Among the oddities last night was the sweeping victory of one of the strongest Republican leaders for a robust foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and the stunning defeat of another, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, a longtime observer of Cantor, tells Right Turn: “Viewed strictly from the perspective of American foreign and defense policy, this is a major blow for the party and for the country. Cantor had been a very strong and articulate voice for a Reaganite foreign policy.” He wonders if “the success of ‘conservative populism’ has as one of its (presumably unintended) side effects the defeat of Republican internationalism.”
It is a serious point, overlooked by some hawks who have been cheering the rise of the tea party and who took bizarre satisfaction in Cantor’s defeat, convinced this bodes well for the GOP. Let’s be honest: On foreign policy, Cantor was an unalloyed plus for national security, for democracy promotion and for standing up to jihadists and dictators. He took a tough and unpopular stance, for example, in backing the authorization for use of force against Syria when Bashar al-Assad made a mockery of the president’s red line.
Nevertheless, Cantor’s defeat did not turn on foreign policy, and the party as a whole seems to be abandoning its flirtation with isolationism. Graham, after all, is principally known as a foreign policy hawk, and he won going away. Likewise, perhaps the tea party’s most beloved figure, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has become a fierce defender of U.S. power and the chief critic of the president’s lead-from-behind philosophy. He’s pushed the party to stand up to Vladimir Putin and to pursue Iran sanctions.
In fact, with the stark exception of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — who now spends his time denying that he’s a libertarian on foreign policy — every contender for the 2016 presidential nomination who has spoken or voted on foreign policy takes a traditional, Reaganite stance on national security. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been outspoken on Iran sanctions, human rights, Russia and China — making the case that U.S. security and economic well-being are tied to its ability to maintain its superpower status and prevent undesirable countries from filling the vacuum. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently gave a tough foreign policy speech in which he declared, “We are watching the vacuum that the lack of American leadership has created being filled. And it is almost never filled by virtue, it is almost always filled by evil.” He continued, “The rest of the world watches in desperation and hope that America will realize and act upon once again its indispensable place in the world. . . . We must lead. . . . [America is] the strongest moral power for what is good and what is right in the world. . . . We need to stand once again loudly for these values. And sometimes that’s going to mean standing in some very messy, difficult places. . . . We will either lead or disappoint. Those are the only two choices. Unfortunately, today, in my opinion, America is disappointing. But it’s not too late.”
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has spoken up about Russia and implored President Obama to lead in the world. His experience in Congress and his interest in national security were evident when he recently traveled to Germany and gave a pro-engagement speech.
Today, in a speech for the Center for a New American Security’s Annual Conference, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spoke eloquently for the need for U.S. engagement:
Saudi Arabia speaks openly of building nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan harbor similar thoughts. And all the while Russia, China, and a gang of rogue states continue to disrupt international order. Our allies are anxious, and we’re not reassuring them. They’re calling for help, and nobody’s picking up the phone.
And what it all comes down to — all the hand-wringing and indecision — is how you answer this question: Why should America lead? The president says we’re exceptional because we “affirm” international norms. Well, that’s true. But that’s only part of it. I think America is something more than a team player. We don’t just affirm international norms; we shape them. We make human rights an issue. We make free enterprise the norm. And so America should lead not just because of whom we stand with — but what we stand for: freedom, justice, and the rule of law.
That’s why our allies are so disappointed. We seem to have forgotten that part of our leadership: our vision. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the president spoke with all the moral outrage of an instruction manual. The best he could summon up was “deeply destabilizing.” Well, foreign policy isn’t just a matter of norms. It is also a matter of right and wrong. A leader has to propose and explain and defend a course of action—not just ask for a show of hands. And then—once you make a decision—you have to follow through.
And Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in both 2012 and in the pre-2016 election jostling, has argued in favor of rebuilding our military, standing by Israel and remaining vigilant in the war against jihadist terror.
The media like to portray the race as one between the hawks and the isolationists; in all likelihood, it is going to be Rand Paul vs. everyone else.
Meanwhile, in Senate races, strong-on-defense challengers, including Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Jodi Ernst in Iowa and Dan Sullivan in Alaska, are running strong. In all likelihood, the Senate will be a much more hawkish body after the midterms.
In short, the prominent Republican contenders for 2016 and strong Senate candidates in 2014 have solid foreign policy instincts and an appreciation for the importance of U.S. leadership in the world. What Cantor brought, though, was a deep understanding of issues and an expert staff to advise him. That will all be missed, as will his personal dedication to and interest in foreign policy issues. (Because pols rarely get rewarded for foreign policy stances, attention to the topic requires willingness to divert attention from glitzier topics and take heat from perennial opponents on the right and left.) But, on balance, we should be optimistic about Republican foreign policy these days. President Obama, like President Carter, has stirred the GOP to embrace its role as the pro-defense, pro-freedom party. That is some solace for those who respect and will miss Cantor’s voice.