In response to my item yesterday about the need for Republicans to do a better job articulating their case on national security, Mieke Eoyang of the Democratic think tank Third Way tweeted back: “First Republicans need to decide where they fall on the interventionist/isolationist spectrum. And you’re far from consensus.” On a superficial level she appears to be right; but I actually think she is more wrong than right.
Yes, there are some Republican isolationists, such as Senator Rand Paul, but they are a tiny minority within the party. The mainstream of the GOP is defined, as it has been for most of the postwar era, by a commitment to a strong defense and an active American role in the world. That involves, but is not limited to, a robust use of American military power. Even the most realpolitik president since Nixon–that would be George H.W. Bush–undertook interventions in Panama, Kuwait, and Somalia, the latter primarily out of humanitarian motives. This Reaganesque foreign policy–which might also be called Rooseveltian, after both Theodore and Franklin–puts American ideals front and center in our foreign policy-making even if we must sometimes compromise those ideals in practice. Again, the elder Bush is a good example; remember the way he rallied the nation, in a positively Wilsonian fashion, to stop Saddam Hussein by citing the need to create a New World Order.
Mitt Romney presented himself as being squarely in the middle of this foreign policy tradition with his commitment to maintain our current level of defense spending, to stop Iran, get more actively involved in helping rebels in Syria, get tougher on Russia and China, and to defend Israel–the latter a particular bugbear of isolationists and realpolitikers. Few of his primary challengers, save the marginalized Ron Paul, disagreed; if anything, Rick Santorum and other candidates had an even more expansive foreign policy vision. Those among the early frontrunners for the 2016 nomination who have spoken out on foreign policy–in particular Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan–fall squarely into the same tradition.
There is certainly room for disagreement in the Republican party about particular policies or interventions; even those who have the same philosophical grounding will disagree about how to implement it in on occasion. (One recalls that Charles Krauthammer was against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s–an intervention that other “neocons” strongly supported.) But the same is true in the Democratic Party, which is split between those who wanted to intervene in Libya (and now Syria) and those who didn’t. Overall, however, the conservative international foreign policy championed most successfully by Ronald Reagan remains alive, well, and dominant within the GOP.