Republicans Retreat From Their War History

How the GOP ditched decades of hard-headed foreign policy realism


We all know that when it comes to war, Republicans are strong and resolute, while Democrats are weak and craven. We know because Republicans tell us so.

Those have been the constant GOP themes in the congressional debate over the Iraq war. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio accused Democrats who want to mandate withdrawal by a certain date of proposing "a timetable for American surrender." They were cheering for "defeat," charged Arizona Sen. John McCain. President Bush vowed that unlike his partisan opponents, he would not "cut and run."

During last week's Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Library, Rudy Giuliani cited the 40th president as a model of fortitude in dealing with enemies. Among "the things that Ronald Reagan taught us," he declared, is that "we should never retreat in the face of terrorism."

No one present was impolite enough to mention that far from spurning retreat in the face of terrorism, the Gipper embraced it. After the 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 American military personnel, he recognized the futility of our presence in Lebanon and pulled out.

Boehner portrays himself and his colleagues as brave patriots who would never accept anything less than victory in war. But in 1993, when things got tough in Somalia, he voted for withdrawal. John McCain likewise favored "defeat" in that conflict. He opposed a timetable for withdrawal not because he wanted U.S. forces to stay but because it would take too long. Our soldiers, he insisted, should leave "as rapidly and safely as possible." Or, you could say, cut and run.

At the same time, Democrats were warning of the dangers of retreat. Among them was a senator from Massachusetts named John Kerry.

Both times, the Republicans favoring withdrawal had the right idea. In neither case was our intervention justified, and nothing at stake in Lebanon or Somalia was worth the cost in American lives.

They also favored an outcome short of victory in the Kosovo war of 1999, when the GOP-controlled House voted down a resolution supporting the president's air campaign. Most House Republicans also supported a measure calling for the withdrawal of American troops from the Balkans.

Back then, House Republican Leader Tom DeLay said, "The bombing was a mistake," and urged Clinton to "admit it, and come to some sort of negotiated end." Can you guess the title of DeLay's new book? No Retreat, No Surrender.

The truth is, Republican presidents are not known for staying the course in the face of adversity. Dwight Eisenhower ran on a promise to end the Korean war, which he did—on terms that allowed the communist aggressors to remain in power in the North. Richard Nixon negotiated a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese government, which provided for a U.S. pullout. Gerald Ford presided over the fall of Saigon and the final, humiliating American evacuation.

In those instances, the presidents came to grips with the unpleasant truth that sometimes, you can't achieve the desired outcome without an excessive sacrifice, if at all. But when it comes to Iraq, Republicans insist we should be ready to pay any price in pursuit of a victory that has eluded us for so long. In their view, weighing the costs against the benefits, or acknowledging that we don't have a formula for success, is tantamount to appeasement.

What Republicans stood for in the past was a sober realism about the limits of our power and our good intentions. That spirit is absent today. They act as though slogans are a substitute for strategy. What they claim as steadfast resolve looks more like blind obstinacy.

It's silly to say victory is the only option unless you actually have a way to achieve it and are willing to commit the necessary resources. The administration and its allies on Capitol Hill insist that this time, they know what they're doing. But they said the same thing at every point along the way, and if they had been right, the phrase "Mission Accomplished" wouldn't be a national joke.

Maybe at last they have found the key to success. More likely, though, they are just wasting lives and money postponing the inevitable. It's terrible to lose a war. But as several Republican presidents could attest, it's even worse to persist in one you can't win.