In the last year, the loudest Republican voice on foreign and defense policy has been that of Senator Rand Paul. Paul’s critique of the Obama administration’s drone attacks and the National Security Agency’s metadata mining, and his resistance to U.S. involvement in overseas conflicts struck a nerve with many on the right outside of the libertarian base he inherited from his father Ron. Skepticism about the need for an aggressive approach to intelligence gathering fueled by the president’s disdain for constitutional checks and balances, along with war weariness in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, has bolstered Paul’s arguments. As a result, it’s no longer possible to assume that most conservatives support the kind of forward posture in the world that has been the default GOP stand on foreign policy since Ronald Reagan.
But there are still plenty of Republicans who look to Reagan rather than to Paul’s isolationism as the model for U.S. foreign policy. One such Republican is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whose address at the Virginia Military Institute yesterday sounded a clarion call for a revival of a Reaganite foreign policy. While Cantor focused much of his criticism in the speech on President Obama’s weak leadership style, he also devoted some of it to denouncing GOP isolationists. Cantor is not going to be one of the Republicans who will compete with Paul for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. But the willingness of one of the party’s most important congressional leaders to publicly call out the Paul wing of the GOP for their role in helping to weaken the country may signal the start of a much-needed debate about foreign policy in a party that has often seemed disinclined to talk about anything but ObamaCare, spending, and taxes.
To be sure, Republicans won’t be running much on foreign policy in 2014. Anger about ObamaCare’s impact on the economy and the millions of Americans who have lost their insurance coverage will remain the keynote of the GOP campaign to win back the Senate while holding onto their House majority. But, as Cantor rightly pointed out at VMI, the spectacle of Obama’s weak leadership is creating problems abroad that can’t be entirely ignored. The debacle in Syria, exacerbated by the president’s humiliating retreat on chemical-weapons use, undermined U.S. credibility. So, too, is the way the president has allowed the West to be drawn into nuclear talks with Iran that seem aimed more at protecting the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions than squelching them. As Cantor rightly pointed out:
America’s friends worry we have lost our way, that we have lost the will to live up to our values or stand up to aggressors. They see a divided, inward-looking America that is focused on its weaknesses rather than its strengths, and they know this is an America that invites challenges and emboldens adversaries.
Obama’s foreign-policy strategy has had one common theme: alienating allies in the Middle East as well as Asia and appeasing foes like Russia and Iran. But the problem isn’t just a feckless administration that views diplomacy as an end in itself rather than a tool to be used to defend American interests. The growth of isolationist sentiment within the Republican Party has led to a situation where many on the right seemed to have joined forces with the left on intelligence issues like the NSA and in support for more defense cuts.
Much as many Americans would prefer to ignore foreign threats, Cantor reminded them that the price of the new isolationism would not be cheap. Just as Ronald Reagan understood “the value of an America that leads,” the spectacle of the Obama administration being pushed around by Russia and Iran will diminish our influence and our ability to defend the homeland.
But while Cantor deserves credit for reminding Republicans about the need to avoid the trap of isolationism, it’s still not clear which, if any, of the potential GOP contenders in 2016 will pick up this challenge. While Republicans are thought to be primarily divided along establishment/Tea Party lines, the truth is those factions disagree only about tactics, not the basic principles of restraining spending and taxing and reforming entitlements. The real and growing divide within the party is on foreign policy. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will uphold Reagan’s legacy and remain a strong pro-defense party or if it will fall into the hands of Paul. Unless a viable presidential candidate picks up the gauntlet laid down by Cantor and begins the process of rolling back the isolationist tide now, it may be too late to start doing it in 2016.