policy, but having led the allied forces to victory in Europe, he could afford to be elusive.
With the war in Korea raging, Eisenhower declared in a speech in October 1952, just weeks before he would handily defeat Democrat Adlai Stevenson, “I shall go to Korea.” That was code for an implicit promise that if elected he would end the war. As president, he used his power to tamp down a crisis in the Middle East over the Suez Canal and he wouldn’t support the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, yet he firmly remained an internationalist, a former head of NATO. He created the model which future Republican presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and even Ronald Reagan would follow.
Paul may think he’s forging new thinking that will invigorate his party, but his ideological forbears include Taft, aviator Charles Lindbergh, who served as spokesman for the isolationist America First Committee, and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, R- Mass., who led the fight to keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations, effectively crippling the nascent organization.
Isolationism is not a new argument. The extent of America’s involvement in the outside world has been debated since the country’s beginning. George Washington in his 1796 farewell address warned against foreign entanglements. Protected by two vast oceans, Americans for a long time felt protected, but that illusion has long since been shattered. What is at issue now is trust in government and our elected leaders. We were led into war in Vietnam with the dubious Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and in Iraq over non-existent weapons of mass destruction. McCain has the harder argument to make for military action in Syria given public distrust, but Paul’s followers shouldn’t be fooled into thinking he represents anything that hasn’t been tried before.