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Do Republicans really want a belligerent foreign policy?

Commentary: Mitt Romney has talked tough in the primaries, but more moderation is urged by party elders.
Republican romney foreign policy 2012 4 20Enlarge
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks with Western Pennsylvania residents at a Tax Day roundtable event at the Bethel Park Community Center on April 17, 2012 in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

BOSTON — All through the recent Republican primaries the candidates were falling over each other to see who could come up with the most bellicose foreign policy. All accept Ron Paul, of course.

When the presumptive nominee , Mitt Romney, first spelled out his foreign policy goals, in a speech to a South Carolina military academy last fall, he seemed to promise a quick return to George W. Bush era belligerency. Later, when asked if it was a good idea to talk to the Taliban, he said it would be better just to kill them all.

More reasonable Republicans have been shaking their heads. Party elder statesman, James Baker, President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff,  Secretary of the Treasury, and George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State, came to Harvard the other day saying that his party today hadn’t seen a war they didn’t like.

Conservative columnist, and the first President Bush’s speech writer, Peggy Noonan, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the GOP candidates had “staked out dangerous ground. They want to show they’re strong on defense,” she wrote, “but that is different from having an aggressive foreign policy stance.” In the race to see who could be the fiercer they left “no room for discretion, prudence, nuance … There was no room for an expressed bias towards not fighting” even though “grown ups really do have a bias toward not fighting.”

Polls show that Americans in both parties have become disillusioned with the wars with which the Bush administration hobbled this country. Yet the candidates “are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party,” Noonan writes. “Are they really under the impression that America is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years?” Noonan asks.

If you are Kevin Phillips you would say that the reason for all this belligerence goes back to the English Civil War of 1641-1651. In his insightful book, the “Cousins’ Wars,” he says that the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War were all part of the same sorting out in which the British and their American cousins determined how they would live and be ruled.

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East Anglia, from whence most of the early settlers of New England came, was a region of tinkers and tailors, craftsmen and carpenters, influenced by foreigners coming from the continent and bringing foreign ideas. East Anglia was a hot bed of support for Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentary forces opposing the divine right of kings. On the other side the “Cavaliers,” defending the monarchy and the established order, represented the great landowners and the aristocracy. Cavaliers, when they emigrated to America, preferred Virginia to the stony soil of New England.

Add to that the Scotch Irish, brought up on the borderlands and constantly fighting with the English, then shipped to Northern Ireland to protect the Protestant cause and to fight with the Catholics, and finally emigrating to the New World to settle in the south and pour through the Cumberland Gap to fight the natives, and you have a very different mix of settlers than the East Anglicans of Massachusetts. The Scotch Irish, historians have pointed out, were fed belligerency in their mother’s milk.

These differing American traditions, East Anglican Puritans in the North, and by the time of our Civil War heavily influenced by foreign immigration, versus the aristocratic Cavaliers with their ideas of chivalry mixed with Scotch-Irish fighting spirit, were both ready and willing to begin again the English Civil War by the 1860s, for and against the cause of states rights, for which you can read slavery.

In the North, fully half of the graduates of the newly minted Harvard College had sailed back to England in the 17th century to fight against the Cavaliers on Oliver Cromwell’s side. And by the time of our Civil War, New England was the hotbed of abolitionism.

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Today, one might argue, that great debate that separated North and South — not just slavery, but a wholly different way of looking at political life — continues to this day, especially now that the American political parties have realigned themselves in recent years to the point where the South is solidly GOP.

Primary voters, as opposed to the broader Republican fold, are a sub species, more quick to anger, and far more apt to favor a belligerent foreign policy than James Baker or Peggy Noonan-style Republicans. Add to that a fear that America is in decline, and that the answer to that decline is a strong military response to the world’s problems, and you begin to see what the candidates were pandering to.

The right wing of the GOP is full of white working class voters who see the world they grew up in changing forever, becoming darker, more foreign born. And just as white southerners before and during the Civil War saw the Northerners as full of foreign trash, so does the Republican right oppose immigration and oppose changing social mores.

That’s the element that Romney needs to keep energized. As the Economist put it, “Mr. Romney knows that to turn out a conservative base that does not love him he must mobilize their hatred of Mr. Obama.”

Peggy Noonan says that Democrats used to deride Republicans as the party of John Wayne itching for a shoot-‘em-up. But ”John Wayne didn’t ride into town itching for a fight,” she argues. “He didn’t ride in shooting off his mouth either. He rode in hoping for peace, but if something broke out he was ready.” He knew how to use a gun, “but he didn’t want to have to, which was part of his character’s power.”

Noonan urges the GOP to go back to that reluctant John Wayne character who really didn’t want to shoot anybody. But Romney knows that, reluctant as the John Wayne character may have been, he always did shoot somebody, otherwise there would have been no point to the movie.

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