Josh Kraushaar argues that the most significant reason Liz Cheney’s Senate campaign wasn’t going well was that “Cheney found that her calling card in public life as a spokesperson for a muscular, hawkish foreign policy just wasn’t playing politically — even in a Republican primary in a deeply conservative state.” I respectfully but strongly disagree.
Frankly, the topic didn’t come up much at all, at least before she was forced to withdraw. Actually, very little policy debate had begun before Cheney left the race. The reasons for her difficulties have been summed up elsewhere, but I see no connection between voters’ preference for a congenial, if low visibility, incumbent and Cheney’s foreign policy views, nor do I think she necessarily differed from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) on issues such as Iran or defense spending.
I raise this because even a savvy observer such as Kraushaar can overestimate the influence of the neo-isolationist wing of the GOP. Consider that before the Christmas recess a flock of Republicans signed onto the Iran sanctions bill, which followed a similar bill already passed overwhelmingly in the House. In a recent poll, 66 percent of Republicans indicated they’d favor use of force to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
In addition, House and Senate Republicans were motivated to fiddle with the sequester in large part to get more money for defense. Many who objected did so because of the changes in military pension calculations.
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case. Plainly, there are some loud voices in the GOP who want the United States to withdraw from the world and shrink defense. (These generally do not include Christian evangelicals who favor a robust, pro-Israel stance in the Middle East.) They are egged on by very loud voices from people such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who seems convinced we face a bigger threat from the National Security Agency than from al-Qaeda. But these voices haven’t carried the day so far. With the exception of Paul, the likely 2016 contenders who have voiced foreign policy views are all strong-on-defense internationalists (e.g. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush). Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has been arguing strenuously against the president’s Iran policy, opposed the problematic Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary and is a stalwart on Cuba. Conservative and popular young Republican and determined hawk Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) could well join pro-defense senators by defeating the Democratic incumbent, Mark Pryor.
That said, it is incumbent on all those political figures, as well as conservative pundits, think tankers and congressional candidates, to make the case for a strong American presence in the world and to rebut the cartoonish version of Bush foreign policy. (It is easy to forget that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were wildly popular when they began. Moreover, contrary to his lone-cowboy rap, Bush had success in building large coalitions, showed willingness to negotiate with Iran and North Korea and devoted immense time and energy to the “peace process.” His anti-terror surveillance and detention programs, controversial at the time, have been continued in large part under his successor.) They have not done a satisfactory job so far — the hope was that Liz Cheney would be especially capable in this regard — in making the case for American involvement in the world and in detailing a sustainable foreign policy that does not, as critics contend, entail an endless stream of wars.
Frankly, the more fallout from the president’s incoherent foreign policy, the harder it will be for candidates such as Rand Paul to argue for U.S. retrenchment. It turns out that attempted isolationism — who knew? — leads to chaos and instability and magnifies our foreign policy challenges. Cheney had her troubles, but her foreign policy views weren’t among them.