Not a safer world

It turns out that the world is not a safer place. 

 And that will have a big impact with Republican primary voters. 

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Last week started with the attack at the Washington Navy Yard and ended with the attack at a shopping mall in Kenya. 

Not much linked these two tragedies. 

One was the work of lone gunman who heard voices in his head, the other the work of trained murderers who heard the clarion call of a deranged religious leader.

One occurred in Washington’s backyard, just a mile from the nation’s Capitol, while the other happened thousands of miles away, in an exotic destination popular with American tourists. 

 The Navy Yard was presumed to be secure against terrorist attack. The Westgate Mall in Nairobi was assumed to be exceedingly vulnerable to violence, just as most shopping malls in America are assumed to be soft targets for terrorists. 

 After more than a decade of war, the American public has grown both weary and wary of any further engagement with hotbeds of Islamic extremism.

 Americans don’t want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, as the president found out when he asked the Congress to give its opinion of how to enforce his infamous red line there. 

This is not unusual in American history. 

After the Great War concluded in 1918, the Senate rejected Woodrow Wilson’s Treaty of Versailles, and America sharply retreated to isolationism and sharply slashed defense expenditures for the next 20 years. Even in 1940, such prominent voices as Charles Lindbergh counseled against America joining Great Britain in the fight against Nazism. 

 In 1970s, as revelations about the Nixon administration abuses poured forth, the Congress did its level best to dismantle the intelligence agencies. Only when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the Iranians seized our embassy in Tehran did America respond with Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup.

For Republican primary voters, the debate is especially fierce.

The newly ascendant libertarian wing openly mocks the neo-conservatives it believes got us into the Iraq conflict. These “freedom” loving purists express support for Edward Snowden, who spilled America’s deepest and darkest secrets for all the world to see. They combine their neo-isolationism (we can’t be the world’s policeman), with a singular focus on shrinking the federal budget. 

 These libertarians support the defense sequester as being a necessary part of budget balancing. They were the most adamant that the president not get involved in Syria, and they don’t believe that we should continue to feed the military beast. 

 The libertarians dislike the legacy of George W. Bush and they secretly agree with Ron Paul’s view of the world that it is our own fault that Islamic extremists hate us so. We shouldn’t be there in the first place, they say. 

 The Republican establishment doesn’t share that view. 

 Members of the establishment believe that America must continue to be actively engaged in the world, to battle Islamic extremists in every corner of the globe, using every tool at their disposal. In this view, Snowden is a traitor who deserves to die because he made America profoundly less safe. 

They believe in a robust spying program that at times includes some domestic spying. You can’t make America safer by burying your head in the sand.

The establishment sees the defense sequester as an existential threat to American security. It understands the war weariness that currently affects public opinion, but also sees threats from an enemy that remains as dangerous today as it was 12 years ago. 

It wanted the president to send a strong signal to Syrian President Bashar Assad that crossing the chemical weapons line was not acceptable to the American people — not only to remind the Syrian leader, but also to warn the new Iranian president to not screw with us. 

 This is an interesting debate. Has President Obama made us less free or less safe? 

 For the Republican primary voter, the events of the last week may very well have an impact on which side wins that argument. 

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.