Business Times - 28 Jun 2011
US says hello to realism, bye bye to neoconservatism
The majority of Americans agree the US should 'pay less attention to problems overseas'
By LEON HADAR
IN A speech before an audience of Asian defence ministers and military commanders in Singapore early this month, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates pledged that the United States would sustain its military presence and diplomatic involvement in Asia.
He was trying to calm anxieties among US allies in the region about rising isolationist sentiments that are seen to be affecting Americans these days as they confront the realities of skyrocketing budget deficits and a military overstretched in two major wars and a few small ones in the Middle East.
But even Mr Gates admitted during his address in Singapore that 'fighting two protracted and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has strained the US military's ground forces, and worn out the patience and appetite of the American public for similar interventions in the future'.
Indeed, as Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress are joining many liberal Democrats in Congress in calling for reducing American intervention in the Middle East, some leading members of the Republican Party are warning that by pressing for US retreat from conflicts across the globe, the Republicans are helping to boost the isolationist mood in the country.
In fact, the majority of Americans agree that the US should 'pay less attention to problems overseas', according to a recent Pew poll.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the last Republican nominee for president, and close ideological ally of the neoconservatives and an enthusiastic supporter of US military interventionism, noted in a television interview that there has 'always been an isolationist strain in the Republican Party' which now, according to him, seems 'to have moved more centre stage, so to speak'.
But much of this talk about 'isolationism' may be misplaced and misleading. What is really happening is that both Democrats and Republicans, reflecting the views of their voters, are rejecting the notion advanced by former Republican president George W Bush and his neoconservative advisers - an idea which is also supported by a few pro 'humanitarian intervention' in the Democratic Party - that the US has an interest, and an obligation, to use its military power in order to promote global ideological crusades, including democracy and human rights.
That ideological transformation that is beginning to affect Republican voters and politicians - the majority of Republican voters also agree that the US should 'pay less attention to problems overseas', according to a Pew poll - has been driven to a large extent by the dire economic realities, including mounting federal budget deficits, that are lessening support for the never-ending American intervention in the Middle East.
More specifically, many conservative activists, including members of the popular Tea Party movement are finally resolving their unique form of cognitive dissonance: Supporting a huge defence budget while calling for huge cuts in government spending.
'There's been disquiet for a long time. Republicans have been too eager to support some military ventures abroad,' according to influential Republican Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona who has joined Democratic lawmakers in calling for the end of US support in the Western action against Libya, insisting that such a move 'is perhaps a little more consistent with traditional conservatism', a view consistent with the results of polls pointing out to growing support among Republicans for an accelerated withdrawal from Libya and Afghanistan.
The rising anxiety over the US policies in the Middle East is being echoed by some of the Republican presidential candidates, including the former governor of Utah and the outgoing ambassador to China, John Huntsman, who has placed his opposition to the intervention in Libya and war in Afghanistan at the centre of his campaign.
Mr Huntsman is clearly not committed to ideological fantasies and religious visions of George W Bush and seems to come out of the Realpolitik tradition of the First President Bush.
Then there are the two libertarian Republican candidates, Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. They represent a significant chunk of the Tea Party movement and are calling for a major reassessment of US interventionist policies in the Middle East.
Likewise, the seven Republican presidential candidates gathered for a televised debate in New Hampshire two weeks ago expressed their general scepticism about the growing military commitments in the Middle East, including the most recent intervention in Libya.
'There is no vital national interest' requiring America's military role in Libya, argued Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, a darling of the Tea Party movement. Ms Bachmann, like other tea partiers, scorns Muslims.
But she also wants to balance the budget and understands that when Chinese bankers are financing its operations, the US is not in a position to launch new military adventures in the Middle East that end up raising oil prices into the stratosphere and damaging the American economy.
The leading Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, said during the debate that it was time 'to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can' and warned that 'our troops shouldn't go and try and fight a war of independence for another nation'.
He and other Republicans are not 'isolationists'. They are first and foremost pro-American politicians who, like the current Democratic White House occupant, are trying to adjust US global objectives to the changing realities of ballooning budget deficits and an overstretched military.
That suggests that while neoconservatives are fantasising that the next Republican president would be a foreign policy clone of George W Bush, he or she could turn out to be a foreign policy clone of Barack Obama.
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