President Obama’s attempted intervention in Syria may be remembered for a fundamental shift in foreign policy views of the political parties. Obama, who campaigned on an anti-war platform in 2008, has largely continued the war in Afghanistan and launched his own war in Libya without congressional approval prior to announcing his intention to attack Syria.
President Obama’s decision to pursue a congressional authorization to attack Syria led to unexpected and bipartisan opposition to the venture. The most recent poll, taken by CNN just prior to the president’s speech on Tuesday, found that 59 percent felt that the congressional authorization should not pass. Opposition was stronger among Republicans (63 percent) and independents (67 percent) than among Democrats (43 percent), the only group that favored the bill. Fifty-three percent of liberals and moderates opposed compared to 70 percent of conservatives.
The strong opposition from conservatives comes in spite of support from prominent Republicans such as Speaker John Boehner and John McCain. Rather than swaying public opinion, congressmen seem to be responding to intense public pressure as more Republicans announce their opposition to the president’s request. According to CNN’s vote tracker, Republican no votes outnumber Democrats in both the House and the Senate with large percentages of both houses still undecided.
It would be easy to write off Republican opposition to the vote as mere obstructionism to any proposal by President Obama. While it is true that much of the opposition can be attributed to the half-hearted nature of President Obama’s strategy and a lack of confidence in his ability, there are indications that the movement goes much deeper.
The opposition to involvement in Syria stems from the rise of Tea Party wing of the Republican Party led by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Paul, who made a name for himself with a 13 hour filibuster against Obama’s drone policy last March, delivered a response to the president’s speech on Tuesday in which he questioned whether there was a “compelling American interest” in war with Syria as well as Obama’s strategy. Paul’s father, the now retired Rep. Ron Paul, was one of few voices in either party to criticize President Obama’s 2011 decision to launch the raid into Pakistan that resulted in the death Osama bin Laden.
Republican opposition to Syrian involvement must also be viewed through the lens of a new Freedomworks poll released on September 11. The poll shows libertarian identification in the Republican Party at 41 percent, its highest level since the question was first addressed in 2000. Forty percent of Republicans are most interested in “individual freedom through lower taxes and reducing the size and scope of government.” Twenty-seven percent favored an emphasis on traditional values while only 18 percent believed that a strong national defense should be the top priority.
The isolationist vein may also affect Republican views on immigration reform. Republican pollster Whit Ayres told the Washington Post in August that his research indicates that roughly a third of Republicans “will never support a path to citizenship [for illegal aliens] no matter what the conditions.” Republican opposition to immigration reform is strikingly similar to opposition to intervention in Syria with Rand Paul among the prominent Republicans who oppose the current legislation before Congress.
Likewise, a Wall St. Journal/NBC News poll from September 10 found that 74 percent of those polled believed that the U.S. should focus on problems at home rather than working to promote democracy abroad. The mixed results of the War on Terror combined with the lackluster U.S. economy likely impacted the poll. Sixty-eight percent believed that the U.S. is either less safe or that there has been no change since September 11, 2001.
The rise of the isolationists within the Republican Party hearkens back to the 1930s. As President Obama’s economy and economic policies recall the Great Depression and New Deal, the growth of Republican isolationism mirrors the isolationist sentiment prevalent in the Republican Party just prior to World War II. As Examiner noted two years ago, many other aspects of the modern geopolitical stage also resemble the years just before the outbreak of WWII as well.