The Party of Buchanan

Would today’s congressional Republicans have voted to stop Hitler?

Before Republicans toss Pat Buchanan for saying that the United States should have stayed out of World War II, they should listen to some of their own rhetoric about more recent foreign policy controversies. No one but Pat is saying in 1999 that we were wrong to help stop Hitler, but leading Republicans are saying things today that lead you to wonder what they would have been saying in 1939.

Buchanan’s new book, A Republic, Not an Empire, chronicles how generations of woolly-headed idealists repeatedly dragged the United States into pointless overseas conflicts. Buchanan contends that Nazi Germany posed no real threat to America’s vital interests after 1940 and that Franklin Roosevelt either bumbled his way into the world war or deceitfully conspired to get the country embroiled in a war it need not have fought. (Click here for Slate’s assessment of the book’s historical accuracy.)

Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared that “anyone who repudiates our involvement against Nazi Germany obviously does not reflect the views of America, much less the Republican Party” and invited Buchanan to leave the GOP. Elizabeth Dole said she was “appalled.” Over the past week or so, many Republicans have concluded that Buchanan’s threat to join the Reform Party was no threat at all: His views are too extreme and unconscionable for him to remain a Republican. (George W. Bush believes Buchanan’s views are extreme and unconscionable but thinks he should stay in the party anyway.)

What’s really striking, though, about Buchanan’s ideas is not how different, but really how very similar they are to the foreign policy thinking that dominates the congressional Republican caucus. If you start with the foreign policy assumptions held by most Republicans on Capitol Hill, Buchanan’s central argument–that Nazi Germany didn’t threaten America’s vital national interests after 1940–is not that far off the mark.

What Buchanan actually says is this: By the end of 1940, after the worst of the Battle of Britain, it had become clear that the Germans would not be able to mount a cross-channel invasion of Britain. If the Germans couldn’t invade the United Kingdom, Buchanan asks, how could they credibly pose a threat to the United States thousands of miles across the Atlantic? FDR, who had a broad conception of his country’s national interests, did not have much trouble answering that question. But if you agree with Buchanan’s highly constricted view of the national interest, it’s not a bad point.

Buchanan’s premise is as a continental nation America has few vital national interests beyond our own shores and still fewer outside our own hemisphere. A corollary is that America’s membership in international organizations imperils the national interest by threatening to drag the country into needless conflicts overseas. Another corollary is that mere humanitarian considerations should play little or no role in decisions about when to intervene in faraway places. America can’t be the world’s policeman or its “911.”

All this sounds a lot like what congressional Republicans have been saying since the end of the Cold War. Just a few months ago neo-isolationist Republicans were arguing that the United States should stay out of Kosovo because we had no vital interests in the peace and stability of southeastern Europe. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm insisted that the Kosovo war “should not have been fought [because] the President [had] never made a convincing case for putting the lives of Americans at risk in a war where we have no vital national interest at stake.” House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas fulminated on the House floor that “NATO is starting to resemble a power-hungry imperialist army,” and he claimed that “the crisis in Kosovo poses no security threat to American people, our territory or our welfare.” Many of these same legislators routinely declare that American liberties and “sovereignty” are being stolen by bow-tied bureaucrats at the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, and even by foreign generals in NATO.

Beyond situational sound bites, Buchanan and the Republican leadership share the same underlying theory of the nation’s foreign policy. Liberal internationalists believe that there is a moral dimension to our leadership in the international community. They also believe that international organizations, on balance, reduce future threats to our vital interests. This often means anticipating future threats at one or two stages of remove and recognizing that our values and our interests, though not identical, are not wholly separate either. But many prominent Republicans prefer a policy of avoiding international commitments and keeping a robust national defense in store for any power that directly threatens our territory or our citizens. Genocide in another part of the world may be tragic. Regional instability on some other continent may be something to keep an eye on. But unless our access to strategic natural resources is threatened or bullets actually start flying our way, it’s simply best not to get involved.

As Buchanan’s book accurately notes, this isolationist mentality has deep roots in the Republican Party. Sen. Robert Taft tried to keep the United States out of World War II in the late 1930s and then sought to restrain America’s overseas commitments in the early Cold War years. Before the advent of modern weaponry, one of the central tenets of the isolationist catechism was that America’s status as a continental nation, flanked by two great oceans, gave us the luxury of doing without all the treaties and alliances that countries such as France or Great Britain had to bother with. At mid-century, when internationalism was at its zenith, it was commonly thought that a mixture of technology and America’s great power status had made such thinking obsolete. But the impulse remains. It is actually one of the key motivators behind the conservative obsession with a national missile defense–a technological fix that would conveniently replace the oceans in allowing the United States to avoid a lot of pro-active foreign involvement.

The case for not acting until you have to was put most vividly by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma, in a remark that also captures the hard-nosed attitude regarding humanitarian concerns. During Kosovo, Nickles said publicly that he had told President Clinton, “I don’t think that we should begin bombing unless and until the Serbs really begin a very significant massacre.”

Isolationist sentiments don’t prevent DeLay and Co. from saber-rattling; and given the belligerent stands they often take toward countries like China or Cuba, “petulant unilateralists” might be a better term for them. Whether or not this attitude is morally vacant and ultimately self-defeating, as its critics charge, it’s hard to see how anyone who seriously holds these views, whatever you call them, could really have had much to argue about with the America Firsters in the late 1930s.

Not all Republicans think this way. The Weekly Standard has been eloquently critical of Republican neo-isolationism and is pushing something called “National Greatness conservatism,” a program of muscular American engagement around the globe. The mainstream GOP foreign policy establishment (Eagleburgers and Scowcrofts and the like) still espouses a trimmed-down, “realist” variant of internationalism. And some of the GOP’s increasing anti-interventionism can be ascribed to hysterical dislike of President Clinton, rather than to principled belief, and is likely to wane when he is gone. But as of now, the majority of the congressional party–the Republicans who actually run for office and get elected–embraces a theory of national interests that is very similar to the one in Buchanan’s new page-turner.

The main difference between these congressional Republicans and Pat Buchanan is that none of them have been thoughtful enough to apply their beliefs to World War II, or politically foolish enough to mention it if they have.