Posted on April 12, 1999 in Washington Watch

The U.S. debate over NATO’s military campaign to stop Serbian crimes in Kosovo is exposing deep divisions within the Republican Party (GOP).

It has been clear for several years now, that there are conflicting currents within that party. During the 1996 presidential race, for example, the battle between the “social values” and “fiscal conservative” wings of the GOP was quite intense. While the issues raised by that debate (specifically abortion and economic protectionism) will no doubt be raised once again in 2000–the NATO campaign has exposed an equally deep intra-party conflict.

With 10 Republicans vying for the right to be the GOP presidential candidate in 2000, five of them have opposed the war and five have supported NATO’s effort.

Of those who are in opposition, a dominant theme running through their criticisms is isolationism. Those who are supportive argue the need for a strong U.S. military role that provides leadership in the post-Cold War world.

On one side of this rift is Pat Buchanan, who is one of the leading spokesperson’s for the isolationist trend. He also champions traditional social morality and protectionism. Buchanan’s view on the war is quite direct:

    United States armed forces should not go into action unless American honor or American citizens or American vital interests are at stake. I don’t think there’s any vital national interest in whose flag should fly over Kosovo and I don’t believe that the United States should be the world’s cop looking for thugs to beat up.

On the other side of the GOP divide is Senator John McCain of Arizona. Early on, when the hostilities first began, he coined the expression “when we’re in it, we have no choice but to win it.” McCain has termed the airwar as an inadequate response to the challenge of winning this war. His view:

    We must begin the mobilization of our infantry and armored divisions for possible ground war in Kosovo. We must be prepared to [use ground forces] or Milosevic will never be convinced… [For the United States and NATO] the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.

Buchanan has been joined by four other 2000 GOP hopefuls who similarly argue that this conflict is not in the U.S. national interest. One, Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire, wants to see Congress cut off the Administration’s right to spend funds to conduct this war.

On McCain’s side of the debate, support has been quite tepid. The two leading Republican candidates, Governor George W. Bush of Texas and Elizabeth Dole, waited a number of days before making any comments and then offered only luke warm and vague support for the military effort. After stinging criticism at his lack of leadership, George W. Bush made a second statement which one commentator suggested was an “explicit echo” of McCain’s position.

What is especially interesting about this Republican debate is that it is taking place at all. Throughout the Cold War, the Republican Party was viewed as the more hawkish of the two main U.S. political groups. Not only are one-half of the Republican candidates taking an isolationist position, but polling data shows that grass roots Republican voters are moving in that direction as well. A Newsweek poll, for example, shows that while Democrats, by a four to one margin are supportive of U.S. involvement with NATO airstrikes, Republicans are evenly divided on the issue. What such numbers make clear, is that Republican candidates who put forth an isolationist message do, in fact, have a constituency within their party.

As the war continues and as Serbian atrocities mount, it will be increasingly difficult for serious candidates to publicly maintain an isolationist position. Already, the daily barrage of photos of Albanian refugees and news reports of their horrific stories have had a substantial impact on public attitudes toward the conflict. In mid-March only 27% of the American people believed that Kosovo was in the U.S. national interest, 57% did not. By the end of March, those numbers had changed to 39%/51%. Last week 47% said that it was in U.S. national interest, with 42% feeling that it was not.

More dramatically, as late as March 31, 57% of Americans were opposed to sending U.S. ground forces to Kosovo. One week later, 53% now say they would support sending ground troops.

This shift in public support is no doubt the result of the enormity of the humanitarian crisis. But even with the trend moving in the direction of support, the situation in public opinion remains quite volatile. It is not clear how the public will respond, for example to extensive U.S. causalities–or to a stalemate in which, despite all of his loses, Milosevic continues to resist any settlement.

At this point Democrats are fairly unified behind the President’s strategy. Vice President Al Gore, whose fate in 2000 is tied to the President’s success in this venture, has taken on the role of tough talking spokesperson for the war effort. Gore, however, like the President, appears to have deep reservations about the advisability of sending U.S. ground troops into the battle–since if the conflict is prolonged and costly, he will pay the long-term political cost.

The Republican criticisms of the war might be dismissed by some as simple partisanship–but it is more than that. There is a deep current of nationalism and isolationism that has been exposed. The internationalist current that was represented by past Republican Presidents from Eisenhower to Bush is now having to fight for its position within the party.

As both the Balkan war and the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign develop, it will be important to take note not only of how the war plays out as a campaign issue between the two parties, but how the ideological issue of interventionism versus isolationism unfolds within the GOP.

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