First there was former ambassador John Bolton. Then came Liz Cheney. Now there is Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). All have sent a wake-up call to the isolationist right.
“I’ve said I certainly would consider the race and the main reason right now is to shift the debate. It bothers me when the leading Republicans out there, someone like Rand Paul, seem more concerned about an American being killed in Starbucks by a CIA drone than he is about Islamic terrorism,” the New York Republican said Friday morning on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” . . . “We can’t just have a blind partisanship, but in any event, we can’t have an isolationist trend which I think is being pursued by Rand Paul,” King said.
It seems that the Republican pro-military wing has woken up. It’s about time.
Bolton has a PAC and a SuperPAC and will travel around the country to promote a strong national security agenda. Cheney is running for the Senate, with the invisible incumbent backed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). And now King is stirring the pot. Add to that rising star and military veteran Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who has swiftly raised her profile based largely on national security expertise.
For some time now, Republican hawks took for granted that conservatives would back the military, promote a forward-leaning foreign policy and combat liberal retrenchment. They failed to understand the war fatigue following the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and, more important, stopped making the case for a strong U.S. presence in the world. And they declined to reexamine the lessons of the Bush era to recalibrate and fine-tune a sustainable post-9/11 foreign policy.
There are a number of factors working in the favor of Republicans advocating a robust foreign policy.
The first is President Obama. Four years of drift, defense cuts, failure to stand by our rhetoric, indecision and abdication have resulted in chaos, violence and human rights atrocities. The United States is getting pushed around by Iran, China and Russia while our secretary of state busies himself with the utterly hopeless “peace process.” This is what a weak national security policy looks like, and it’s not pretty.
Second, the isolationists, whether on the right or left, are downright nutty. Put aside for a moment Paul’s personal crack-up. The notions that we should cast off effective antiterror surveillance programs or consider containment of a nuclear-armed Iran are dangerous, if not absurd. The less reasonable the anti-military wing reveals itself to be, the more opportunity there is for sober-minded internationalists.
Third, the party’s future stars are on the pro-military side of the debate. Cheney is by any standard knowledgeable and an impressive communicator. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) both vehemently reject the isolationist vision. Cotton may be the favorite for the Arkansas Senate seat. Youth and intellectual rigor are on their side.
Fourth, the pro-military conservatives’ views actually comport with the way the world works. We can’t hope to contain a revolutionary Islamic nuclear power. If we disengage in Syria, Iran and Russia, not to mention jihadis, swarm in. There are aggressive and, yes, evil, forces out there and simply putting our fingers in our ears and humming is not going to remove the dangers.
Fifth, key GOP constituents are internationalist. Evangelicals understand the moral urgency of American leadership. Business interests need stability and want to promote free trade. Ordinary Americans believe the United States is a force for good in the world.
Pro-military conservatives still have the upper hand, but they’d be wise to make their case soberly, without assuming their position will carry the day without sustained effort. It is essential to explain and re-explain why engagement is essential to our security and prosperity. Likewise, they need to explain why retrenchment is dangerous and entirely impractical for a superpower. But they also need to evidence sobriety, rejecting the notion that they want “boots on the ground” and-or constant war. In fact, peace through strength — a well-equipped military and competent deployment of soft power — have been the mainstays of successful foreign policy for decades.
And they would do well to make the argument for federal spending priorities. We can’t use defense as a piggy bank for ever-increasing domestic spending. But we really do need to wrestle with Pentagon waste and excesses — in order to plow that money back into necessary expenditures.
The public debate on national security is long overdue. The free pass for whacky isolationists who play fast and loose with the facts, we can hope, is over.