The GOP revolt on Libya

Major players in the reliably pro-war Republican Party fiercely oppose America's floundering war against Moammar Gadhafi, signaling a big shift in conservative politics

Daniel Larison

The illegal, ill-defined mission in Libya has opened a large fissure in the Republican Party on foreign policy — a split that was clear even before the House voted on two Libya resolutions Friday. The split has also affected the party’s field of 2012 presidential candidates, as four likely or declared candidates have come out in opposition to intervention in Libya, and several have also voiced strong opposition to a continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

While the party continues to be guided and led by hawks, there is increasing skepticism of the wisdom of military intervention, and once again a growing conviction on the Right that America cannot afford — and should not try — to police the globe. Perhaps more important, after a decade of acquiescing to outrageous executive power-grabs in the name of national security, many Republicans appear to have reached their limit, after President Obama launched a war entirely on his own authority. The votes in the House last week were proof of this.

Faced with a revolt from his members on Libya, Speaker John Boehner tried to muscle aside Ohio Democrat Rep. Dennis Kucinich's binding antiwar resolution, for fear that it would pass with Republican support. The speaker then sponsored a resolution that allowed Republicans to vent their frustration with the lack of clarity in the U.S./NATO mission in Libya, and the lack of congressional authorization for U.S. military action there. Boehner's resolution passed 268-145, with 223 Republicans voting yes. Unlike Kucinich's resolution, which later failed to pass, Boehner's resolution has no effect on the ongoing war, and it effectively stymied the real effort to end U.S. involvement. But it is a genuine expression of the deep dissatisfaction that House members feel after Congress has been almost completely sidelined and ignored before and during the new war. This is a warning sign to the administration that political support for this war is anemic, and keeps getting weaker the longer the open-ended mission continues.

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There's a rising generation of leaders on the Right who cannot be counted on to endorse U.S. military action regardless of the circumstances.

Despite being non-binding and largely symbolic, Boehner’s resolution was necessary to head off a Republican revolt against America's ongoing military intervention. That's extraordinary in itself. More striking were the 87 Republicans voting to support the liberal Kucinich's resolution. Dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the war and its dismissive treatment of Congress, combined with constitutional objections, turned more than one-third of the reliably pro-war Republican caucus into opponents of the Libya war. This is by far the largest bloc of Republicans in Congress to vote against a war, ongoing or otherwise, since the House debated the 1999 war against Yugoslavia.

Because the Libyan war is a poorly conceived humanitarian intervention in a country of no strategic importance, it has never been likely to win strong Republican backing. Plus, as many cynics would say (with some justice), most Republicans discover anti-war sentiment only when a Democrat is in the White House. Nonetheless, what the 87 Republicans did in the House on Friday shouldn’t be minimized or dismissed simply as partisanship or reflexive hostility to Obama. They cast a vote to suspend U.S. participation in an ongoing war with the full knowledge that the resolution they were supporting would more or less ensure that NATO allies would be unable to continue the war effectively on their own. Despite pressure from their leadership and the Pentagon, which would have preferred no votes at all, they did not cave in to the standard invocations of “credibility” and national security that hawks often use to bludgeon skeptics into supporting bad policies.

The Republican presidential race shows that GOP skeptics are not just coming from the usual libertarian circles. In addition to Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, the otherwise very hawkish Michele Bachmann and strongly internationalist Jon Huntsman have objected to the war in Libya, saying it has nothing to do with U.S. national security. While none of the four are likely to be the next nominee, their presence in the race reflects broader changes in conservative attitudes and public opinion on the use and limits of American power, and like the dissenting House members, they represent a rising generation of leaders on the Right who cannot be counted on to endorse U.S. military action regardless of the circumstances.

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Daniel Larison has a Ph.D. in history and is a contributing editor at The American Conservative. He also writes on the blog Eunomia.