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Republican Civil War Between Imperialists and Isolationists Has Deep Roots and Big Implications

06/05/2015 11:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

The Republicans' dramatic intra-party fighting over NSA domestic surveillance, which saw the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain having to give way to the likes of young libertarian Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul and House Republicans, points up a brewing civil war on national security.

It's a conflict with major implications for the 2016 Republican presidential race, as it will likely force the huge Republican field to come to grips with our fateful post-9/11 adventures. Just as putative frontrunner Jeb Bush, who so infamously had to take five tries before backing off his support for his brother's disastrous Iraq War, has already had to do.

The conflict has deep roots in history, with Republicans reacting in large measure to the policies of the two great Roosevelt presidencies.

The U.S. did not become a great power on the world stage until the advent of Theodore Roosevelt. The Progressive Republican set the stage for America's big win in the Spanish-American War as an extremely assertive assistant secretary of the Navy with very aggressive deployments of the U.S. fleet before the war began. Then, changing guises to an Army colonel with his soon-be-famed "Rough Riders," TR set the stage for his own ascendancy to the White House by leading the famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba once the war was underway.

As president, TR ramped up the Navy, sending the "Great White Fleet" on a pointed world tour, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling the war between Russia and Japan.

But after Teddy Roosevelt, Republicans largely lapsed into isolationism. The tendency grew even more pronounced after World War I.

With the coming of the Great Depression, most of the country followed, with several complacent business-focused Republican presidencies.

The second Roosevelt presidency, that of TR's cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, the liberal Democrat, focused at first on the profound domestic economic crisis with his New Deal menu of social democratic programs for recovery and reform. But even then, FDR, who had deliberately followed in TR's footsteps as the very aggressive assistant secretary of the Navy before and throughout World War I and who had campaigned for America's participation in the ill-fated League of Nations organization for peace as the 1920 Democratic vice presidential nominee, intended an internationalist approach.

As president, he immediately set about building up the Navy. When he entertained one of the nation's leading pacifists at the White House in 1935, he told her that while he strongly favored international peace-making efforts, the core of his peace-keeping strategy was to make the U.S. Navy as powerful as possible.

As the world crisis of highly-aggressive and expansionist fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan grew, FDR was beset by a powerful pacifist movement on the left and a far more powerful isolationist tendency on the right in the form of the Republican Party, many of whose leaders were much more alarmed by the New Deal than by Nazism.

In fact, FDR reportedly believed that some Republicans negotiated a deal with the Nazis during the 1940 presidential campaign to guarantee American hegemony in the Western hemisphere if their hoped-for President Wendell Wilkie, himself a professed internationalist, was induced to cut FDR's Lend-Lease lifeline to the UK and force Britain to sue for peace.

Pearl Harbor wiped out isolationism, of course, and FDR's shrewd conduct of the war guaranteed the achievement of his goal of making America the most powerful nation on Earth. But the Cold War which ensued after his death -- he died just as he was about to open his long-planned United Nations founding conference in San Francisco to create a sustainable global security architecture based on his "Four Freedoms" (freedoms of expression and worship, freedoms from want and fear) -- was decidedly not his idea.

With isolationism dead and America the foremost superpower, Republicans increasingly threw themselves into turning a superpower rivalry with a very troubling but clearly inferior Soviet Russia, our great ally in World War II, into a desperate and titanic Manichean struggle. This also served their Red Scare agenda to tar left of center domestic initiatives with a "Communist" brush.

President Dwight Eisenhower is best known now for his farewell address warning about "the military-industrial complex." But as president, served by the Dulles brothers running State and CIA, Eisenhower pursued major anti-left covert operations around the world, most of which failed. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, conceived and greenlit on his watch and run by his people, was his real farewell for successor John F. Kennedy.

Democrats, of course, played their own leading role in spinning up the disastrous Vietnam War. But Republicans by and large had the leading role in pursuing an inept sort of imperialism under conservative publisher Henry Luce's rubric of "The American Century."

The first President George Bush, who as CIA director had spun up intelligence estimates exaggerating Soviet capabilities well beyond original CIA analysis, was shocked by the collapse of the Communist regimes. He and his people misread both the intent and impact of the Gorbachev reforms.

The second President Bush wasn't simply an inept imperialist, he was a bad imperialist. His utterly non sequitur response to 9/11, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is one of the greatest geopolitical blunders in world history.

It is that reality, and the closely aligned post-9/11 build-up of a surveillance state, that has given rise to the libertarian-flavored revival of a neo-isolationist movement in Republican circles spearheaded by Rand Paul.

The dynamic between the libertarian-inflected isolationism and the clown show imperialism of the Bush/Cheney administration and its apologists will be fascinating to watch.

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