Senator Smith steps to the plate for the GOP on foreign policy

In another age, the Republican voices coming out of New England belonged to the leading internationalists of the postwar era.
It was an unbroken line of big shots – Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., Leverett Saltonstall, Margaret Chase Smith, Ed Brooke, John Chafee, Bill Cohen. They’re gone from the Senate now (or are about to retire, in Chafee’s case) or are in the Clinton administration, like Defense Secretary Cohen. In their place the voice of New England Republicanism in foreign policy belongs to Bob Smith, New Hampshire’s junior senator, presidential wannabe, America Firster, and NATO opponent.

In the political runup to President Clinton’s decision to participate in NATO’s effort to avert a humanitarian and security catastrophe in the Balkans, our region’s Republican spokesman with the loudest, clearest voice has been Smith.

The temptation in the elite world is to dismiss the friendly hulk who did as much as anyone, save possibly Oklahoma’s Don Nickles, to block the American military effort. Bad idea.

The temptation in politics, meanwhile, has been to ascribe the ideas and beliefs grouped under the concept of America First solely to its 1991 progenitor, Pat Buchanan. Again, bad idea.

For one thing, this minimizes the large impact Buchanan has had on the party since he embarrassed George Bush two election cycles ago. The fact is that Buchanan’s foreign policy views have been ascendant for some time. And this month, in the days leading up to the bombing, it was the majority view.

Smith was no wild man thundering against the wind – he was speaking for 38 of the Senate’s 55 Republicans who joined three Democrats in opposing a prebombing resolution.

Moreover, a similar resolution focusing more on US participation in any eventual NATO peacekeeping force was opposed by a solid majority of GOP members in the House. Smith laid out his thinking in a series of speeches this month that got virtually no press attention but had considerable impact in Republican circles. While it would be silly to think his presidential prospects have been affected, his visibility and ideological credentials have been enhanced.

What is more, his voice was essentially the only audible GOP voice from his region. His senior colleague from New Hampshire, Judd Gregg, was content to lamely dog-paddle in his wake. And Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a mildly surprising vote against the NATO action, steered away from the ideology and said instead that Clinton had yet to make an effective case.

Even from the other side, where the traditional New England Republican voice was loudly internationalist, there was mostly silence. Collins’s colleague, Olympia Snowe, was a quiet yes vote. Chafee, fresh from his retirement announcement, took a pass. And Jim Jeffords of Vermont, a NATO bombing supporter, took pains to make clear his opposition to any later use of ground troops, without which the NATO peacekeeping idea would fail.

Smith’s views go much deeper than the sound-bite blurb that what happens in Kosovo is none of our business. For starters, aiming directly at post-Cold War thinking about NATO as a force against violent instability in Europe, Smith notes that he strongly opposed the alliance’s recent expansion to include Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. NATO’s mission, he says, should be the defense of its members, period.

And he is willing to take his opposition to its logical conclusion: ”if this is what NATO has become – a means of dragging the United States into every minor conflict around Europe’s edges – then maybe we should get out of NATO.”

Another core component of Smith’s thinking involves almost a reverence for sovereignty. ”Kosovo is as much a part of Yugoslavia as New Hampshire is of the United States,” he says. He warns of dire consequences if we start using military might inside the borders of sovereign nations without some legal authorization from Congress. He also is consistent, applying his thoughts back in time to Vietnam and forward through Ronald Reagan’s disastrous blunder into the Lebanese civil war in 1983.

Don’t call him a Serb sympathizer, either; Smith is, if anything, a human rights tiger, nor is he anything resembling a peacenik. But he confronts the rationale for NATO’s action head on, even questioning the common view of its history in this century.

”They have it exactly backwards,” he says. ”A Balkan war became a world war in 1914 not because there was strife, but because the great powers of that day allowed themselves to become entangled in that strife.”

You can agree or disagree, but it’s time more people paid attention. Smith’s vigor and thoroughness demonstrate not only that traditional Republican internationalism is in repose. They also show that there’s a great deal more to America First than Pat Buchanan.