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The false dichotomy of GOP isolationism

| Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Bret Stephens, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for distinguished commentary, is The Wall Street Journal's deputy editorial page editor. Stephens spoke to the Trib regarding the risks to the Republican Party of an isolationist stance on Syria.

Q: You've written that the Syria debate is really exposing the isolationist worm eating its way through the GOP apple. What do you mean by that?

A: We all thought that the Republican Party had inoculated itself against the isolationism that typified its worldview in the 1920s and 1930s, with the beginning of the Cold War and the rise of the kind of national security right. That was true from the days of (Michigan) Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, to Reagan, Bush and Bush II.

But it turns out that that isolationist sentiment never really died among Republicans. You are seeing a new isolationism that is based on a libertarian principle and the champion of that is in the politically very potent person of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. He is playing to old Republican feelings, he is playing to a sense of exhaustion to world affairs, he is playing to the false dichotomy of nation building abroad versus nation building at home. And he is playing to the usual partisanship that is going to oppose Obama no matter what.

Q: And this new isolationism is unwise?

A: I think it's unwise. One day, a Republican is going to be in the White House, believe it or not. And he is going to want to use his constitutional authorities to advance American national security interests by military means and you are going to have Republicans biting his ankle and telling him he has to seek the approval of Congress.

When Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada with 8,000 soldiers, not only did he not seek Congress's approval, he did not consult a single member of Congress. When George H.W. Bush invaded Panama, which was not a small operation, which was in fact a regime change operation, he gave Congress five hours of notification.

So to tell me that somehow it's written into the Constitution that the president must seek congressional authority for the kind of military action we are now contemplating in Syria is not only wrong on constitutional and historical grounds but it contravenes everything that the Republican Party has stood for since about 1947.

Q: What are the implications of that?

A: Are conservatives really going to hand the Democratic Party the mantle of being the internationalist party that is concerned about challenges to American credibility and authority around the world? Is that the gift the tea party geniuses are going to give Barack Obama, because that's what they're doing. I mean, Barack Obama should be attacked for being a weakling on Syria, not for being kind of a rerun of George W. Bush.

Q: Do you believe that advancing this isolationist attitude could have a long-term detrimental effect on the GOP?

A: I think so, because the Republican Party at its best is the party that understands that our security at home is deeply connected to our interests abroad.

If we want a world that is receptive to our goods, to our values and to our friendship, we need to play a prominent place in that world. We don't want to go back to the law of the jungle that existed in the 1920s and 1930s, when the democracies lost their will to maintain world order in the face of ascendant dictatorships.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media columnist (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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