The First Round of The 2016 Debates

Senators Gather To Caucus Over Hagel Nomination

That’s how Margaret Carlson characterizes Rick Perry’s and Rand Paul’s foreign policy dust-up:

For now, Paul and Perry are the proxies in the war for the foreign-policy soul of the party between the neo-isolationist/Tea Party/libertarians and the strong-on-defense establishment types. When Megyn Kelly of Fox News tells Cheney that “history has proven that you got it wrong,” you know Republicans are no longer knee-jerk hawks. Wading into this briar patch is perfect for Perry and Paul. Both need to prove they’re broader than their current resumes suggest. As governor, all Perry had to do was keep Texas safe from an invasion by Mexico. As a senator, all Paul has to do is run his mouth.

But that debate is the only real one going on right now – and it’s one that might actually have some impact. On the one hand, the Republicans cannot surely run in 2016 on a Cheney platform, as Marco Rubio appears to be planning. On the other, the Greater Israel lobby will do all it can to make sure that any recalibration toward realism and retrenchment is nipped in the bud. My bet, given reform conservatism’s complete wuss-out on the issue, is that the money will have the edge, for reasons explained by Justin Logan:

To put it bluntly, the portion of the GOP donor class that cares about foreign policy is wedded to a militaristic foreign policy, particularly in but not limited to the Middle East. Tens of millions of dollars every year are pumped into an alphabet soup of magazines, think tanks, fellowships, lobby groups and other outfits in Washington to ensure that conservative foreign policy stays unreformed. If we conceive of the Right broadly, comparatively dovish voices on the Right consist of Rand Paul, those writing at theAmerican Conservative, and the foreign and defense policy staff at the Cato Institute, the latter of which Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot once derisively but not entirely inaccurately referred to as “four or five people in a phone booth.” (We have actual offices, for the record.) But until there is some larger countervailing force in the conservative movement, the well-financed and well-entrenched status quo will persist.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is nonetheless hopeful that foreign policy, “one of the areas where American presidents still have relatively free rein to pursue their own course,” is shaping up to be a focal point of the next presidential election:

One of the faults of the American system of governance is that the public tends to elect presidents based on feelings about the economy. Every single poll from Gallup leading into 2012 showed that voters listed the economy as their top issue. But the truth is that presidents can do relatively little to improve the economy. Whether they want a major new executive branch program, a round of stimulus spending, or revisions to the tax code, they have to go through Congress, a body that is in the habit of resisting large-scale transformations of the American state. Usually less than 5 percent of voters claim foreign policy is a paramount issue (although some 30 percent or more will say “terrorism” is on their minds). But foreign policy is what presidents can do.

Which makes a Rand Paul-style makeover in office slightly more likely, if he isn’t Sheldoned out long before that. Kilgore looks forward to how this debate will develop as other contenders stake out their positions:

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.

Molly Ball observes that Paul’s opponents in this debate are not longstanding hawks:

Perhaps more interesting than this hawks-versus-libertarians dispute, which is an old argument, is who Paul’s antagonists have been. Both Perry and Cruz are politicians who’ve long been associated with the Tea Party, as Paul has. Perry, in his ill-fated 2012 campaign, warned of “military adventurism,” called for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and advocated cutting off aid to Pakistan. Cruz was lumped in with Paul in the category McCain derided as “wacko birds” after Paul’s 2013 drone filibuster. Yet both Perry and Cruz are anxious to differentiate themselves from Paul by turning him into a peacenik caricature.

Because they’re following the money! For now, anyway. Gillespie takes the opportunity to advocate for a libertarian foreign policy. To him, that means getting the government out of the business of shaping our influence around the world, and letting American liberty speak for itself:

The most powerful weapon the United States has for expanding peace and enlarging prosperity has nothing to do with guns and bullets and everything to do with the way in which we have created a nation of 300 million-plus people who generally get along peacefully while pursuing radically different visions of the good life. To the extent that we share our culture and commerce with the world rather than our drones and disdain, we will not only protect ourselves more effectively, we will actually help more people.

During the Cold War, the United States wasted millions if not billions of dollars on highly mannered, pathetic “cultural exchanges” designed to show that the “free world” could compete against communism in areas such as chess, and classical music. Yet no dissidents ever named a revolution after piano prodigy Van Cliburn; they named their revolution after the Velvet Underground.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty)