In something of a replay of the infighting among Republicans over Washington’s military interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, U.S. involvement in the civil war in Libya is exposing serious splits among self-described conservatives.
On the one hand, Republican "realists" in the tradition of President George H.W. Bush – of whom Pentagon chief Robert Gates was a protégé – are clearly worried that Washington is "overextending" itself by intervening in a country that is not "vital" to U.S. national-security or economic interests.
They are backed by many members of the increasingly influential Tea Party, which is determined to slash the mushrooming federal deficit. They worry that another open- ended military commitment in Libya, particularly if it is protracted, could make their mission much harder.
Arrayed against them are the neoconservatives and their allies in Congress, notably Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
The latter have called for President Barack Obama to take all necessary measures, including arming and training rebels and expanding the list of targets subject to U.S. and NATO bombing, to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
As with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, they are forging alliances with liberal interventionists in the Democratic Party and, to the extent they can, inside the administration to get their way.
Whether they will succeed as they did with another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, in Bosnia from 1993 to 1995 and then again in Kosovo in 1999, remains to be seen.
Obama himself has made clear that, while he shares their goal of regime change in Libya, he is very reluctant to involve the U.S. military more deeply in the unfolding conflict.
In this, Obama enjoys strong backing from the Pentagon, and particularly from Gates, who, in Congressional testimony that drew harsh complaints from neoconservatives last week, rejected a U.S. role in arming and training the rebels, insisting that other countries could undertake such an effort, if they so desired.
Gates’ clear lack of enthusiasm for deepening Washington’s military commitment in yet another uncertain conflict with no clear "exit strategy" recalls the exasperation felt by then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell in 1993, when he was asked by then-UN Amb. (and consummate liberal hawk) Madeleine Albright, "What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?"
"I thought I would have an aneurysm," Powell – who, like Gates, was a Bush I protégé – later wrote about his reaction to Albright’s question, which he thought betrayed an all too cavalier attitude toward using U.S. military force.
At the time, Albright, strongly supported by most neoconservatives, was lobbying Clinton to intervene in Bosnia, something Bush had refused to do – just as he had rejected their appeals to send U.S. troops to Baghdad at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
By the time the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia were signed in November 1995, neoconservatives had become increasingly dismayed with what they saw as growing "isolationism" among Republican lawmakers who won a majority in Congress the previous year.
In 1996, two prominent neoconservatives, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, published an article titled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," in Foreign Affairs in which they criticized a "confused American conservatism" and called for fellow Republicans to embrace a policy of "military supremacy and moral confidence" whose main aim would be to preserve Washington’s "benevolent global hegemony …as far into the future as possible."
In 1997, Kristol and Kagan cofounded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) whose charter – a distillation of the ideas contained in their Foreign Affairs article – was signed by other prominent neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams, as well as aggressive nationalists, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who would claim top positions in the George W. Bush administration six years later.
But it wasn’t until the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq that PNAC’s views came to dominate the Republican foreign-policy thinking.
Many leading Republicans were skeptical of – or outright opposed to – the 1999 Kosovo war, which once more found neoconservatives allied with liberal interventionists in urging its prosecution.
"Before we go bombing sovereign nations, we ought to have a plan," warned Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison at the time in an eerie echo of the current debate over Libya. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, insisted on calling the Kosovo air campaign "the Democratic war" or "Clinton’s war" to underline their disapproval.
And when McCain proposed a resolution authorizing the use of "all necessary force" in Kosovo, including the introduction of U.S. ground troops, most Republicans lined up against him.
Indeed, in the 2002 presidential campaign, candidate George W. Bush, who defeated McCain in the Republican primaries that year, suggested that his foreign-policy views were considerably more "humble" than those of either the neoconservatives or the liberal interventionists. His subsequent appointment of Powell as secretary of state encouraged many observers – and voters – in the belief that he would follow in his father’s footsteps.
But the 9/11 attacks tilted the balance of power – both within the Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress – decisively in PNAC’s direction, as Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz, among other hawks, seized control of the policy and led the country to invade Iraq in 2003.
Even as Bush himself began to moderate his policies in his second term, and particularly after the Democrats swept the 2006 mid-term Congressional elections and the president replaced Rumsfeld with Gates, Republicans in Congress remained firmly wedded to the PNAC vision.
Two years later, McCain, most of whose closest foreign policy advisers were neoconservatives, emerged with the party’s presidential nomination from a Republican field in which all but one of the major candidates were at least as – of not more hawkish – than he.
But, even before Libya, a combination of the September 2008 financial crisis and growing war fatigue on the part of the public – not to mention McCain’s electoral defeat by Obama – appeared to be slowly turning the clock backwards by rekindling the intra-party foreign-policy conflicts of the 1990’s.
The Tea Party’s emergence as a major force has already resulted in the Republican leadership’s willingness to consider cutting the defence budget – a notion that has long been anathema to neoconservatives, whose PNAC has since morphed into a new organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, that has sought common cause with liberal interventionists.
The debate over U.S. military intervention in Libya threatens to accelerate the time-travelling process, as McCain’s appeals for Washington to take "all necessary measures" to oust Gaddafi – reminiscent of his efforts around the Kosovo war – aren’t resonating with his fellow Republicans in the way they would have two or three years ago.
The fact that Gates, in particular, has made his opposition to a stronger commitment as clear as he has – and that the military brass appears to be backing him up – appears also to have made some in the party’s leadership think twice about the political wisdom of indulging the hawks.