Rep. Peter King of New York says that Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky encourages “paranoia.” Paul says his critics are distorting his views. Walter Jones, a North Carolina representative seeking his 11th term, is being challenged in a primary that features ads saying he “preaches American decline” and “opposes sanctions on Iran.”
It has been at least 20 years since Republicans have argued this angrily about foreign policy. Voters don’t much care about this debate, though, and probably won’t until events overseas turn more menacing. In the meantime, Republicans vying for the 2016 presidential nomination are pushing the party toward one of two extremes on the issue — neither of which will do the party or the country much good.
Most Republican voters, like most Americans generally, are neither isolationist on principle nor promiscuously interventionist. They are neither hawkish nor dovish as a matter of reflex. They want to be “tough” with Russia — a Fox News poll found that 66 percent of the public thought President Barack Obama insufficiently so — but also want to avoid getting bogged down in another Iraq war. As broad as that middle is, it isn’t being well represented in the back-and-forth among Republicans.
Paul portrays himself as a “realist” as well as a Reaganite: someone who asks hard questions before putting American credibility, money and troops on the line. It’s an attractive self-presentation, because policy makers should ask those questions: Are our interests at stake abroad? Is there any feasible way to promote them? Would the effort have an acceptable cost?
You can be skeptical about foreign interventions — from Iran to Syria to Ukraine — without having a conspiratorial mindset about them. Paul sometimes makes it a package deal, as in his repeated suggestions that former Vice President Dick Cheney pushed the Iraq war because of his ties to Halliburton Co. — a ridiculous charge that even Cheney’s bitter Democratic opponents have had too much sense to make.
And you can set a high bar for taking action against an aggressive and illiberal foreign regime without making excuses for it. Paul doesn’t always observe that distinction. Last summer, he suggested that the Syrian government might be innocent of using chemical weapons, the victim of a false-flag operation by its enemies. As Russia was preparing to annex Crimea this winter, Paul was saying that Ukraine had long been within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and that the key thing was to not “tweak” Russia too much.
On the other side of the Republican divide, the hawks tend to brush off the public’s reasonable concerns about their policies. Last year, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, delivered a full-barreled attack on libertarianism. To oppose the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, he suggested, was to place more value on “esoteric” concerns than on the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
It may be that Christie and like-minded Republicans could give a compelling answer to Americans who read news stories about surveillance and worry about their privacy or the government’s competence. But to answer them would require first conceding that these widespread concerns are legitimate and shared by people who understand full well that the government has to fight terrorism.
While most voters are ambivalent about foreign policy, the ones who care most about the issue are the ones who have strong views, either hawkish or dovish. And because they’re identifiable constituencies, they tend to have outsize influence on the debate. The many Republican politicians who fall between the dovishness of a Paul and the hawkishness of, say, Sen. John McCain generally aren’t the ones who get a lot of media attention.
Events can suddenly raise the importance of the issue, though. An Israeli strike on Iran that raised gas prices or a Russian attack on one of the Baltic states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Crises of that order would command the country’s attention. At that point, Americans would be looking for leaders who are neither naive nor bellicose.
“We do need an intelligent debate,” said King, “and I don’t think Rand Paul is capable of having that debate.”
For the moment, at least, it appears the rest of us aren’t, either.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and a Bloomberg View columnist.