Rubio.jpg

Rand, Rubio, and 2016

Historically, conservative Republicans have tended to agree on national security far more than they disagree. But a series of events in recent weeks have suggested the outlines of a fateful intra-Republican foreign policy debate going into 2016.

Just last week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) gave a major foreign policy address in Louisville, Kentucky, in which he insisted that the United States “cannot retreat from the world.” Rubio’s speech was a ringing affirmation of conservative internationalism – the idea that the United States must engage internationally, but on American and conservative terms.

Rand-Paul-CPAC.jpgSeveral weeks before that, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave a significant speech at the Heritage Foundation, where he laid out what might be called, generously, an anti-interventionist alternative. Paul called in that speech for foreign policy realism, and a “balanced” approach toward international affairs, all of which sound great in the abstract. But whenever Paul gets specific, which he didn’t really do that day, his gut inclination always seems to be paring back U.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas. At heart, it’s hard to believe that Rand Paul is a Kissinger-style realist, interested in maintaining geopolitical balances of power. He’s a gut-level anti-interventionist, his father’s son, but with a greater sense of political pragmatism. It may or may not be unfair to call him a full-blown isolationist – he spurns the label – but he is certainly a useful vehicle for isolationists, who have been marginal within the Republican Party for almost 60 years now.

What’s interesting about this contrast between Paul and Rubio is that both of these men are each favorites not only of many conservative Republicans, but of Tea Party activists. Indeed, at the CPAC meeting earlier this year, Paul and Rubio were by far the top-polling potential presidential candidates for 2016, earning 25% and 23% of the vote respectively. This in itself should debunk at least one common misperception regarding the Tea Party, and indeed the GOP’s conservative base more generally: namely, that grassroots conservatives are isolationist. It would be more accurate to say that GOP conservatives outside the Beltway, including Tea Party supporters, tend to be staunch American nationalists who value U.S. national sovereignty, a strong military, and an unyielding approach toward enemies of the United States. To be sure, the national mood right now is one of considerable fatigue with military interventions overseas. And this is precisely what gives Rand Paul an opening on those issues.  But the debate between Republican internationalists and Republican isolationists – such as they are – goes on and will continue to go on within the conservative movement, and within the Tea Party. 

This is what the mainstream press does not understand. It is simply not the case that most conservative tea party supporters are “isolationist.” Many are really pretty hawkish on national security issues. And this is precisely what gives Rubio an opening, too. It would be one thing if the base of the Republican Party was overwhelmingly anti-war, dovish, and inclined toward military cutbacks and disengagement across the board. But we already have one party in this country whose base fits that description. They are called Democrats. So in a way, when it comes to foreign policy at least, Rand Paul is in the wrong party.

This is not to say that Paul is incapable of making a strong run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Obviously, he has a much better sense than his father did of how to talk about major policy issues so as to reach out, rather than alienate potential supporters. His filibuster on the issue of drone strikes, for example, was a stroke of political genius. No doubt many conservatives rallied to him at that particular moment because they were simply happy to see someone stand up to President Obama in dramatic fashion. But the funny thing about that spectacle, which had even mainstream Republicans chiding John McCain for his “wacko birds” comment, was that McCain got it right on the substance of the matter. If a U.S. citizen is plotting violent insurrection against the American people, then the president of the United States has every right to use force to prevent it, anywhere. Just ask Abraham Lincoln.

GOP isolationists – or anti-interventionists, as they like to be called – argue that the American public is so sick of the memory of Iraq, and of Republicans generally, that they will only embrace a GOP presidential candidate who outflanks Obama from the left, by calling for U.S. military disengagement worldwide. I’m not so sure.

The general public is certainly tired of foreign entanglements right now. But the most common feeling is one of ambivalence, rather than a stark desire to pack up and come home from international engagements altogether. And these things move in cycles. Obama has planted the seeds of multiple international security challenges, perhaps unintentionally, by downplaying their significance, and kicking the can down the road, from defense cuts, to Iran, to Afghanistan. But this doesn’t make the challenges go away. That’s exactly what Rubio was suggesting the other day, when he traveled into Rand Paul’s home state to make the point. Historically, when security challenges pile up, then a strategy of denial – like the one Obama is currently pursuing – only works for so long. At some point, international realities punch through, not only into the awareness of policymakers, but into the awareness of the general public. And when that happens, the characteristic response of Americans, once sufficiently fed up, is to counterpunch.

Rand Paul is saying: let’s continue to disengage. Rubio is saying: it’s time to counterpunch. This is what conservatives will debate going into 2016. And it is hardly obvious that Rubio will lose.

  1. Fred Cole

    Isolationist is a bad term to use for two reasons:

    1. The term is a slur first applied to opponents of American involvement in World War 1.   

    2. Isolationism has two feature: (a) Non-interventionism and (b) Protectionism.  People always forget that B.

    Rand Paul is a non-interventionist, but not a protectionist.  So calling him isolationist is just incorrect.

    Not for nothing, but considering the track record of the US’s foreign intervention in the last decade or so, maybe the non-interventionists might be onto something.

    And I don’t just mean Iraq and Afghanistan.  Look at Libya, which Republicans in Congress were part of through their silent consent.  

  2. Duane Oyen

    Rubio is so obviously correct on this, and Paul so transparently wrong, that it is increasingly dismaying to see how many here buy the line.

    In 2003, I predicted (I have no proof, you’ll have to take my word for it) that based 1) the eagerness to end WWII in late 1943, 2) the urgency of ending Korea in 1953, 3) the eagerness to bug out of Vietnam in 1975, and 4) the desire to please Europe despite the unequivocal certainty of consequent problems and back off of Baghdad in 1990/91, followed by the election of pretend-non-interventionist WJC in 1992 for no good reason other than “cool”, the US public would soon tire of Iraq, a 10 to 20 year project.  And we would again pay a larger price long term for our short attention span.  Which we are paying now and the cost is increasing by the day.

    When this go supercritical, our side will allow the adults to come forward.  Till then, we are groping around in a land filled with ostriches.

    Go, Marco.

  3. FloppyDisk90

    Duane,

    And exactly what strategic interest is served by a 20 year engagement in Afghanistan?  This shouldn’t be difficult to articulate given Paul is so “transparently wrong” on the issue.

  4. Crow

    Colin: You’re correct that seems to be the way the debate is shaping up, and that the two top contestants at the moment appear to be on opposing sides.

    In a way, I’m excited–its good to have an airing of grievances periodically, and we don’t discuss foreign policy as much as we ought to. The reasons are understandable, of course, but given that the Executive’s powers (at least once upon a time) were far more extensive in the foreign realm, it ought to be a serious consideration.

    Two corrections from my perch: the first is that there is a debate on the Left just as there is a debate on the Right. Democrats, crudely stated, are divided between a non-interventionist cosmopolitan anti-war wing, and a hawkish group of liberal internationalists operating under something like R2P. It’s not fair to say that Rand Paul belongs in their party, as his ideas don’t fit neatly in either of these camps (he’s more a paleocon).

    The second is that I think you may be taking Lincoln’s name in vain–that is, you may fail to appreciate the difference in circumstance between a_civil_war_on_US_soil_and_our_present_conflict.

  5. Percival

    The only thing dumber than having a non-interventionist policy is announcing you have a non-interventionist policy.  Every bad actor is encouraged to act up just a bit more.  Countries contemplating becoming bad actors have less reason to be concerned.  The cost of having an “ideologically correct” international stance may have to be paid in blood later on.

    Marco is right on this one.

  6. FloppyDisk90
    Percival: The only thing dumber than having a non-interventionist policy isannouncing you have a non-interventionist policy.  Every bad actor is encouraged to act up just a bit more.  Countries contemplating becoming bad actors have less reason to be concerned.  The cost of having an “ideologically correct” international stance may have to be paid in blood later on.

    Marco is right on this one. · 0 minutes ago

    I think you’re confusing “non-interventionist” with total disengagement.  I don’t think even Rand Paul argues the US should simply ignore what’s going on around it.  But how ’bout we leave people alone and if the Sunnis and Shia want to beat each other over the head with sticks and stones, what concern is it of ours?

  7. Tom Meyer

    Colin Duek

    This in itself should debunk at least one common misperception regarding the Tea Party, and indeed the GOP’s conservative base more generally: namely, that grassroots conservatives are isolationist.

    Huh?

    I’ve been an active member of the Tea Party for three years, and I dont think I’ve ever heard that stereotype, though i have heard its converse dozens of times: that we’re really just a retread of the same-ol’ same-ol’ Republican Party, especially on foreign policy. “Tea Partiers think that mandating CFL light bulbs are tyranny, but they’re happy to invade other countries and lock up anyone who the government says is a terrorist.”

  8. Tom Meyer

    Crow’s Nest:

    The second is that I think you may be taking Lincoln’s name in vain–that is, you may fail to appreciate the difference in circumstance between a_civil_war_on_US_soil_and_our_present_conflict.

    Hear, hear.

    As recently as a few years ago, the joke about conservative attitudes on foreign policy was that — somehow — it’s always 1941; in the past year or so, it switched to 1861.That’s a step backward in more than one way.

    If someone could please tell me which states al-Qaeda has control over and where their battalions are marching, I’d be much obliged.

  9. Fred Cole

    And here in this thread we see the division lines in the Republican party that we will see in 2016.

  10. Tom Meyer
    Colin Dueck

    Paul called in that speech for foreign policy realism, and a “balanced” approach toward international affairs, all of which sound great in the abstract. But whenever Paul gets specific, which he didn’t really do that day, his gut inclination always seems to be paring back U.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas… It may or may not be unfair to call him a full-blown isolationist – he spurns the label – but he is certainly a useful vehicle for isolationists.

    If we’re going to do this kind of generalization, can we do the same for Rubio?

    “His gut inclination always seems to be pushing for increased U.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas… It may or may not be  unfair to call him a full born imperialist — he spurns the label —  but he is certainly a useful vehicle for imperialists.”

  11. Percival

    FloppyDisk90, I don’t think I’m confused.  What I worry about is whether Kim Jong-Un (for example) hears “non-interventionist” and gets confused.

    Being a little ambiguous on just where the line is which will cause you to start killing people and breaking their stuff has the curious effect of preventing most people from approaching that line.

    The world is not a parliament.  It is a playground in the bad part of town.

  12. Lavaux

    It’s reported that Colin Powell advised Dubya about Iraq thus: “You break it, you bought it.” Powell was right, and that’s the problem with our national security policy: Why buy it after we break it? Who says we have to do that?

    To our next intransigent adversary, let’s say: “We’re going to break you unless you cooperate; you have until we launch our attack to consider your options.” If the aforementioned adversary doesn’t cooperate, we break their country, hang their leadership in the public square, and leave. We do not stay, we do not rebuild, and we do not supply sustenance.

    Brutal but effective and lots cheaper. I doubt that either Rubio or Paul have the stomach for it, though.

  13. FloppyDisk90
    Percival: FloppyDisk90, I don’t think I’m confused.  What I worry about is whether Kim Jong-Un (for example) hears “non-interventionist” and gets confused.

    Being a little ambiguous on just where the line is which will cause you to start killing people and breaking their stuff has the curious effect of preventing most people from approaching that line.

    The world is not a parliament.  It is a playground in the bad part of town. · 4 minutes ago

    So to keep Kim Jong-Un from getting confused we should have an ambiguous foreign policy?  Now I’m confused.

  14. Crow
    Tom Meyer

    Colin Dueck

    Paul called in that speech for foreign policy realism, and a “balanced” approach toward international affairs, all of which sound great in the abstract. But whenever Paul gets specific, which he didn’t really do that day, his gut inclination always seems to be paring back U.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas. 

    If we’re going to do this kind of generalization, can we do the same for Rubio?  Wouldn’t it be fair to say that “his gut inclination always seems to be pushing for increasedU.S. military and diplomatic engagement overseas”? · 1 minute ago

    Right.

    One of the most aggravating things about the way this debate sometimes plays out in the popular media is between an “Let’s Invade and Occupy Everywhere!!!!” idea of neoconservatism, and an “Let’s Close the Borders and Abolish the Defense Department” isolationism.

    Both Paul and Rubio are articulate, and that’s why I hope they may be able to transcend that pop-narrative and get at some deeper issues.

    My sympathies, unsurprisingly, are with Rubio and with “Republican internationalism”, as we’ve dubbed it here, more broadly. But this is a debate worth having.

  15. Fred Cole

    It also needs to be said that big government and wars go hand in hand.  War always sees an expansion of government power.  And our seemingly endless wars overseas show us that.

    Those of you who lay claim to limited government, those of you who lay claim to the Constitution as your guiding principle, those of you who claim loyalty to the Founders, war and limitless foreign interventions are your enemy, and if you support it you have a contradiction that you need to resolve.

  16. Drusus

    The other premise of this article that I just don’t buy is that the Left is by nature dovish. There is certainly a portion who are so, but Democrats in general are wretched hypocrites on the issue. The chorus of harpies shrieking holy hellfire about Bush’s foreign and domestic policy shut-up and looked the other way when Obama doubled-down on everything. 

    Additionally, I think we forget that neoconservatism came from the Left and has always been an awkward fit for the Right. Paul offers us a return to our natural roots. 

    When I look at Paul, I see both the past and future of our party. When I look at Rubio, I see George W. Bush II. 

  17. John Hendrix
    Fred Cole: It also needs to be said that big government and wars go hand in hand.  War always sees an expansion of government power.  And our seemingly endless wars overseas show us that.

    Those of you who lay claim to limited government, those of you who lay claim to the Constitution as your guiding principle, those of you who claim loyalty to the Founders, war and limitless foreign interventions are your enemy, and if you support it you have a contradiction that you need to resolve. · 3 minutes ago

    How many times have I’d had to argue with libertarians who say, in effect, we cannot afford national security? Wars are–from time to time–necessary.  Ask our Founders.  Also they are expensive, ask our Founders.  But the way some Libertarians complain about the cost of war they would have objected to the Revolutionary War on the basis of its cost. 

    Oh, and “strawman alert”: Nobody wants “unlimited wars”; our wars just need to be effectively pursed until they are won. Protip: Wars are fought until the loser decides to quit fighting.  Maybe because a sufficent number of the Libertarians decided it was making their govt too large.

  18. Tom Meyer
    Crow’s Nest

    One of the most aggravating things about the way this debate sometimes plays out in the popular media is between an “Let’s Invade and Occupy Everywhere!!!!” idea of neoconservatism, and an “Let’s Close the Borders and Abolish the Defense Department” isolationism.

    Both Paul and Rubio are articulate, and that’s why I hope they may be able to transcend that pop-narrative and get at some deeper issues.

    Agreed.

    This is absolutely an important debate for us to have; both sides need to engage in substantive discussion with as few strawmen as possible.

    Colin got things off to a lousy start that way in this thread.

  19. Crow
    John Hendrix: ….they would have objected to the Revolutionary War on the basis of its cost…..

    Ask Elbridge Gerry how he felt about the Society of the Cincinnati and the wise manner in which Washington, Knox, and Hamilton held the army together during the winter encampment of 1783, thus prevented it from marching on Philadelphia to demand the pay it had been long denied…..

    A remarkable and nearly forgotten (but not for us, who are attentive to such things) chapter of US history.

  20. Percival
    FloppyDisk90

    Percival: FloppyDisk90, I don’t think I’m confused.  What I worry about is whether Kim Jong-Un (for example) hears “non-interventionist” and gets confused.

    Being a little ambiguous on just where the line is which will cause you to start killing people and breaking their stuff has the curious effect of preventing most people from approaching that line.

    The world is not a parliament.  It is a playground in the bad part of town. · 4 minutes ago

    So to keep Kim Jong-Un from getting confused we should have an ambiguous foreign policy?  Now I’m confused. · 27 minutes ago

    You are failing to understand the advantages of strategic ambiguity.  Sun Tzu would be disappointed.