The GOP is still Dick Cheney’s party

July 15

A new survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that the kind of personalized fear that drove so much of our politics and policy on foreign affairs through the Bush years is almost completely gone. While there are lots of interesting results in the survey, which was conducted in 20 countries, I want to focus on the answers Americans gave to this question: “What countries or groups pose the greatest threat to the United States in the future?”

The answers suggest a powerful shift in the way Americans are thinking about the world — and show why some Republicans are so unsettled by Rand Paul’s arguments against interventionism abroad. As though the GOP didn’t have enough internal disputes to worry about already, this is one more serious divide within the party, and it shows why Dick Cheney’s reemergence hasn’t exactly been greeted with open arms.

Here are the top eight responses people gave when asked what was the greatest threat to the United States:

Russia: 23%

China: 19%

Iran: 16%

North Korea: 7%

Pakistan: 6%

United States: 2%

Japan: 2%

Al Qaeda: 2%

Answers to a question like this one are going to be affected by what’s been in the news lately. But the most extraordinary number there is undoubtedly Al Qaeda coming in at 2 percent. Only one in 50 Americans considers it the top threat to the country.

One of the defining features of Bush-era rhetoric around terrorism was that it was very personal. Al Qaeda didn’t just pose a threat to the country, it posed a threat to you and your family. You had to take off your shoes at the airport. You were enlisted to be on the lookout for bombs (“If you see something, say something”). You were told by the government to go out and buy plastic sheeting and duct tape so you’d be able to protect your home against a chemical weapon attack.

But the threats people are seeing now are broader and more long term. They’re concerned about what Russia will do to its neighbors, but I doubt too Americans many think Vladimir Putin is going to launch a nuclear missile at their home town. The threat from China is primarily economic. Even the idea of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon is a threat mostly to Middle East stability and Israel — but not to us here. Which may explain why there’s sufficient political space for the Obama administration to seek a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

If this is the world Americans see — one of complexity, with threats of various kinds and some problems that are serious but affect us only indirectly — then the argument Republicans have been making about foreign policy for the last twelve years doesn’t sound quite as persuasive. That argument is, essentially, that the world is still a terrifying place and the only way to handle it is with an unfailingly aggressive posture. In this view there’s barely any such thing as an international conflict that can’t be resolved with the application of American military force in some form (even if it’s not an outright invasion); unintended consequences are never anything to worry about; and the only real danger comes from inaction. This is the Bush-Cheney foreign policy perspective, and it still rules the GOP.

The problem is that the more bellicose faces of that foreign policy, like Dick Cheney himself, make much of the country recoil. Which is why Cheney’s reemergence as a pundit hasn’t exactly had Republicans jumping for joy. It isn’t that too many of them disagree with him on substance, but given his role in the spectacularly deceptive propaganda campaign to sell the public on the Iraq War and the spectacularly destructive war itself, he’s not exactly the messenger they were waiting for.

Meanwhile, the one prominent Republican who questions the party’s foreign policy bellicosity — Rand Paul — is finding himself the target of an awful lot of fire from within his party. Here’s Dick and Liz Cheney going after Paul (“I think isolationism is crazy,” says Dick). Here’s Rick Perry writing an op-ed going after Paul. Here’s John McCain criticizing Paul for wanting “a withdrawal to fortress America.” For his part, Paul says that he isn’t an isolationist, he just wants to set a higher bar for US involvement in foreign conflicts.

Jennifer Rubin argues that Paul is alone in the GOP and the party is actually unified on foreign policy, which might be accurate if you’re talking about prominent elected officials. But the electorate is another story. Assuming Paul runs for president in 2016, this debate is likely to feature prominently in the primaries. And we could discover that there are quite a few Republican voters whose views on foreign affairs go beyond the Bush-era perspective centered around the threat of terrorism and the terror we’re all supposed to feel.

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