The GOP's New Attitude On Military Intervention

The House rebuke of the U.S. role in Libya may signal a new note being heard among Republicans. A growing number of prominent Republicans, including several candidates for president, are calling for speedier withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and question U.S. involvement in Libya. Host Scott Simon talks to Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), about shifting positions in the Republican Party on military involvements overseas.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The House rebuke of the U.S. role in Libya may signal a new note being heard among Republicans. A growing number of prominent Republicans, including several candidates for president, are calling for a speedier withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and question U.S. involvement in Libya. The course of candidates calling for America to stay home plainly upsets the last Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, who told ABC's "This Week."

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): This is isolationism. There's always been an isolation strain in the Republican Party, the Pat Buchanan wing of our party. But now it seems to have moved more center stage so to speak.

SIMON: Joined now by another Arizona member of Congress, Congressman Jeff Flake joins us from Capitol Hill. Thanks so much for being with us.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): Hey. Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: And how do you feel about that term isolationist?

Mr. FLAKE: Well, I certainly don't think it applies to me or very many of my colleagues. I think we have to differentiate between the readiness to, I guess, or the willingness or desire to use military force with other actions that might be more appropriately defined as isolationist.

SIMON: You've called to the U.S. to keep a much smaller presence in Afghanistan and certainly circumscribed action only, if any, in Libya. Explain your thinking, sir.

Mr. FLAKE: We've completed much of our mission there. We certainly, we routed the Taliban early on, we've now killed Osama bin Laden and we're now engaged in what is termed counterinsurgency policy. But I don't think it really is. It's more nation-building than that. So, I've called for a change to counterterrorism that would require much smaller footprint and I think be just as effective or perhaps more so.

SIMON: Would your thinking be different if there weren't the domestic budget pressures we observe now?

Mr. FLAKE: No. No, I don't believe so. When you look at Afghanistan and you look at what we're doing there, it's hard to imagine that the situation will be much different 10 years from now, even if we could afford to spend what we're currently spending. So, no, certainly you can't divorce, you know, our economic situation from the argument but I think I'd feel the same anyway.

SIMON: Is this a new direction from the Republican Party?

Mr. FLAKE: No. I think frankly it returns much more to our roots.

SIMON: And we're going to have to note that a number of your fellow Republicans, great number, obviously, historic number of freshmen, many of them backed by the Tea Party - you don't agree that this might signal a shift in the views of the Republican Party over the past decade?

Mr. FLAKE: Perhaps over the past decade. But I would argue that probably returns us to more of where the Republican Party has been traditionally; the party that is not isolationist by any means, but is perhaps a little more skeptical of the ability that we have to change the world in ways that we perhaps think we can.

SIMON: What about the argument, Mr. Flake, that when you see widespread mass murder perhaps on the verge of happening in a place like Libya, it is in the interest of the United States to apply power to prevent that from happening.

Mr. FLAKE: I certainly think that that is a compelling argument. And Senator McCain makes that in a very compelling way. But there are compelling arguments that can be made in that same vein in Syria right now or in Yemen or elsewhere. And I think you have to be judicious in where you apply military force and some of us think that we erred in Libya.

SIMON: Are you concerned that in the campaign to come President Obama might be in a position to accuse the Republicans of being weak on defense?

Mr. FLAKE: Well, there are some on the Republican Party that think we've always got to be more hawkish than the president. And I don't think that's the case. I think Republicans have traditionally been and will remain more committed perhaps to national defense. But that doesn't mean that we should engage in every battle that is out there. And if there are areas where we think it's imprudent to move ahead overseas then I hope we Republicans do the right thing.

SIMON: Congressman Jeff Flake who represents the sixth congressional district of Arizona. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. FLAKE: Thanks for having me on.

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