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On Drones, It’s Paul vs. the Polls

Last year, for the first time in decades, Republicans lost the advantage on foreign policy in a presidential campaign. Exit polls showed that voters trusted Barack Obama more than Mitt Romney to handle an international crisis (57 percent trusted Obama, 50 percent trusted Romney). And of the small number of voters who put foreign policy as their top issue, Obama won by a margin of 56 percent to 33 percent. Part of this, of course, is due to the incumbent’s advantage. But Republicans, following the setbacks in the Iraq War and Afghanistan, will have a tough job restoring their advantage on foreign policy and national security issues.

Their current actions aren’t helping. Senator Rand Paul has won accolades from many on the right for his “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” filibuster. But however impressive his stamina, we must not forget what he was protesting against–the use of drone strikes which, when directed overseas, are supported by 83 percent of Americans and when directed against American citizens overseas are supported by 65 percent.

Admittedly, Paul focused on the use of drone strikes on American soil against American citizens who are not combatants–he was clever enough not to make his filibuster about drone strikes per se. But in the process he came across as a bit of a nut. No one imagines that this administration or any other is about to start launching Hellfire missiles in New York or Washington. In fact Attorney General Eric Holder finally issued a letter stating the obvious–that the administration cannot use drones or other weapons against American citizens on U.S. soil as long as they are not engaged in hostilities against the United States.

However, the administration is absolutely right to note that it has the right in extreme circumstances to use military force on American soil. If Rand Paul thinks otherwise, he should come out and explain his objections to Abraham Lincoln’s use of force to fight the Confederacy–or the use of troops to escort African-American kids to school in Little Rock in 1957. Instead of addressing the issue squarely, Paul came up with far-fetched scenarios such as the U.S. government killing Jane Fonda because she was protesting the Vietnam War.

It is all too easy for the nuances of the debate to get lost and for voters to gain the impression that Republicans are against drone strikes in general.

Republicans are only reinforcing this impression of weakness on national security by enthusiastically supporting the sequester that is keeping Navy ships from sailing and Army troops from training. Republican strategists are right that most Americans support the sequester overall by a margin of 61 percent-33 percent, but they should note that by almost that same margin they oppose cuts to military spending.

By indiscriminately embracing sequestration and by making anti-drone noises Republicans are making it increasingly hard to recover the advantage on national security issues that they maintained ever since the 1960s.