Elevating the fallacy of the false alternative to a foreign policy, John McCain and a few others believe Republicans who oppose U.S. intervention in Libya's civil war -- and who think a decade of warfare in Afghanistan is enough -- are isolationists. This is less a thought than a flight from thinking, which involves making sensible distinctions.
Last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," McCain warned that the GOP has always had "an isolation strain." He calls it "the Pat Buchanan wing," which he contrasts with "the Republican Party that has been willing to stand up for freedom for people all over the world." Rather a lot turns on the meaning of "stand up for."
Between wishing success to people fighting for freedom, and sending in the Marines (or the drones), there is as much middle ground for temperate people as there is between Buchanan, a sort of come-home-America conservative, and McCain, a promiscuous interventionist.
When asked his response to those, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who say there was no vital U.S. interest at stake when the Libya intervention began, McCain said: "Our interests are our values," and "our values are that we don't want people needlessly slaughtered by the thousands," as Moammar Gaddafi seemed to threaten to do, "if we can prevent such activity." Under the McCain Doctrine, America's military would have just begun to fight and would never stop.
Americans are, however, war weary -- which is a good thing: What kind of people would they be if they were not? U.S. involvement in the Second World War lasted 1,346 days. U.S. fighting in Afghanistan reached that milestone six years ago (June 14, 2005). America is fighting there, in Iraq, in western Pakistan, in Yemen and in Libya. Where next? Under the McCain Doctrine, wherever U.S. "values" are affronted -- and those who demur from this global crusade are isolationists, akin to those who, 70 years ago, thought broad oceans and placid neighbors guaranteed America's security from Hitler and Japan.
Is Jim Webb an isolationist? Virginia's Democratic senator, who was Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, discusses Libya with a trenchancy that befits a decorated Marine combat veteran (Vietnam) and that should shame reticent Republicans:
"Was our country under attack, or under the threat of imminent attack? Was a clearly vital national interest at stake? Were we invoking the inherent right of self-defense as outlined in the United Nations charter? Were we called upon by treaty commitments to come to the aid of an ally? Were we responding in kind to an attack on our forces elsewhere, as we did in the 1986 raids in Libya after American soldiers had been killed in a disco in Berlin? Were we rescuing Americans in distress, as we did in Grenada in 1983? No, we were not."
McCain, however, says we must achieve regime change in Libya because if Gaddafi survives, he will try to "harm" America. This is always the last argument for pressing on with imprudent interventions (see Vietnam, circa 1969): We must continue fighting because we started fighting.
Sen. Lindsey Graham -- Sancho Panza to McCain's Don Quixote -- says, "Congress should sort of shut up" about Libya. This ukase might make more sense if Congress had said anything institutionally about Libya.
Although President Barack Obama's shifting reasons for the Libyan war are as risible as his denial that it is a war, some conservatives seem to regard it as "a splendid little war." That was Ambassador John Hay's description (in a letter to Theodore Roosevelt) of the Spanish-American War. McCain has frequently expressed admiration for T.R., the only president who was an unvarnished imperialist. (See Evan Thomas' book "The War Lovers.") McCain's bellicosity is, however, at least less obnoxious than T.R.'s, which represented a toxic strain of early 20th-century progressivism -- a cocktail of racialism and political Darwinism.
Regarding Libya, McCain on Sunday said, "I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today." Wondering is speculation; we know this:
When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war. Would that he had heeded a freshman congressman from Arizona who opposed the House resolution endorsing the intervention. But then, the McCain of 1983 was, by the standards of the McCain of 2011, an isolationist.