Two thoughts on the GOP’s brewing civil war on foreign policy

Daniel W. Drezner
July 15
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Oh, spirit of Reagan, guide us with your inexhaustible folk wisdom about how to handle threats that emerged a generation after you were president…. Oh, spirit of Reagan…

Apparently, when the Washington Post isn’t declaring war on Russia (?!), we’re bemoaning the collapse of Barack Obama’s foreign policy or something.  Having missed this particular indoctrination session morning staff meeting, however, I’m getting more interested in the brewing GOP civil war on foreign policy between Sen. Rand Paul and… Republicans not named “Rand Paul.”

What started out last week as a low intensity conflict between Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has now threatened to spill over into an open civil war, with former policy principals and progeny of foreign policy principals weighing in, repeating a cycle of conflict from last month.

For a foreign policy observer, there’s a pass-the-popcorn element to this feud that’s irresistible.  That said, there are two elements to this whole exercise that are worth noting as the GOP positions itself for 2016.

First, on the politics, the thing I find surprising isn’t the attacks on Paul, but rather how well he seems to have cornered the market on non-neoconservative, or “liberty conservative” foreign policy views among possible presidential aspirants.  Paul has already feuded with Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie so far on this issue (indeed, perhaps feuding with Paul on foreign policy is now a rite of passage for GOP presidential hopefuls who’ve lost some of their luster).  On the one hand, this is unsurprising.  At this “invisible primary,” organization-building stage of the 2016 campaign, GOP hopefuls are trying to please the money folk, the policy folk and the pundit folk.  On the conservative side of the spectrum, there are still a lot more neoconservative-friendly influencers than not. It makes sense that presidential aspirants cater to them.

At the same time, however, Paul’s Realaxil-induced foreign policy worldview is not an unpopular one. A pretty strong plurality of Republicans want the United States to be less active in the world; so far, Paul is the only 2016 hopeful who is sympatico with their views.  There is still time for someone to try to tap this market, I suppose, but since the incentives of the invisible primary push in the opposite foreign policy direction, all of this tells me that Paul is pretty well placed for 2016.

Second, on the substance, it’s noteworthy that Perry mentioned “Reagan” 12 times in his attack on Paul, and the senator from Kentucky cited Reagan seven times in his response. Indeed, the “what would Reagan do” aspect of this whole debate is so strong that it motivated Peter Beinart to referee between Paul and Perry on Reagan’s actual policy preferences, parsing out Reagan’s actual foreign policy record to divine what his 21st century intentions would be.

Beinart’s effort is a noble one, but let’s be blunt — after a point, this parsing of Reagan’s legacy starts to look like Communists trying to find a Lenin quote that justifies their pre-existing worldview.  Or, to put it even more bluntly, who cares what Reagan would think?  Ronald Reagan had a decent foreign policy record, but confronted a world radically different from the one we face today.  In Reagan’s time, the United States faced a clear, overarching threat that defined the way Americans thought about every part of the globe.  In the 21st century, the threats are more variegated and far less potent than the Cold War era Soviet Union.  Reagan is a pretty good guide for how to mix soaring neoconservative rhetoric with less-than-soaring realpolitik foreign policy.  His administration’s record provides little guidance on what to do, however,  in the modern Middle East, unless Republicans are suddenly keen on giving Iran arms again.

This “what would Reagan do?” trope is a political pathology that is unique to the current GOP foreign policy debates.  As Beinart noted in his column, Republicans do not bring up other successful GOP foreign policy presidents (Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush) in modern debates.  Similarly, Democrats do not hearken back to Truman, Kennedy or even Bill Clinton when it comes to foreign policy.  This is just about the modern GOP, and it’s just about Reagan.  Which is a little too cult-of-personality-ish for me

I was a child of the Reagan years, so I certainly get the GOP’s attachment to his legacy.  There’s a law of diminishing returns when it comes to this exercise, however — and the Republican party crossed it a long damn time ago.

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