As Obama Plays Policeman, GOP Rediscovers Disdain for Nation Building

Isolationism is making a comeback in Republican circles as GOPers sour on President Obama’s internationalist agenda and lawmakers look for ways to save money.

And as Obama wades further into the turmoil now gripping the Middle East and North Africa, the Republicans looking to replace him in 2012 are rediscovering the old conservative aversion to playing policeman to the world.

It is hard to remember after a decade of post-9/11 military action undertaken by a Republican president, but the Grand Old Party has traditionally been more in favor of “peace through strength” than boots on the ground.

When Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour used an Iowa speech to question the merits of Obama’s nation-building effort in Afghanistan, it prompted surprise among many observers.

The political reality forged under President George W. Bush was that Republicans overwhelmingly support military engagement while Democrats favor military withdrawal. But while Bush embraced the concepts of a “forward strategy of freedom” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Republican Party has historically been skeptical of foreign entanglements.

America’s entries into all of the major conflicts of the 20th Century were led by Democratic presidents, often over the objections of Republicans in Congress.

Woodrow Wilson set the model with the U.S. entry into World War I, and in World War II, Korea Vietnam and Bosnia, it was Democratic leaders pushing America and Republicans into international conflicts. Only the first Gulf War was a Republican-led effort.

Barbour posed some tough questions to Iowa Republicans: "What is our mission? How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan? ... Is that a 100,000-man Army mission? I don't think our mission should be to think we're going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy."

His remarks actually echoed pre- 9/11 Bush, who as a candidate in 2000 campaigned against the interventionalist agenda of the Clinton administration and criticized Vice President Al Gore’s support for nation building in the Balkans.

Preventing bloodshed in Bosnia cost huge sums (a three-month no-fly zone covering the Serbian air force alone cost $2.5 billion) and raised Republican hackles. Having spent trillions protecting Europeans during the Cold War, many conservatives felt the Continentals should handle the civil war in their own backyard.

One of the many things that Sept. 11 changed was Bush was the traditional GOPresistance to wading into full-scale wars. Having seen the devastating effects of granting terrorists safe havens, most Republicans decided that allowing cancerous countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to go on as failed states posed a direct threat to American lives.

But as Republicans look to tame federal spending, the hugely expensive mission in Afghanistan has fallen under increasing scrutiny. The revamped Obama strategy is the cause for this second look.

Right now, American-led forces have secured substantial gains in previously hostile areas and are preparing to endure a springtime onslaught by the Taliban – a decisive battle that American generals hope will break the Islamists’ fighting spirit. The goal, then, is to bring the same Taliban into the political process, paving the way for a 2014 departure of U.S. forces.

With Pakistan’s government circling the drain and deep questions about Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration, an increasing number of Republicans in Washington are privately, and in some cases, publicly, questioning the wisdom of Obama’s war strategy.

When Barbour asked about the goals in Afghanistan, he was speaking for many Republicans who believe that nearly $400 billion already spent in the war and nation building effort has been only a down payment on the future costs of Obama’s strategy.

Ultra hawks like Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol lashed out at Barbour, calling him the “Hee Haw” candidate and accusing the governor of irresponsible pandering to the libertarian and isolationist sensibilities of many in their party.

Kristol charges that Barbour has broken with the legacy of Ronald Reagan by suggesting the U.S. pull back in Afghanistan and trim its defense budget. Invoking Reagan to scold Barbour is a serious charge in Republican circles, especially since Barbour worked in the Reagan White House.

Barbour hasn’t responded to Kristol, but his defenders have pointed out that Reagan was building up the Pentagon to face down the Soviets after many years of neglect. Reagan’s record was, in many ways, the apotheosis of traditional Republican foreign policy.

When Reagan used force it was through quick, surgical operations like the bombing of Libya or the invasion of Grenada. Reagan also covertly supported enemies of the Soviets, like the Contras in Nicaragua and the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. But the core of his defense strategy was deterrence. He wanted the world to understand that the U.S. was willing to act against its enemies and do so with overwhelming force. Nation building was not on the agenda.

While Republicans were happy to support the use of massive force in Afghanistan and in toppling Saddam Hussein, the party may have grown war weary.

When news broke that after refusing to intervene with quick strikes against Muammar Qaddafi for weeks, Obama had come around to the idea of an international peacekeeping effort, many Republicans were instantly wary.

As the Afghan effort drags on and Republicans increasingly grumble over Obama’s slide into the Libyan civil war, expect other members of the 2012 GOP field to join Barbour in questioning the merits of the U.S. playing policeman to the world.

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.