National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar argues that Rand Paul has little chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination because the party rejects his non-interventionist approach to national security. Exactly right.
Kraushaar gets it wrong, however, when he explains why the party’s peacenik wing has flamed out. He thinks it’s because the world is getting more dangerous.
“As Paul aggressively prepares for a presidential campaign, his odds of winning the GOP nomination have never looked longer,” Kraushaar writes. “With ISIS amassing territory in the Middle East, Russia remaining belligerent against Ukraine and the threat of a nuclear Iran growing, the public has taken a decidedly hawkish turn.”
I think this gets it almost exactly backward. The reason the hawks are as firmly in control as ever in the Republican Party isn’t a result of the “international stage turning more dangerous.” It’s because the United States is closer to peace than it has been in years.
Outside of the small libertarian group, the people in the Republican Party who really care about foreign policy - the ones who will join the Defense and State Departments and the National Security Council in any Republican administration - are all hawks of one flavor or another and pretty much have been at least since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Most of the other influential people and groups in the party just don’t care much about foreign policy; they care about taxes or abortion or unions or guns or other economic and social issues.
This isn’t just true of Republicans. Most voters (and most organized political groups) aren’t interested in foreign policy. Yes, they’ll sometimes report concern about a national-security issue if it’s in the news, but there’s little evidence that foreign policy actually moves voters.
Things change, however, when the United States is at war. Long wars breed antiwar sentiment - especially long wars without visible success.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars had started to foster a real antiwar, anti-interventionist group of Republicans. But this movement was never likely to survive those wars, and as casualties slowed to a trickle, it has evaporated.
At the same time, having a Democratic president who was trying to negotiate with adversaries, rather than threatening them with war, plays perfectly for Republican hawks. The most popular position among Republicans on most issues in the last six years has been “the opposite of whatever Barack Obama is doing.” So as long as the president isn’t sending troops into combat, Republicans who don’t care much about foreign policy are going to lean toward sending troops into combat. Somewhere.
And it’s a lot easier to engage in saber-rattling any time trouble pops up in the world if the U.S. doesn’t have troops deployed and facing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
No current war (that is, a war with significant American casualties) means no current antiwar movement, so everyone in the Republican Party who cares about foreign policy will be an interventionist of some kind - and therefore strongly anti-Rand Paul. Peace is bad for the peaceniks.
The weakness of Kraushaar’s case that the world is more dangerous is clear in his third example when he cites “the threat of a nuclear Iran growing.” Anyone could have said that any time in the last, what, two decades? Sure, the U.S. faces dangers out there, but it always has.
Remember, the “realists” from George H.W. Bush’s administration initiated wars in Iraq and Panama. They might not be George W. Bush’s neocons (though in Dick Cheney’s case they are one and the same), or John McCain-style proponents of bombing everywhere at the drop of a hat, but still.