We hear so many misleading reports about “civil war in the Republican Party” that it’s sometimes hard to see the real thing when it appears. But while Republican divisions over domestic policy are usually over strategy and tactics rather than ideology, there are growing signs the battle over international affairs could be the most serious in a very long time. That was the subject of a column I did this week for TPMCafe. Here are some excerpts:
The sharp exchange last weekend between Rick Perry and Rand Paul over Iraq — and more broadly, its relationship to the “Reagan legacy” in foreign policy — may have seemed like mid-summer entertainment to many observers, or perhaps just a food fight between two men thinking about running against each other for president in 2016. But from a broader perspective, we may be witnessing the first really serious division in the Republican Party over international affairs since the 1950s….
Yes, there was scattered GOP opposition to LBJ’s and Nixon’s Vietnam policies and a brief conservative reaction against Nixon’s and Ford’s detente strategy with the Soviet Union. And throughout the period of consensus, there were small bands of paleoconservative and libertarian dissenters against Cold War and post-Cold War GOP orthodoxy. But unless you think Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservative foreign policy views were a significant spur to his occasionally impressive 1992 and 1996 primary challenges (I don’t), none of this dissent rose to the level of a real challenge to party leadership, and generally lay outside the mainstream of conservative opinion.
The current discussion of Iraq among Republicans should not obscure the fact that party elected officials dutifully lined up behind the Bush-Cheney drive for a “war of choice.” Ninety-seven percent of House Republicans and 98 percent of Senate Republicans voted for the resolution to authorize the invasion. Republican backing for the later “surge” was nearly that unanimous, despite rapidly eroding public support for the war. Indeed, John McCain’s identification with the “surge” was crucial in making him acceptable to rank-and-file conservatives in 2008.
The current argument being fronted by Perry and Paul is different in three important respects. First, public opinion among Republican voters over what to do right now in Iraq is notably divided, with (according to an ABC/Washington Post poll last month), 60 percent opposing the deployment of ground troops that the Cheneys are promoting and 38 percent opposing the air strikes Perry favors.
Second, this strain of GOP reluctance to embrace a fresh war in Iraq (supplemented by significant evidence of “buyer’s remorse” over the 2003 invasion) is not, like past anti-interventionist sentiment on Libya or Syria, just a function of reflexive opposition to Obama, whose position on Iraq is not that different from a majority of Republican voters.
And third, GOP divisions on foreign policy are very likely to sharpen as we move into the 2016 cycle, partially for competitive reasons but also because the candidates will be forced to project their own vision of America’s role in the world and not simply play off Obama’s record. And while Paul and Perry have staked out early and sharply divergent turf (as has to a lesser extent Marco Rubio, another neocon favorite), it’s possible other candidates will find intermediary positions–viz. Ted Cruz’s claim that he stands “halfway between” John McCain and Rand Paul on foreign policy. It will be quite the contrast from the 2012 cycle, in which the entire field lined up in support of traditional conservative positions favoring higher defense spending and aggressive confrontation with Iran, Russia and China, with the lonely exception of Rand’s father Ron.
I’ve observed elsewhere that while Rand Paul has a lot of support from GOP rank-and-file on Iraq, and has been clever in projecting his longstanding call for eliminating assistance to the Palestinian Authority into a pro-Israel measure, he’s not quite into the party mainstream just yet. Republicans reflexively favor higher defense spending and lethal aggressiveness towards America’s enemies, real and perceived. It’s not clear Paul’s amalgam of libertarian and Old Right perspectives on the world will pass muster with elites or with the GOP rank-and-file. But he’ll certainly force long-buried issues out into the open.