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.
Republican unity on foreign policy and national security matters during the long period since “isolationists” and “internationalists” battled for party supremacy in the age of Taft and Dewey has been remarkable, particularly when compared to the frequent struggles among Democrats. The Donkey Party, after all, experienced major ruptures over Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, and over Iraq in the early aughts, and less traumatic but significant bouts of dissension over the Nicaraguan contras and nuclear policy in the 1980s, and over the First Gulf War in 1991. 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.
Part of the different dynamic is that Paul the Younger has been much shrewder than the old man in making the case for a non-interventionist posture. While Ron Paul spent many precious minutes in a presidential debate explaining Iran’s hostility as the product of U.S. meddling in the 1950s, and let himself get baited by Middle Eastern hawks into frequent criticism of Israel, Rand has been careful to express nationalist belligerence in every circumstance that doesn’t require an intervention or major new spending (his labeling of legislation cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority — a longstanding Paulite position — as the “Stand With Israel Act”, and his sudden silence on the equally longstanding call for eliminating aid to Israel as well, provide a good example).
One big question is whether Paul’s clever repositioning will make him invulnerable to the kind of generalized “isolationist” name-calling that Rick Perry aimed at him in his recent op-ed. Other rivals and opinion-leaders will undoubtedly come up with more deft criticisms. To outsiders, it may all sound confusing, since Paul and Perry (and earlier Cruz) claim equally to be implementing the foreign policy legacy of St. Ronald Reagan, giving the controversy the antiquarian air of a sixteenth century disputation among theologians over the teachings of the Church Fathers. But it’s serious business, and as Democrats know from their own eruptions of disagreement over world events, potentially dangerous.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.