Afghanistan Withdrawal is a Litmus Test for GOP Foreign Policy

On his final day in office, Donald Trump discussed some of his most significant accomplishments, placing a particular emphasis on his lack of military aggression. “I am especially proud to be the first President in decades who has started no new wars,” he noted, a sentiment that has been echoed by supporters within the GOP and even some of his critics. Indeed, the Trump-led transformation of GOP foreign policy is truly remarkable: just over a decade ago, the Republican party was dominated by the neoconservative wing, culminating in the 2008 nomination of Sen. John McCain. McCain succinctly summarized the prevailing GOP policy stance: “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” The lone noninterventionist candidate in the primary, Rep. Ron Paul, was roundly mocked during the 2008 campaign and faced similar scorn during his 2012 run. Incredibly, just a few years later, the neoconservative movement seemed like an afterthought: the 2016 Republican National Convention was devoid of notable neocon leaders including Mitt Romney, John McCain, and the Bush family. The shift away from interventionist foreign policy was even more pronounced at the 2020 nominating convention, as Trump peppered his acceptance speech with multiple references to ending ongoing wars and not starting new ones. Similar policy prescriptions have been echoed by some of the most prominent figures in the GOP, including Sens. Rand Paul, Josh Hawley, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz, and in popular conservative media outlets, such as The American Conservative, The Federalist, The American Spectator, and even occasionally on Fox News.

This paradigm shift in the prevailing GOP foreign policy view has important electoral implications. Even in 2016, when Trump’s policies on military intervention were relatively ill-defined, his supporters during the primary tended to be more wary of U.S. involvement on the global stage compared to the rest of the party. There is anecdotal evidence that his noninterventionist foreign policy has helped expand the GOP base. For the first time in decades, it seemed that voters no longer had to choose the “lesser of two evils,” when both major parties strongly supported foreign intervention. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this trend will continue. While many in the GOP rejoiced when Republicans significantly outperformed expectations in the 2020 election despite losing the presidency, there are reasons for skepticism. With Trump out of office, would the GOP continue along a noninterventionist path, or would they revert back to neoconservatism? Had GOP foreign policy truly changed? Several events in the aftermath of the 2020 election suggest that the neoconservative wing of the party may be stronger than anticipated.

In late November, a meeting of the House Armed Services Committee met to discuss Trump’s proposal to withdraw troops in Afghanistan. Out of the 57 members present, only Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida recommended a full withdrawal from the country, stating that “...the corruption in Afghanistan is unsolvable, the war in unwinnable, and the strategy is undecipherable.” A Joe Biden-authorized air-strike in Syria this February drew widespread praise from multiple GOP officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and Rep. Mike McCaul. Meanwhile, critics of the strike included Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Thomas Massie, Rep. Nancy Mace, and Donald Trump, Jr. who quipped at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC): “Who would have thought that within 33 days, we’d be bombing the Middle East again?” CPAC 2021 was, incidentally, also devoid of neocons, highlighting the foreign policy divide within the GOP.

The true foreign policy litmus test, however, is Biden’s announcement that all U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2021. Blowback from establishment Republicans was immediate, led by the usual suspects, Sens. Mitch McConnell, Graham, and Inhofe, along with Rep. Liz Cheney. Suggestive headlines lambasting the decision were also peppered across multiple conservative websites, including The Daily Wire, Fox News, and Daily Caller. These pro-interventionist responses emphasize that, while the anti-war wing of the conservative movement has gained significant ground over the past decade, a wide schism remains regarding foreign policy within the Republican party.

The rapidly approaching 2022 midterm elections will provide the next opportunity for the noninterventionist conservative movement to continue its momentum, and candidates are already throwing their hats into the ring. A number of announced or rumored candidates for Senate in 2022 have already indicated support for a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan: Retired Gen. Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, combat veteran Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania, and Mo Brooks in Alabama are a few examples. Similar considerations must be made when choosing party leaders in 2024. Considering the Afghan war has cost an estimated $2 trillion and nearly 3/4ths of the public support troop withdrawal, this would seem to be a sound electoral strategy, both for promoting fiscal responsibility and expanding the GOP base. The noninterventionist wing will wait with bated breath to see which GOP emerges over the next election cycles. 

Image: US Army

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