We are now likely to enter a cycle in which more hawkish voters lead the GOP candidates to become more hawkish in order to appeal to them, which will in turn encourage the voters to become even more hawkish because they’ll be taking their cues from the things they hear from their party leaders, and around the cycle will go.
Four months ago, 57 percent of Republicans thought we should use ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria; that number has now gone up to 67 percent. Among the conservative Republicans who will dominate the primary contests, it’s even higher, at 71 percent. When Pew asked respondents to choose between “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world” and “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,” last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent.
Why the change? As the New York Times put it this morning:
Gruesome killings by the Islamic State, terrorist attacks in Europe and tensions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia are reshaping the early Republican presidential race, creating anxiety among party voters and sending potential candidates scrambling to outmuscle one another on foreign policy.
But if you think about each of those things, the difference between now and a few months ago has much more to do with appearances and emotional reactions than with any threat to the United States growing more serious. ISIS is no more of a threat to the U.S. the day after it gets attention for a beheading than the day before, and the dangers of a large-scale intervention don’t change, either.
So while there may have been a period after the end of George W. Bush’s presidency when it looked like even many Republicans had lost their taste for military adventurism, the idea that there is a substantial portion of the Republican Party that is skeptical about the use of American military power was always a fantasy. It’s more accurate to say that an orientation toward a belligerent foreign policy is always there among Republicans, just waiting to be activated. When other issues seem more salient, it can wane a bit, but any time foreign unrest or violence returns to the front pages, it comes right back.
This orientation is inevitably described in news reports as “muscular,” as though that were a neutral term and not a positive value judgment. How could it be bad to be “muscular”? But the existence of the muscles isn’t the point at all; America has and will continue to have the world’s strongest military regardless of who the next president is. The question is how eager you are to use the muscles to smash things.
I think it would be more accurate to describe this tendency as “belligerent,” though you could also go with “interventionist.” Even that doesn’t quite capture it, though, because what’s often at issue is not whether to intervene, but how to do so. President Obama has intervened in the conflict with ISIS, but Republicans want to change the character of that intervention. So it might be better to use “militaristic,” because in every case what the people in question are advocating is more extensive use of the American military to solve whatever problem exists somewhere.
The GOP candidates are likely to see the increasing salience of foreign policy as a gift, not only because it allows them to show how tough and strong they can be, and not only because they know the applause they can get for promising to go fight swarthy foreigners, but also because it doesn’t require any creative thinking or complex policy proposals. “What will you do about the economy?” has become a complicated question to answer, since the jobs picture is excellent but wages are still stagnant, and people want to hear new ideas. The question, “What should we do about ISIS?”, on the other hand, is much easier to answer, at least for a Republican. You can just say, “Kill ’em all!” and everyone will cheer.
That’s not a joke: As Jeb Bush put it in his recent foreign policy speech, the strategy against ISIS should be one that “takes them out.”
We’ll be hearing a lot of that. Don’t be surprised if we even hear it, in some slightly calmer form, from Rand Paul, supposedly the one candidate in the field who’s more hesitant about the use of military force. Paul will not be like his father, issuing full-throated notes of dissent and questioning whether invasions ever do any good. Since he thinks he has a chance to win, he’ll be much more cautious about alienating those increasingly militaristic Republican voters. When two-thirds of your party is ready to invade Syria, you have to be careful about telling them that it’s a terrible idea. So watch what Paul does: if he takes a few steps in the direction of more military action, it’ll be a clue that the landscape of the party is really shifting.
To the rest of us, the idea of repeating the disaster of the Iraq War seems nothing short of insane. But don’t be surprised if we hear the Republican candidates competing to see who can advocate the most “muscular” response to events in the Middle East and elsewhere. If that’s what it looks like their primary voters want, that’s what the candidates will give them.