After the Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News, "I hope people in the country understand that we're Ronald Reagan Republicans in South Carolina. We believe in peace through strength and we're not isolationists."
In an interview the next day, Graham's fellow South Carolinian Sen. Jim DeMint said on Fox Business,"If we spread ourselves too thin around the world we're not going to be able to defend the homeland, particularly with the level of debt that we have right now. It's foolish for us to think that we can have military bases all over the world, spend billions of dollars when we're going broke back home. It just isn't going to happen."
Austerity may be a bad word to Graham when it comes to Pentagon spending, but for DeMint it's the very definition of conservatism. When Republicans like DeMint and his Senate ally Rand Paul say that Pentagon spending cuts must happen, Republicans like Graham and his Senate ally John McCain call such actions "isolationist." When Paul was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010, McCain said he was worried about the "rise of isolationism" in the GOP. When Paul later led the charge against President Barack Obama's military intervention in Libya, both Graham and McCain trotted out the isolationist label again.
DeMint stood with Paul on Libya and now stands with Paul on foreign policy in many instances, even voting to essentially defund the Iraq War; both were also against the National Defense Authorization Act, which was heavily promoted by Graham. Such positions reflect DeMint's over-arching fiscal concerns. But perhaps most importantly, South Carolina's junior senator does not pretend that our debt is unrelated to foreign spending, a fantasy that continues to be a major philosophical flaw for so many in the GOP. DeMint addresses this issue directly in his new book Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse, of which I was a contributor:
"Sen. Rand Paul has pointed out that there are two extremes in foreign policy — being everywhere all the time or being nowhere none of the time. Currently, the United States is far closer to the first extreme of trying to do too much in too many places. Of course, America must have the ability to defend our nation and our interests around the world, but ... we simply can no longer afford to intervene in every crisis around the world."
What about that is isolationist? We know that Graham believes America should still be in Iraq; he has said we need a permanent U.S. presence in Afghanistan, has supported our intervention in Libya, has floated the idea of military action in Syria, and has no qualms about a war with Iran.
If we look at the two extremes in foreign policy cited by DeMint, it becomes clear that Graham falls into the first extreme camp. The other extreme — being "nowhere none of the time" — is genuine isolationism. But is anyone actually advocating this? Paul and DeMint certainly aren't. What they are saying is that America's military might be stretched beyond its practical limits and that as a nation we must face fiscal reality.
Applying a cost-benefit analysis to foreign policy is wise — not to mention quintessentially conservative. But to Graham this is isolationist. Many conservatives don't like Graham for multiple reasons, but they consider him to be strong on issues of national security when in reality the exact opposite is true. It is on foreign policy where Graham is the most liberal, believing we can spend infinitely on questionable matters that Republicans can never question
But DeMint is asking these questions. In fact, DeMint is saying we have to ask these questions and face certain realities. As he said on Fox Business, "The best way to defend our country is to move toward a balanced budget, concentrate our defense capabilities back here at home ... but we're not in a position now to do what we've been doing over the last several decades."
Republicans like Graham approach Pentagon spending the way liberals approach welfare. In much the same way conservatives are always accused of throwing the poor out on the street whenever they suggest reforming welfare, anyone who suggests cutting military spending is labeled an isolationist.
Such scare tactics have served liberals well for decades. They have also served Graham well, but perhaps not for much longer, as Republicans follow DeMint's lead and reassess the contradictions in their own philosophy that prevent the GOP from becoming the conservative party it should be.
Jack Hunter assisted Sen. Jim DeMint with his latest book, Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse. He is also the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul's The Tea Party Goes to Washington. You can hear Southern Avenger commentaries on The Morning Buzz with Richard Todd on 1250 WTMA.