WASHINGTON – John McCain has not been pleased with what he’s seen. To date, the many men and one woman who are vying for his mantle as the Republican presidential nominee are questioning US commitments in Libya and Afghanistan and expressing skepticism at certain aspects of US wide-scale engagement abroad.
In a recent Republican debate in New Hampshire, front-runner Mitt Romney seemed to call for a limited American role in foreign conflicts, given the lessons of the US experience in Afghanistan.
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“It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes from our generals that we can hand the country over to the... Afghan military,” he said, then added, “We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban.”
At the same debate, fellow presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann said of the Libyan intervention, “We were not attacked. We were not threatened with attack. There was no vital national interest.”
McCain became the 2008 Republican candidate largely on the success of
the Iraq surge, which he embraced when it was politically unpopular, and
his hawkish national security credentials that call for robust American
involvement in the Middle East and beyond.
Discussing the race on ABC News earlier in the week, he made no bones
about being “concerned about what the candidates in New Hampshire the
other night said.”
He explained, “This is isolationism. There’s always been an isolationist
strain in the Republican Party, the Pat Buchanan wing of our party.
But now it seems to have moved more center-stage, so to speak.”
How foreign policy issues play out in the campaign for the Republican
nomination has yet to be seen, and many analysts don’t consider the
views expressed to add up to outright isolationism, but rather a trend
away from the expansive action favored by neoconservatives.
It’s also not clear whether such a Republican stance would push
President Barack Obama further toward disengagement as well, as his
party’s left flank has long called for a smaller American footprint
overseas, or whether he’d tack toward the center and more
interventionist policies as a line of attack against his opponents.
Either way, the debate could have profound implications for American
involvement in the Middle East, and thus for Israel.
Democratic defenders of Israel see in the Republican posturing an
opening to attack the opposition and warn Jewish voters of dire
consequences should the GOP prevail.
“You’re seeing in this election a real isolationist trend from the
Republican party, especially the Tea Party wing of the party, which is
[worrying] for all of us who believe in a robust and engaged US foreign
policy,” said Matt Dorf, who did Jewish outreach for the Democratic
National Committee during the 2008 campaign.
“That’s certainly what’s best for the Middle East [and] what’s best for Israel.”
He elaborated that “someone who takes an isolationist approach almost by
definition doesn’t see the value that America’s allies bring to it,”
instead seeing them as liabilities.
But Tevi Troy, who served as a Jewish liaison in the George W. Bush
White House, pushed back against the notion that the GOP candidates
represented a threat for Israel.
“It would be hard to find a more pro-Israel collective than the people
running for president on the Republican side of the aisle,” he said. “I
haven’t seen anything that indicates a diminution of support for
And he argued that politicians who were more interested in America going
it alone could actually translate into more support for Israel, because
they would be less concerned about placating the international
community’s antagonism toward the Jewish state.
“They might be willing to take a stronger stand for Israel because
they’re willing to risk criticism in the international arena,” he said.
So far, the Republican contenders have spoken of strong support for Israel and used the issue to take aim at Obama.
“He’s treating Israel the same way so many European countries have: with
suspicion, distrust and an assumption that Israel is at fault,” Romney
charged in the speech launching his presidential bid, in one of his only
references to foreign policy.
“He seems firmly and clearly determined to undermine our longtime friend and ally.”
And Troy argued that the concerns American Jews have about Obama’s
stance on Israel is their paramount foreign policy issue, and would
trump any anxiety about an isolationist streak.
“The Obama administration’s policy toward Israel is the one that would
concern Jewish voters who might be willing to consider a Republican,” he
said. “They would be comforted by the views that the bulk of the
Republican candidates have on Israel.”
Dorf, however, said the vast majority of criticism regarding Obama’s
stance on Israel has come from the 20 percent of the Jewish community
that reliably votes Republican. He dismissed the impact they would have
on the race.
“Those are [the ones] we in politics call the unpersuadables,” he said.
According to Lawrence Korb – a former assistant secretary of defense,
now with the Center for American Progress – however isolationist the
Republican party veers, it sees Israel as different than other
“Israel is separate. Regardless of whether people say we ought not to
referee the world, there will always be support for Israel,” he said.
Korb pointed to the enthusiastic reception Congress gave Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu in May as a sign of that continuing support despite
some members’ ambivalence about engagement in the Middle East.