No one who has read Colin Dueck's Age of Iron: On Conservative Nationalism would have been surprised in the least by the kabuki dance Republican legislators have engaged in ever since President Donald Trump announced American disengagement from northern Syria. The initial reaction, in keeping with the broad tenets of the internationalist approach defined by forward U.S. engagement that is the preferred prism in Washington for interpreting policy, was to criticize the decision. Then, when reactions from the Republican voter base suggested that the “betrayal of the Kurds” line which characterized the responses during the initial twenty-four hours following the decision was not broadly resonating, the discussions shifted to assessments of what course of action would prove most advantageous to the national interest. The October 16, 2019, resolution in the House of Representatives condemning the action passed with bipartisan support, but sixty Republican House members chose to cast votes against it—and not just members from the smaller caucus of non-interventionist/strategic restraint conservatives. The dominant narrative—of a surrender of U.S. leadership—prevailed, but the counter-narrative expressed by the President—why are we there—showed that it could gain traction.
This is because the Syria question triggered fault lines between Republican internationalists and Republican nationalists. For much of the post-Cold War era, these differences were largely subsumed under an assessment that linked robust American involvement abroad with national strength and wellbeing at home. Dueck notes that “Donald Trump rearranged and broke down this expected pattern by locating and emphasizing new sources of division within the Republican Party.” One of those areas has been a challenge to the mantra that the peace and security of other parts of the world is both necessary for U.S. peace and security—and that the United States must be prepared to do the heavy lifting to achieve those ends. Republican internationalists may start from the premise that forward engagement abroad is the starting point for peace and security at home, but Republican nationalists prefer to examine threats and challenges on a case-by-case basis.