By SAM TANENHAUS
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of The New York Times Book Review.
THE Republican debate Tuesday night included many heated exchanges, but relatively few on the subject of foreign policy. There was instead surprising unanimity, whether it was Mitt Romney and Rick Perry debunking foreign aid, Ron Paul warning that America has become an empire, or Michele Bachmann, in what now seems an ill-timed critique, objecting to President Obama’s having “put us in Libya.”
Obviously, Bachman was wrong because, since then, Obama killed Gadaffi, which therefore permanently debunks all skepticism about the wisdom of America starting a war with Libya. The bottom line of sophisticated globalist thought is: Who kills whom? Obama started an international war with Libya, and then conclusively proved he was right to do so by killing the ex-leader of Libya.
Collectively, the candidates were channeling a broad shift in thinking on the right about America’s global responsibilities. It has been only a few years since George W. Bush labeled himself a “war president” leading a crusade for worldwide democratization. And the sentiments were not his alone. In December 2004 a majority of conservative Republicans agreed “it is best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs,” according to the Pew Research Center.
In 2011, a roughly equivalent majority believe America “should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home.”
In a time of severe economic woe — a “national emergency,” as Mr. Obama termed it in mid-September — foreign policy issues often lose their immediacy.
Well, foreign adventurism not just loses its "immediacy," it's objectively harder to pay for.
But with the exception of impassioned support for Israel, conservatives have been embracing a retreat from the greater world that recalls the isolationism of a bygone age in which belief in American “exceptionalism” combined with distrust of other countries and “entangling alliances,” even with other democracies. The most conspicuous example is the strong anti-interventionist sentiment in the period leading up to World War II, when conservatives flocked to rallies organized by the America First Committee, with its slogan “England will fight to the last American.”
In other words, skipping over the implied logical links ... Nazis!
... Of course that was before Mr. Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Its ascendancy is “proof positive of the rise of isolationism on the right,” Lawrence F. Kaplan, a columnist for The New Republic and co-author, with William Kristol, of “The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission,” wrote in an e-mail. “It’s no coincidence that the Tea Party has adopted the Don’t Tread on Me flag as its own,” Mr. Kaplan added. “My bet is they have the federal government, not far-away Islamists, in mind.”
My prejudice is for "Don't tread on me ... and I won't tread on you," but that just shows what a prejudiced ignoramus I am. All the sophisticates like Kaplan and Kristol believe in "Don't tread on me while I tread on you." What could possibly go wrong?
Even as the Republican presidential contenders have tapped into isolationist anxieties, they have sat for foreign-policy tutorials with holdovers from Mr. Bush’s presidency, many of them standard-bearers of the aggressive interventionism that Tea Partiers reject. Mr. Romney’s team includes the authors Eliot A. Cohen and Robert Kagan, both identified with the Iraq war. Mr. Perry has met with Donald H. Rumsfeld. Herman Cain has professed his admiration for the writings of John R. Bolton, a hawkish figure in the administrations of both Bushes.
In other words, the Establishment maintains its chokehold on Republican elites despite all that we've learned in the last few years.
This position assumes that America, which remains, after all, the world’s one superpower, has no choice but to assert its leadership in a complex world — as, perhaps, Mr. Obama demonstrated in his Libya policy. He followed a middle course criticized by neoconservatives, who found it too timid, and by isolationists, who warned against “mission creep.” But it seems to have been vindicated last week with the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
By the way, new cell phone footage suggests Gadaffi was sodomized while being lynched. Ha-ha, what a loser! I've watched enough TV detective shows to know that, unlike in the bad old days, prison rape is now considered a great topic for gloating jokes. (This evolution of social norms must be part of what Steven Pinker calls The Civilizing Process.) This new information about Gadaffi's end just proves how right Tanenhaus and the rest of respectable opinion are, and how wrong sickos like Ron Paul are for not wanting America to be involved in things like this.
So, forget "Who kills whom?" The new international cosmopolitan standard of right and wrong that only scary kooks like Pat Buchanan express doubts about is "Who sodomizes whom?"