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Kosovo Conflict Creates Schism Within the GOP

April 07, 1999|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Ethnic war in Kosovo is provoking a kind of civil war inside the Republican Party.

In rapid fashion, the conflict in the Balkans is widening a fissure in the GOP over America's role in the world. While Democrats mostly have supported President Clinton's course, Republicans are being torn in diametrical directions as Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces systematically expel hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

On one side, a band of traditional GOP internationalists--led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona--is urging Clinton to escalate the campaign against Milosevic, even to the point of sending ground troops to drive the Serbian forces from Kosovo.

On the other side, an assertive group of conservative nationalists--led by presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan, but extending into Congress--is arguing that the United States should bring its forces home now and leave the problem to the Europeans. "I think . . . we should tell our partners, 'Look, we've expended, almost exhausted our resources. . . . Now on May 1st, we're going to be out of there and then you take over from there,"' Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) argued Sunday.

This dispute marks the first real division in the Republican presidential campaign and, more importantly, a continued shift in the GOP's center of gravity away from the internationalism that defined it through the Cold War.

Many in the GOP now appear increasingly drawn to an updated version of the old "fortress America" doctrine in which the United States increases its spending on defense but reduces its commitments abroad. Supporters describe this impulse as hard-headed nationalism. Critics, in both parties, deride it as isolationism.

"Republican foreign policy is now mired in pathetic incoherence," the conservative Weekly Standard magazine said in an editorial last week.

In the first half of the century, the GOP was closely divided between internationalists and isolationists. When the Cold War dawned after World War II, that balance of power tilted toward the internationalists--whose victory was sealed by Dwight D. Eisenhower's triumph over isolationist Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio for the GOP presidential nomination in 1952.

For nearly the next four decades, internationalists dedicated to containment of the Soviet Union held the upper hand in the GOP--even while isolationist sentiment in the Democratic Party grew after the Vietnam War.

A Role Reversal for Democrats, GOP

But the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated the central rationale for engagement abroad among conservatives and has precipitated something of a role reversal between the parties during Clinton's presidency. That process has reached a peak in the last few weeks with Republicans leading the opposition to U.S. involvement in Kosovo and Democrats (including many who opposed Vietnam) insisting on America's obligation to ensure stability abroad.

When the Senate voted last month to authorize airstrikes in Kosovo, 70% of Senate Republicans voted no. Earlier, three-quarters of House Republicans voted against the use of American troops as part of an eventual North Atlantic Treaty Organization peace-keeping force in Kosovo. Virtually all Democrats in both chambers backed Clinton.

Those figures partly reflect Republican skepticism about Clinton's ability to manage a military conflict and their sheer distrust of the president. But most analysts also see larger forces at work.

"It's a complex fabric that's giving us this situation here, from congressional feelings toward this president to the post Cold War fault lines," said Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

It is possible that tensions could sharpen among Democrats, too, if Clinton eventually asks for ground troops. But so far Democrats have offered little dissent from the president's course.

On the other hand, the outbreak of fighting has widened the disagreement among Republicans. Overshadowed during congressional debates on Kosovo last month, internationalist Republicans have raised their voices since the bombings began.

Most ubiquitous has been McCain. Last week, McCain put off the formal announcement of his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, saying that it was inappropriate while NATO was at war in Kosovo. But he has been inescapable on television arguing for an escalation against Milosevic, including the use of ground troops if necessary.

"For us to rule out any capability we have to bring this war to a successful conclusion is a mistake," McCain said.

Others in this camp include Republican Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Charles Hagel of Nebraska, 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole and--more gingerly--Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who has not explicitly backed ground troops but said last week that "no options should be taken off the table."

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