Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

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Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

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Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

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Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.

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Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

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Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

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Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

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Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

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Foreign Policy is Back and So Is Rubio

The year 2013 was not a good one for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. As I noted in January, it was annus horribillis for Rubio as he went from being seen as the perfect prototype of the Republican of the future to being scorned as a RINO by many of his former Tea Party supporters for his efforts on behalf of immigration reform and being overshadowed on security issues by the rise of Rand Paul and the isolationist wing of his party. But Rubio make a strong start in 2014 with an eloquent address at the Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that rightly sought to lead the GOP toward a new approach to the welfare state that sought to make the Republicans once again the party of ideas. But Rubio’s greatest strength has always been foreign policy. With the Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine refocusing the public of the vital importance of America’s standing in the world, Rubio seems to have not only rediscovered the confidence that he seemed to lack at times last year but reminded a lot of Republicans of the reasons he was on everyone’s short list for president at the start of 2013.

While there’s no telling whether the senator will run in 2016 or if he can succeed if he does, Rubio’s speech to the CPAC Conference today in Washington showcased the senator’s strengths. In a speech that including many of his traditional stump remarks about his immigrant parents and the American dream, Rubio made the best case against the sort of retreat from engagement with the world that Rand Paul has championed that conservatives have heard in a long time. In a political atmosphere in which the sole foreign policy concerns of Republicans was the Obama administration’s violations of civil liberties and trashing of the Constitution it was possible for Paul to dominate the GOP. But now that Russia’s aggression has put foreign policy back on the front burner with most Republicans agreeing that the trouble is due to President Obama’s weak leadership and lack of faith in American principles, Rubio seems to be back as well.

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The year 2013 was not a good one for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. As I noted in January, it was annus horribillis for Rubio as he went from being seen as the perfect prototype of the Republican of the future to being scorned as a RINO by many of his former Tea Party supporters for his efforts on behalf of immigration reform and being overshadowed on security issues by the rise of Rand Paul and the isolationist wing of his party. But Rubio make a strong start in 2014 with an eloquent address at the Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that rightly sought to lead the GOP toward a new approach to the welfare state that sought to make the Republicans once again the party of ideas. But Rubio’s greatest strength has always been foreign policy. With the Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine refocusing the public of the vital importance of America’s standing in the world, Rubio seems to have not only rediscovered the confidence that he seemed to lack at times last year but reminded a lot of Republicans of the reasons he was on everyone’s short list for president at the start of 2013.

While there’s no telling whether the senator will run in 2016 or if he can succeed if he does, Rubio’s speech to the CPAC Conference today in Washington showcased the senator’s strengths. In a speech that including many of his traditional stump remarks about his immigrant parents and the American dream, Rubio made the best case against the sort of retreat from engagement with the world that Rand Paul has championed that conservatives have heard in a long time. In a political atmosphere in which the sole foreign policy concerns of Republicans was the Obama administration’s violations of civil liberties and trashing of the Constitution it was possible for Paul to dominate the GOP. But now that Russia’s aggression has put foreign policy back on the front burner with most Republicans agreeing that the trouble is due to President Obama’s weak leadership and lack of faith in American principles, Rubio seems to be back as well.

It’s likely that many on the right will never forgive Rubio for his support of a bipartisan compromise immigration bill last year. Though the bill passed the Senate with the support of a substantial minority of Republicans, it was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House and Rubio bore the brunt of much of the resentment of the party’s grass roots activists for backing a bill that granted a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens in the country. The depth of this opposition as well as the intemperate and often biased language used by some on the right has embittered many Hispanics and created a long-term problem for Republicans. Rubio hasn’t backtracked on his support for the original bill but he understands there is no persuading his party’s base on the issue and didn’t even mention it in his speech today.

But while that conflict has permanently alienated many Tea Partiers who formed the base of his successful 2010 primary challenge to once (and perhaps future) Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the outcomes of elections are as much about the defining issues of the moment as they are about personalities. If, after years of being dominated by discussions of taxes, spending, ObamaCare and immigration, the Republican public square returns to some of its traditional focus on foreign policy, there’s no denying that Rubio’s ability to articulate a Reaganite stance on engagement with the world and defense returns him to the front rank of GOP leaders.

Speaking today about how Obama’s weakness on China, Iran and North Korea has led inevitably to disasters in Syria and Ukraine, Rubio sounded a clarion call for conservatives to stand up for a strong America by telling his audience that “only one nation can stand up to totalitarianism.”

We have a president who believes that by the sheer force of his personality he could be able to shape global events. We have a president that believes that by going around the world and giving key speeches in key places, he can shape the behavior of other nations. We do not have the luxury of seeing the world the way we hope it would be. We have to see the world the way it is.

Paul’s neo-isolationism has expanded its appeal beyond the libertarian base inherited from his father because of the cynicism about government that Obama’s extra-Constitutional behavior has bred in conservatives. But Rubio’s appeal for a foreign policy rooted in support for core American principles is one that still resonates with most Republicans. At a time when the administration is gutting defense and retreating in the face of foreign tyrants, the pendulum may be swinging back toward the pro-defense wing of the party.

To note this is not the same thing as assuming that Rubio will be moving back to the front rank of his party’s presidential contenders. But if he is interested in running in 2016, those who assume that immigration has doomed his chances forever may be wrong. If, thanks to Putin, Iran and Obama’s blunders, a strong stance on foreign affairs is again a prerequisite for winning the Republican nomination, Rubio will have a fighting chance.

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Obama’s Crisis of Competence

Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

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Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

At one point, Mr. McCain focused his attention Mr. Work’s lack of familiarity with a critical 2013 government report that outlined cost issues associated with the Littoral Combat Ship.

Recent years have seen the ship experience a series of cost overruns, and Mr. McCain expressed shock when Mr. Work indicated that he had not seen the report.

The Senator then questioned Mr. Work’s qualifications to be Deputy Defense Secretary. “You haven’t read it? I’m stunned that you haven’t,” Mr. McCain scoffed.

Mr. McCain’s frustration toward Ms. Wormuth stemmed from a separate exchange in which the senator accused her of ducking his request for additional information on al Qaeda.

The confirmation hearing for Hagel was an unmitigated disaster, but the concern appears to be that Hagel was only the beginning. McCain has obvious disagreements with the president on policy, but the recent global emergencies have cast doubt on the process that leads to policy in this administration. The confused, ad hoc nature of crisis response in the Obama White House makes it all the more important that Hagel at least have competent, knowledgeable employees he can lean on. Someone’s got to steer the ship, in other words.

On the other side of this nominating circus are the ambassadors. I wrote here about the Obama donor tapped to be ambassador to Norway who didn’t know anything about Norway and the Hungarian ambassador who couldn’t name America’s strategic interests in Hungary, who were joined in their ranks by the ambassador to Argentina who had never been to Argentina (but what a perfect reason to visit!).

And on that issue, McCain wasn’t the only one fed up. Olivier Knox reported earlier this week that the American Foreign Service Association, which represents some 31,000 current and former diplomats, was so alarmed by President Obama’s envoy fire sale that they went so far as to write an embarrassingly elementary how-to guide for Obama:

A good nominee ideally “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” AFSA said in its six-page report.

“The actions and words of an ambassador have consequences for U.S. national security and interests far beyond the individual country or organization to which he or she is accredited,” AFSA said. “It is essential, therefore, that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully.”

The report landed at a time when a handful of Obama’s nominees — some of them seemingly picked for no reason other than to reward them for scooping up vast piles of re-election campaign cash — have raised eyebrows in Congress.

AFSA tried to be as–forgive me–diplomatic as possible, by claiming they weren’t writing this guide for Obama personally, just for anyone who happens to be president and who may be tempted to auction off diplomatic postings. McCain may have seemed to lose his temper, but this instruction manual is far more insulting: its language is downright condescending.

It’s also more evidence that the Chuck Hagels aren’t exceptions; they’re just high-profile enough to garner the publicity. When the light is shined on other nominees, it’s clear this White House neither takes foreign affairs especially seriously nor has the presence of mind to pretend it does.

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Obama Consciously Engineering America’s Decline

In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

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In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

What is different is that Barack Obama isn’t on the faculty of Columbia; he’s commander in chief of the United States. Which means that his misguided views are downright pernicious. And for all the damage the president is doing on the domestic side–and I would not want to underestimate it for a moment–it may be the harm he’s inflicting on America in foreign policy and national security is deeper, broader, and more durable. 

More than any president in my lifetime, Barack Obama has damaged virtually everything he’s touched. When it comes to American interests, he’s a one-man wrecking ball. 

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Port Calls and Grand Strategy

The port call is a chief selling point for Navy recruiters. The Navy’s main website, for example, implies that if you join the Navy, you could end up enjoying Spain, Australia, Brazil, or Hong Kong. The truth is obviously more complicated, but there is no doubt that after weeks of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week work, sailors enjoy getting two or three days off to hang out on the beach or at a hotel swimming pool, have a beer (or three) and enjoy real restaurants. For those more culturally attuned, morale officers arrange a host of tours to do everything from touring vineyards in France, to riding elephants in Thailand, to touring World War II heritage sites in the Philippines. Community service is also an important component of the port call, as chaplains and others arrange tours to help rebuild schools, repair orphanages, or revitalize military cemeteries or other sites.

Many countries, of course, also look forward hosting port calls. When an aircraft carrier pulls into port with 5,000 sailors and aviators, that easily translates into hundreds if not thousands of hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and shopping–not to mention the husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends who fly into port to meet their loved ones.

While rest and relaxation is important, too often the strategic aspect of the port call seems to be downplayed. Ask any sailor, and they would be far happier to be in Phuket or Pattaya, Thailand, than in Cambodia, where the tourist infrastructure is far less developed. Likewise, Singapore is far more popular a destination than Sri Lanka. For smaller ships, Malaga, Spain, has far more infrastructure than Dakhla, in the Moroccan Sahara (even if the kite surfing is better at the latter).

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The port call is a chief selling point for Navy recruiters. The Navy’s main website, for example, implies that if you join the Navy, you could end up enjoying Spain, Australia, Brazil, or Hong Kong. The truth is obviously more complicated, but there is no doubt that after weeks of round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week work, sailors enjoy getting two or three days off to hang out on the beach or at a hotel swimming pool, have a beer (or three) and enjoy real restaurants. For those more culturally attuned, morale officers arrange a host of tours to do everything from touring vineyards in France, to riding elephants in Thailand, to touring World War II heritage sites in the Philippines. Community service is also an important component of the port call, as chaplains and others arrange tours to help rebuild schools, repair orphanages, or revitalize military cemeteries or other sites.

Many countries, of course, also look forward hosting port calls. When an aircraft carrier pulls into port with 5,000 sailors and aviators, that easily translates into hundreds if not thousands of hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and shopping–not to mention the husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends who fly into port to meet their loved ones.

While rest and relaxation is important, too often the strategic aspect of the port call seems to be downplayed. Ask any sailor, and they would be far happier to be in Phuket or Pattaya, Thailand, than in Cambodia, where the tourist infrastructure is far less developed. Likewise, Singapore is far more popular a destination than Sri Lanka. For smaller ships, Malaga, Spain, has far more infrastructure than Dakhla, in the Moroccan Sahara (even if the kite surfing is better at the latter).

Port calls should be about more than rewarding servicemen with a good time, however. As China rattles its sabre, scheduling a port call in a country like Cambodia (or Vietnam) determined to resist Chinese pressure should outweigh putting yet another ship into dock in Thailand or Singapore. Likewise, as Morocco reforms and shines as the lone stable country in the Sahel, it is clear that it is doing something right. Why not reward it by sending a cruiser or a destroyer into one of its Saharan ports to balance growing Iranian presence in neighboring Mauritania and to reinforce the U.S. policy decision to recognize the Western Sahara as an autonomous region of Morocco, despite Algerian complaints? Morocco is an ally; Algeria is not. It’s that simple. Certainly, the biggest U.S. ships have other considerations: depth of port, general security, and the desire by local governments to host such visits, etc. But it seems that the decision about where to schedule port calls is often haphazard without attention to deeper symbolism and strategy.

At present, the Department of the Navy is re-examining some aspects of port calls in the aftermath of a bribery scandal. Changing business practices is one thing, but perhaps it’s time for Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to articulate just how the port call can be used to enhance American strategy and presence in the world. It’s time the United States use all elements of our power in fulfillment of a larger strategy, not simply muddle through and forfeit such an important diplomatic tool.

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What’s Wrong with U.S. Public Diplomacy?

I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

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I had written a couple months ago about the seemingly uncoordinated and scattershot approach in which U.S. embassies engage in the name of public diplomacy. An interlocutor pointed me to a speech delivered by retired Foreign Service officer Donald Bishop to the Council of American Ambassadors earlier this fall. While so many practitioners of public diplomacy circle the wagons to protect budgets and the system they know and in which they thrive, Bishop speaks directly:

Public diplomacy makes less difference in spite of the many studies and reports that proclaim its importance, despite the many new programs in the graduate schools, despite words of praise on all the appropriate public occasions, despite Congressional support for exchanges, despite Secretary Clinton’s decree that “every officer is a Public Diplomacy officer,” and despite the fact that Public Diplomacy officers are working harder than ever.

Bishop continues to suggest three separate problems, or rather clusters of problems. The first is organizational. Public diplomacy has been shunted aside to a bureaucratic corner. “The appointment of well-spoken Under Secretaries from related fields has not worked as intended. They have had scant bureaucratic power and no real sway over the allocation of Public Diplomacy people and money,” he writes, adding, “Public diplomacy training has become too brief. Many experienced Public Diplomacy officers no longer aim to lead large country programs, hoping rather to be DCMs [Deputy Charge of Missions], DAS’s [Deputy Assistant Secretaries], and Ambassadors, and this shifts their professional focus away from communication.”

The second problem, he observes, is the fact that there is “division among the American people over our nation’s purposes in the world.” Bishop is correct, even as so many ignore this basic fact. As national security becomes a political football, partisan and philosophical divisions undercut the ability to advance a coherent strategy. Another point Bishop makes but is so often overlooked is the impact of rancorous American political debate on our adversaries’ propaganda:

If I know anything from three decades of reading foreign editorials and columns, it’s that indigenous foreign criticisms of the United States are quite rare. Rather our critics rewrite, repackage, and amplify what they hear in our own domestic debates. Division and rancor in our domestic politics ricochets back to us from abroad, and we live in rancorous times.

This doesn’t mean that Congress should temper its debate, but in a globalized age it behooves our elected officials to recognize that hyperbole might end up fueling those who seek not to craft a batter strategy, but rather defeat America entirely. Simply looking back at some of the rhetoric aired regarding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and how congressional statements were picked up and recast on insurgent media should give pause to the bipartisan array of officials who were quick to declare new Vietnams or allege ill motives on the part of national-security leaders.

A subset of division about disputes regarding America’s role in the world is religion. Again, Bishop addresses the issue head on:

In the war on terrorism, however, we confront an ideology based on extreme religion. Americans have always been ginger about discussing religion, and too often I have seen officers turn away from opportunities to discuss faith by simply saying “in America, we have separation of church and state.”  This is a non-starter for dialog with religiously motivated people. My point is that because religion and its role in society are domestically contentious, we have been unable to agree among ourselves how to discuss religion with foreign audiences. This hurts us in the current struggle.

American officials so often misinterpret separation of church and state. While the U.S. government should certainly support no official religion, diplomats must understand that the word secular, when translated into Arabic, has a negative connotation suggesting the notion of being against religion. To avoid the subject of religion and religious ideology when operating in religiously conservative societies is to surrender credibility and forfeit the battle of ideas. Discussing religion need not be synonymous with proselytizing.

For Bishop, the third set of problems revolves around strategy. He quotes an Inspector General report on the Bureau of International Information Programs which posed basic questions:

What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD [public diplomacy] resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values? How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?

To this, Bishop adds a few questions of his own:

  • What’s the value of venue-based Public Diplomacy — American Centers or American spaces — in an age of distributed information? 
  • When the internet and DVDs make high and low American culture available throughout the world, what’s the value of traveling jazz trios? 
  • How does the nation that stands for religious liberty communicate with international actors whose fundamental premises are religious? 
  • In war zones, how can Public Diplomacy work with the influence disciplines in the armed forces — information operations and the discipline formerly known as psychological operations? 

It seems that secretaries of state in recent administrations have sought to compete with their predecessors in mileage traveled, as if logging miles somehow became a metric of wisdom or diplomatic success. Leadership is not simply about free travel and five-star hotels, nor should an appointment to lead the State Department be the ultimate perk. Rather, being secretary of state should be about management and implementing a coherent strategy. Until a president appoints a secretary of state who takes seriously his or her responsibilities to answer fundamental questions and make diplomacy part of a coherent strategy, the State Department and American diplomacy are destined to flounder as an expensive failure.

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Rubio on American Foreign Policy: Strategy, Not Slogans

Yesterday, Marco Rubio gave a wide-ranging speech about American foreign policy that aimed to move past the simplistic labels he feels dominate too much public discussion of the subject. The reaction to his speech illustrated the need to deliver those remarks in the first place. Over at the Daily Beast, Josh Rogin interviewed Rubio to ask some follow-up questions about his new foreign-policy vision, and the resulting article is a good example of the mindset Rubio is trying to get the press out of.

Rogin writes:

The Rubio approach, a balanced foreign policy based on various tools, matches closely with what Hillary Clinton set forth as secretary of state in her vision of “smart power,” which was based on the idea that defense, diplomacy, and development should be equal pillars of U.S foreign policy. Rubio acknowledged the similarities but said he would be able to succeed where Clinton and the rest of the Obama team failed to follow through.

Yet as Rubio pointed out to Rogin, that’s not at all what animated Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton had a policy based on photo-ops and frequent-flyer miles. The State Department under her direction was a mess, diplomacy faltered, and America’s standing in the world receded. In one case, in Libya, Clinton’s mismanagement and issue-superficiality proved to be a sign of dangerous incompetence.

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Yesterday, Marco Rubio gave a wide-ranging speech about American foreign policy that aimed to move past the simplistic labels he feels dominate too much public discussion of the subject. The reaction to his speech illustrated the need to deliver those remarks in the first place. Over at the Daily Beast, Josh Rogin interviewed Rubio to ask some follow-up questions about his new foreign-policy vision, and the resulting article is a good example of the mindset Rubio is trying to get the press out of.

Rogin writes:

The Rubio approach, a balanced foreign policy based on various tools, matches closely with what Hillary Clinton set forth as secretary of state in her vision of “smart power,” which was based on the idea that defense, diplomacy, and development should be equal pillars of U.S foreign policy. Rubio acknowledged the similarities but said he would be able to succeed where Clinton and the rest of the Obama team failed to follow through.

Yet as Rubio pointed out to Rogin, that’s not at all what animated Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. Clinton had a policy based on photo-ops and frequent-flyer miles. The State Department under her direction was a mess, diplomacy faltered, and America’s standing in the world receded. In one case, in Libya, Clinton’s mismanagement and issue-superficiality proved to be a sign of dangerous incompetence.

Aware that she might want to run for president and thus didn’t want to take any chances, she was the perfect secretary of state for an administration yearning to be a bystander on the world stage. Any credible application of “smart power” would be, almost by definition, a departure from Clinton’s policy. (The line of questioning hints at the confusion Clinton was able to sow simply by spouting slogans that sounded good.) Rubio sought to correct this characterization:

“Maybe tactically Hillary gave lip service to that. In terms of how she executed foreign policy, that’s certainly not the case,” Rubio told The Daily Beast. “Tactically speaking, we’re talking about smart power engagement. But what is our strategy at the end of the day? Our strategic aims are the security and well-being of the American people and beyond that the spread of liberty, prosperity, and human rights around the world.”

This may seem like a bit of a diversion, but only if seen through the lens of a senator challenging the policies of a former secretary of state. In reality, it’s one prospective 2016 presidential candidate contrasting himself with the other party’s likely nominee. And that’s one reason Rubio is being watched so carefully: in a speech like this, he is expected to separate himself from the pack–of both parties.

Rand Paul has emerged as a the candidate to espouse caution on intervention. Chris Christie has boisterously declared himself standing athwart Paul’s more libertarian approach, and Scott Walker has done so more quietly but remains closer to Christie. If Paul Ryan runs, he appears to be on the Christie side of the divide as well.

So as the two sides call each other hawks and doves, isolationists and warmongers, Rubio seeks to do two things simultaneously: find a middle ground that will differentiate himself from the candidates who have already jumped headlong into the foreign-policy-in-2016 debate, and also bring the party together into some coherent blend that will emphasize the common aims and purposes, not the distinctions.

The latter is important because if Clinton is the nominee, the GOP will have to decide where the contrast is–a task made more difficult by the fact that, as the Daily Beast interview shows, reporters just spit back clichéd slogans spouted by Clinton as if merely by declaring something she has done it.

Rubio has an advantage, however. During his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been widely praised by his peers on both sides of the aisle for his diligence, patience, hard work, and refusal to grandstand. It paradoxically works against him when reporters on deadline show the need for headline-friendly slogans instead of nuanced analysis. But in the long term, Rubio’s fluency on the issues is likely to serve him well with a public that elected a president who had nothing but slogans, after which voters might be looking for someone with a bit more interest in world affairs than the current occupant of the White House.

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What’s the GOP Foreign-Policy Alternative?

Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

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Republicans are doing a great job of critiquing the flawed implementation of ObamaCare but a terrible job of critiquing Obama’s flawed foreign policy, even as its failures–for instance, in Syria–become more manifest. This is in large part because Republicans can’t agree among themselves on what the alternative should be: More intervention or less? More defense spending or less?

Into this vacuum comes Rosa Brooks, a liberal law professor and former Obama appointee at the Department of Defense, with a withering critique of Obama’s relations with the U.S. military based on interviews with anonymous generals and officials.

She writes in Politico Magazine:

Most of the military leaders I interviewed said they believed that military recommendations often go unheeded by senior White House staff, who now assume that a risk-averse Pentagon exaggerates every difficulty and inflates every request for troops or money. This assumption turns discussions into antagonistic negotiating sessions. As one retired general puts it, “If you said, ‘We need 40,000 troops,’ they’d immediately say, ‘20,000.’ Not because they thought that was the right number, but they just took it for granted that any number coming from the military was inflated.”

“Sometimes you want to tell them, ‘This isn’t a political bargaining process,’” another retired senior military official says ruefully. “Where the military comes in high, they counter low, and we settle on an option that splits the difference. Needless to say, the right answer is not always in the middle.”

A former White House official with Pentagon experience says White House staff often remain willfully uninformed about the logic behind military recommendations: They “don’t want to take the time to go through the slide deck or get the full briefing. Basically, they don’t want to know.”

This strikes me as essentially accurate–it helps to account for the White House’s promotion of an “unbelievably small” airstrike on Syria in the face of military doubts that this would achieve anything. It helps to account, too, for the president’s imposition of a timeline on the Afghanistan surge which military leaders opposed because they knew it would undermine the troops’ effectiveness and embolden the Taliban. Not to mention the president’s failure to do more to renew the mandate of U.S. forces in Iraq, in spite of military urging to be more active. This led to the departure of U.S. troops at the end of 2011, and has allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to be reborn.

And then, of course, there is the White House’s continual failure to cut a deal with Congress that would allow the repeal of sequestration, which is devastating our military readiness. Republicans are at least equally to blame here, but that doesn’t let the president off the hook. Obama, it seems, favors only one type of military action–drone strikes and commando raids–and is prepared to see the larger military wither as long as Special Operations capabilities are kept more or less intact.

There is plenty here for Republicans to criticize. The problem is that Republicans, by and large, have endorsed sequestration; have not endorsed doing more to arm and support the moderate Syrian opposition, which would most likely involve the imposition of a no-fly zone and air strikes; did not speak out loudly in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq; and now are not speaking out in favor of keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The upshot is that U.S. foreign policy and national-security policy are a mess, as even many Democrats admit, and yet there is no viable alternative being offered by the Republican Party, which has somehow managed to forfeit its long-standing advantage on national-security issues. Indeed the loudest voices coming from the GOP are those of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who call for an isolationism that dare not speak its name. There is a vacuum here that Chris Christie and Jeb Bush and others could conceivably fill, but they need to start speaking up.

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Paul, Christie, and the Soul of the GOP

For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

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For a press corps that can’t wait to start covering the 2016 horse race, the exchanges this past week between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are a godsend. The back and forth between the two, which continued today, is unusual even for potential primary opponents since this is the sort of hatchet work left either to surrogates or the heat of battle during formal debates. But in this case it makes sense for both of them to be doing it and to start as early as possible for two reasons.

One is that these shots are not so much aimed at the target as to establish their bona fides as the leading proponent of their point of view. Paul is looking to ensure that he, and not Ted Cruz or any other potential dark horse, is the preeminent advocate of the libertarian position on foreign and defense policy. By the same token, Christie has stolen a march on Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan (both of whom also have mainstream pro-defense views and might be competing for the same donors) by taking on Paul. If the field is large in 2016, there will, in essence, be two Republican primaries in which each side of this divide will choose a candidate that will probably be the finalists for the GOP nomination.

But there is something else here at stake that explains why both think it worthwhile to start conducting this debate at least two years before even the preliminary period of the 2016 race begins. Though it appears to be a nasty quarrel between two arrogant and ambitious politicians who know the other is in his way, the harsh nature of the comments of the two directed at each other illustrate that what is going on here is nothing less than a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.

To recap the hostilities, Christie kicked off the dustup by denouncing the way the Republican Party is drifting toward a libertarian approach to foreign policy that seems too willing to take the country back to a September 10th mentality and, when asked if that included Paul, he responded in the affirmative and said those politicians grandstanding on the issue should sit down with 9/11 victims’ families.

Paul shot back last night in vintage fashion by saying that Christie was tearing down the Republican Party and that it “was sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims” to carry on the dispute. He then went even further and said “If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this give me, give me, give me all of the money that you have in Washington,” a clear reference to Christie’s tirade about the way some GOP conservatives held up Hurricane Sandy aid to the Northeast.

Christie fired back today by calling out Rand as complicit in the congressional pork system by pointing out that New Jersey gets only 60 cents back from Washington for every tax dollar it sends to the capital while Kentucky garners $1.50.

Clearly, as Christie observed, the argument has gotten personal between the two. In the context of the two virtual primaries that divide the Republican Party, it doesn’t do either man any harm to be perceived by his supporters as taking on the leader of the other side. Though we are literally years away from the first debates or votes cast in caucuses and primaries, the sooner any candidate establishes himself as the leading voice of one of the two main camps in the party, the better off he will be.

But the food fight aspect of these exchanges shouldn’t blind us to the deadly serious nature of this debate.

As last week’s House vote on the NSA metadata collection showed, a genuine schism on national defense is developing within the Republican Party. With nearly half of the GOP caucus prepared to embrace positions championed by Paul, Cruz, and Rep. Justin Amash in which the war on Islamist terrorism is essentially shelved, the GOP may be about to abandon its long-held position as a bastion of support for national defense and a forward American foreign policy that has carried them to victory in the past.

That this debate is being conducted largely on the basis of exaggerations and distortions of the truth makes it all the more frustrating for Republicans who see their party drifting toward a form of isolationism. As Walter Pincus pointed out in an op-ed published yesterday in the Washington Post, Paul, Cruz, and Amash have been able to rally support for this so-called libertarian cause largely because they have helped confuse Americans into thinking the NSA is reading their emails and listening to their calls in violation of the Constitution. This isn’t true. What the NSA has done is not only constitutional and being conducted under the jurisdiction of the courts and with congressional oversight; it has also foiled numerous terrorist plots.

As I wrote last week, Christie’s decision to speak up on this issue in a pointed manner, especially when other potential GOP presidential contenders who share his views have been either distracted by other issues like Ryan or pointedly silent like Rubio, has already given him a leg up on them among mainstream Republicans and donors. Moreover, his ability to take a shot and then return it twofold in this manner shows that he will be a formidable primary opponent.

Paul may have thought his filibuster and the distrust of government that has been fed by Obama’s scandals and abuses of power would be enough to allow him to break through from his extremist libertarian base. If last week’s NSA vote is any indication, such a belief is not unfounded. But what Christie has done is shown that this conquest will not only not be unopposed but will generate fierce opposition from the party’s most articulate, popular and confrontational figure. That will not only encourage others who disagree with Paul to jump into the fray but begin the process of reaffirming the GOP as the party most associated with a strong national defense.

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Where Is Marco Rubio?

In its analysis of the latest round in the Rand Paul-Chris Christie dust-up over the future of conservative foreign policy, the Washington Post writes: “Typically, a fight produces a winner and a loser. But that’s not the case in the spat between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In their clash over national security ideology, both men stand to gain politically in the near term.” That may be true, but it isn’t the case that there is no loser here. It can be plausibly argued that in this current bout Christie and Paul both win, but that someone else still loses: Marco Rubio.

Rubio has been noticeably quiet as the conservative movement seeks to shape its approach to the world for the next presidential election. Yet it was Rubio who was the first 2016 prospect to grapple with the challenges of maintaining American global engagement in the post-Cold War world, and certainly in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world. Rubio entered the Senate as a Tea Party favorite who advocated a robust American foreign policy. He sensed that despite the political rhetoric about bullying Americans–especially from Europe and the Middle East–those grandstanding politicians still retained the hope that America would do the thankless jobs that have fallen on its shoulders for over half a century. And as a 2012 Miami Herald profile of Rubio revealed, the senator from Florida was right:

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In its analysis of the latest round in the Rand Paul-Chris Christie dust-up over the future of conservative foreign policy, the Washington Post writes: “Typically, a fight produces a winner and a loser. But that’s not the case in the spat between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In their clash over national security ideology, both men stand to gain politically in the near term.” That may be true, but it isn’t the case that there is no loser here. It can be plausibly argued that in this current bout Christie and Paul both win, but that someone else still loses: Marco Rubio.

Rubio has been noticeably quiet as the conservative movement seeks to shape its approach to the world for the next presidential election. Yet it was Rubio who was the first 2016 prospect to grapple with the challenges of maintaining American global engagement in the post-Cold War world, and certainly in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world. Rubio entered the Senate as a Tea Party favorite who advocated a robust American foreign policy. He sensed that despite the political rhetoric about bullying Americans–especially from Europe and the Middle East–those grandstanding politicians still retained the hope that America would do the thankless jobs that have fallen on its shoulders for over half a century. And as a 2012 Miami Herald profile of Rubio revealed, the senator from Florida was right:

Rubio said that, while foreign heads of state and politicians, bash the United States publicly, their tone changes in private.

“They’re begging for U.S. influence and leadership,” he said. “They’re not threatened by us. They’re not scared of us. They’re not worried about the United States being involved because we have a track record.”

That feeling was reinforced “by driving through the streets of Tripoli and seeing pro-American graffiti on the walls. Of having people come up to me on the streets and thank the United States – thank you America for what you did – by the enthusiastic greeting we received in the hospital that we visited or people we met people in the square.”

That view of international relations, gleaned from interpersonal exchanges rather than the stock anti-Americanism found in the media, informed Rubio’s belief in American global engagement. Just before that Miami Herald profile was published, Rubio gave a major foreign policy address at the Brookings Institution in which he acknowledged both the successes of the American-led postwar world and the challenge of post-Cold War superpower status:

So this is the world America made, but what is the role for America now? Is now finally the time for us to mind our own business? Is now the time for us to allow others to lead? Is now the time for us to play the role of equal partner?

I always start by reminding people that what happens all over the world is our business. Every aspect of lives is directly impacted by global events. The security of our cities is connected to the security of small hamlets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Our cost of living, the safety of our food, and the value of the things we invent, make, and sell are just a few examples of everyday aspects of our lives that are directly related to events abroad and make it impossible for us to focus only on our issues here at home.

The next question I am asked is why doesn’t someone else lead for a change? Why do we always have to be taking care of all the problems of the world? Isn’t it time for someone else to step up?

I always begin my answer to that question with a question of my own. If we start doing less, who’s going to do more? For example, would a world order where China, at least as we know it right now, was the leading power be as benignly disposed to the political and economic aspirations of other nations as we are?

This is not a detailed exposition of precisely how America should address every foreign policy challenge, but a statement of purpose. It was also interpreted by many to represent Rubio’s grand entrance onto the national stage with regard to foreign affairs. And yet the truth is that as time passes, Rubio’s voice only seems to fade. And now with the debate about the future of conservative foreign policy breaking out into the open, Rubio’s silence is deafening.

Rubio’s decision to stand aside as this debate plays out has created a vacuum. Countering Rand Paul’s still vague, but seemingly retrenchment-centric, foreign policy has been left to Chris Christie–a governor without much foreign policy experience–and Congressman Peter King. Both seem to be considering a run for the presidency, though Christie is far more likely than King to ultimately run. Rubio had been collecting the experience and authority to be the advocate of an engaged America on the 2016 debate stage. Yet that debate has started already.

The obvious explanation for Rubio’s mysterious disappearance from the foreign policy debate is that he has raised his voice on other issues and is boxed in. He led the effort in the Senate to reform the nation’s immigration system, which has caused his stock among the party’s base to plummet. He has tried to win them back by stepping into the national abortion fight, offering to sponsor a bill that would restrict abortion in a way that is popular nationally but especially among the conservative grassroots.

And the assumption is that taking on Rand Paul over domestic surveillance would once again put him at odds with the base. It’s actually unclear whether retrenchment chic is truly sweeping the conservative movement for three reasons. First, Paul is the only high-profile politician occupying that space right now; as I wrote late last week, other libertarians like Justin Amash actually favor foreign intervention and sanctions. Second, we don’t actually know if Paul himself feels this way, because he has been unclear on certain aspects of the issue–evidence, perhaps, that he isn’t sure the base actually believes in retrenchment either. And third, Rubio’s silence has contributed to this confusion because there is no erudite counterweight to Paul, certainly not one with grassroots and Tea Party bona fides.

There is good reason, in other words, this debate was always expected to be between Paul and Rubio. Paul showed up. Whether or not he has an apparently justifiable reason for it, Rubio has not.

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Is Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy “Libertarian”?

Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

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Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

Amash was recently profiled by National Review’s John J. Miller, in which Miller noted that Amash was touted by Reason magazine as “the next Ron Paul.” In his interview with Miller, however, Amash made a point of differentiating himself from the elder Paul on issues including foreign policy. (Amash said “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” quite far from a ringing endorsement of Paul’s congressional activity.)

In an earlier interview with Reason, Amash provided much more insight into how he views his libertarian foreign policy. Here is a telling series of exchanges between Amash and Reason editor Nick Gillespie:

reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What’s wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?

Amash: I think it’s okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn’t have to read “Declaration of War.” I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that’s the longest war in U.S history, and now—

reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.

reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we’re not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it’s more questionable. If we’re going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it’s the president’s job to come back to Congress and say, “This is who we’re going after and this is why,” and for Congress to give the authorization.

That was Amash justifying the legality of the Iraq War while supporting the invasion of Afghanistan and sending the military into Pakistan to get bin Laden. Elsewhere in that same interview, Amash struck a thoughtful balance on Syria, and gives the following answer when asked about sanctions and military action against Iran:

Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it’s pretty clear they’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I’m not sure you’d want to use them for 20 years.

But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what’s necessary.

Amash also spoke about the emotional significance of the 9/11 attacks to him and how the event spurred his increased interest in politics. None of this is to suggest that Amash’s foreign policy priorities are indistinguishable from those of, say, John McCain. But it’s important to understand the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA. It has obvious populist appeal and is well worth the discussion Paul has raised.

But the question of whether Paul’s opposition to drones and wiretapping portends a libertarian shift in GOP foreign policy obscures the more important question: What, exactly, do we mean when we say “libertarian foreign policy”? Rand Paul has been vague enough on his own worldview, aside from the use of drones, to keep this question unanswered. But if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself–and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.

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Is Christie the Foreign Policy Candidate?

In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

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In the last month, conservatives looking for a possible 2016 presidential candidate with a serious approach to defense and foreign policy were starting to wonder if they would be stuck with outliers rather than frontrunners. The only reason why people like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton and Rep. Peter King—men who are respected voices on these issues but not likely to have a chance at the nomination—were getting even minimal attention for their presidential trial balloons was the fact that all of the likely contenders have been ignoring the question of America’s need to maintain a forward position in the world and in the war on Islamist terror.

Even worse, the increasing popularity of libertarian figures like Senator Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Senator Ted Cruz seemed to indicate that the Republican Party was abandoning its long stance as the political bulwark of a strong America in favor of a new isolationism. The willingness of so many Republicans to join Rep. Justin Amash, another libertarian foe of anti-terror measures, in a House vote to abolish the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance program on Wednesday—and the unusual deference they got from House Speaker John Boehner—underlined this concern.

But yesterday a leading figure in the GOP and someone seen as a formidable presidential possibility for 2016 finally fired back at Paul. Speaking at panel at the Aspen Institute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie denounced the effort to pull back on anti-terror measures as “dangerous” and warned that those—like Paul—who are attempting to craft an American retreat from the world are playing with fire. In speaking in this manner, Christie put himself on record as endorsing the policies of President George W. Bush that have been largely continued by President Obama as necessary, and served notice that Paul will be strongly opposed by Republicans who don’t want their party to be hijacked by isolationists. In doing so, Christie not only indicated that he is prepared to run in part on foreign policy issues but may embolden other possible candidates with similar views to his on this question, like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, to do the same.

Paul immediately fired back at Christie saying he’s against terror but only wants to preserve the Constitution. But he’s made it clear that what he wants is a massive pullback of efforts to seek out and fight Islamist terrorists as well as a general retreat from America’s position as a global power with commensurate responsibilities. Paul has tried to call this stance “realism,” but stripped of its rhetorical trappings that attempt to differentiate his positions from those of his crackpot father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, it is merely warmed-over isolationism. Paul has sought to play upon the war-weariness of Americans after Iraq and Afghanistan to bring this isolationist trend into the mainstream from the margins and fever swamps of the far right and far left, where it has dwelt since before World War II. And to judge by Wednesday’s House vote and his own poll ratings, he’s succeeding.

But as Christie pointed out, anyone who wants to cut back on the Bush/Obama anti-terror measures should come to New York or New Jersey and meet the families of 9/11 victims. Programs such as the NSA metadata mining have helped stop numerous attempts to repeat that atrocity. As Rep. Tom Cotton pointed out on the floor of the House on Wednesday, America is still at war and Republicans who ignore this fact are doing the country as well as their party a grave disservice.

The notion that most grass roots Republicans want the GOP to become the anti-war or the anti-anti-terror party is a fiction. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another member of the panel on which Christie spoke as well as another possible presidential candidate, pointed out, the attempt to transform the Republican Party in this manner is largely the function of “a few loud and vocal people talking in Washington and I don’t think that necessarily reflects where the party is.”

Walker is not only right about that, but his willingness to state this fact should stand as a rebuke to those pundits and politicians who have assumed that all Tea Party supporters are natural allies of Paul and the libertarians. The Republican base believes in limited government and opposes President Obama’s massive expansion of the federal leviathan. But it is not a bastion of isolationism and paranoia about national defense efforts. Most Republicans are capable of making a distinction between the need to cut back on unnecessary governmental intrusions into the public sector and the all-too-necessary responsibility of Washington to provide for the national defense.

Rand Paul may have thought his path to the presidential nomination had no serious obstacles on the foreign policy front, as so many in the top ranks of the GOP leadership seemed to fear to take him on after seeing the way Republicans cheered his filibuster on drone attacks last February. But Chris Christie’s comments as well as those of Scott Walker show that any such confidence is misplaced. It’s a long way until 2016 and there’s no telling who will turn out to be Paul’s chief antagonist on foreign policy. But whoever it turns out to be, the assumption that the libertarians will have the advantage may turn out to be a fallacy. 

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The GOP’s Foreign Policy Candidate?

It’s not clear how seriously Republicans will take Robert Costa’s report in National Review Online today that John Bolton is exploring the idea of a run for president in 2016. While the prospect of a candidacy from the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations set off chortles on both the far left and the paleo-con right, Bolton’s interest in the Republican presidential nomination may leave most GOP power-brokers and grass roots activists in early primary states cold. With a deep bench of potential Republican presidential candidates including genuine political stars like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker and even 2012 retreads like Rick Santorum lining up for the next contest, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for a Bolton candidacy.

But though the odds are he never makes it to the starting line, let alone the finish line, the idea of a Bolton candidacy is not quite as insane as it may seem at first glance. With many Republicans starting to flock to the neo-isolationist banner put forward by Rand Paul and with many conservative activists now treating the ongoing war on Islamist terror as being not as important as their dislike of Barack Obama, it is arguable that there is no longer a solid Republican consensus in favor of a strong American foreign policy. Though some of the other possible candidates do differ from Paul about the impulse to pull back from a forward posture abroad, none have prioritized that issue. If Bolton is even talking about what would probably be a quixotic run it is only because he knows it is vital for there to be a vigorous debate about foreign and defense policy so as to turn back the Paulite push.

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It’s not clear how seriously Republicans will take Robert Costa’s report in National Review Online today that John Bolton is exploring the idea of a run for president in 2016. While the prospect of a candidacy from the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations set off chortles on both the far left and the paleo-con right, Bolton’s interest in the Republican presidential nomination may leave most GOP power-brokers and grass roots activists in early primary states cold. With a deep bench of potential Republican presidential candidates including genuine political stars like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker and even 2012 retreads like Rick Santorum lining up for the next contest, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for a Bolton candidacy.

But though the odds are he never makes it to the starting line, let alone the finish line, the idea of a Bolton candidacy is not quite as insane as it may seem at first glance. With many Republicans starting to flock to the neo-isolationist banner put forward by Rand Paul and with many conservative activists now treating the ongoing war on Islamist terror as being not as important as their dislike of Barack Obama, it is arguable that there is no longer a solid Republican consensus in favor of a strong American foreign policy. Though some of the other possible candidates do differ from Paul about the impulse to pull back from a forward posture abroad, none have prioritized that issue. If Bolton is even talking about what would probably be a quixotic run it is only because he knows it is vital for there to be a vigorous debate about foreign and defense policy so as to turn back the Paulite push.

If we had elections for secretary of state, Bolton would be a serious Republican candidate for the job. Though dismissed as a neo-con warmonger by those who prefer appeasement at the UN and apologies to the world rather than a forthright exposition of American values and interests, Bolton’s views on foreign policy are very much in the mainstream of Republican thought. His sensible analyses of foreign policy on Fox News as well as his occasional contributions to COMMENTARY provide eloquent testimony to his expertise on the issues. But not even in wartime are Americans likely to elect someone whose orientation is toward foreign rather than domestic policy. Even in a wide open 2012 GOP presidential field largely populated by easily-dismissed candidates, Bolton’s brief flirtation with a run failed to attract any interest and there’s even less reason to think he’d do any better next time.

But if both Rubio and Ryan decide against running in 2016, there could be no one willing to take on Paul and his increasingly popular inclination to pull back from the world and pretend the Islamist war on the West is none of our concern. Paul is certain to be a first-tier candidate and strong showings by him in primaries and caucuses could encourage other contenders to start to echo him in an attempt to please war-weary and libertarian-inclined voters. That will leave an opening for someone to speak up on foreign affairs, and perhaps Bolton feels it might as well be a candidate who actually understands the issues.

It is to be hoped that Paul will find himself challenged on foreign and defense policy in 2016 by stronger opposition than a former ambassador who isn’t likely to win a delegate. But though it will probably crash before it takes off, the Bolton trial balloon shows us that there is a desperate need for a GOP foreign policy debate that will head off the surge for Paul. 

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U.S. Public Is Cautious, Not “Isolationist”

“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

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“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”

The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”

Nonetheless, the American people do seem to be opposed to an American invasion of Syria and North Korea. There are, however, some important caveats. One is that respondents aren’t exactly tuned in to the Syrian conflict. The poll shows that only 10 percent say they are following the conflict “very closely,” and that number is actually on a steady decline from past polls. As Shmuel Rosner notes, yesterday’s Pew poll found Americans similarly disengaged from the conflict, and suggests correctly that this lack of interest should factor in whatever conclusions we draw from the polls.

Rosner also says that if the public paid more attention “we might discover that by paying attention it becomes less keen on involvement, not more.” That may be true–the more the public learns about who would likely take over for Bashar al-Assad, the less people might want to facilitate that end. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that whatever opportunity the U.S. had to dramatically alter the shape of Syria’s future government should be spoken of in the past tense. The big wild card is whether the public believes that the use of chemical weapons at some point makes our increased involvement a moral obligation whether they like it or not.

But by tuning in they may also learn more about the horrific death toll and hear the popular comparisons to the Rwandan genocide and the Clinton administration’s inaction at the time. They also may become convinced that the evidence that Assad’s crew used sarin gas is compelling enough to have violated President Obama’s “red line.” But that brings us to the other wild card in all this: the president’s own rhetoric.

As I’ve written before, the president moves the needle on public opinion when it comes to foreign policy, especially matters of war, and Obama is no exception. The public’s red lines on Syria mirror the president’s, and Obama had the same luck with Afghanistan, boosting support for the war effort when he needed to rally the public to his plan to increase troop levels there during his first term. Past presidents have generally had the same experience. This is probably even more the case when the public isn’t paying close attention to an issue, and thus the president’s argument is among the few–and often the most forceful–they hear.

At the same time, however, if they tune in now to hear the president talk about red lines and the Syrian conflict, they will hear a president understandably wary of intervention. Obama may have painted himself into a corner by setting red lines, and one gets the sense momentum is building in the administration toward some sort of increased involvement. But there will be no clamoring for “boots on the ground,” and probably no appetite for it among the public. That’s unlikely to change, especially without support for such action in the White House, even if Americans finally start tuning in.

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Ayotte and the Future of Conservative Foreign Policy

As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.

But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:

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As Max wrote earlier, there is a growing divide in the Republican Party with regard to foreign aid that reflects a broader philosophical divergence on the right. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul are both Tea Party-generation fiscal conservatives, but in the past they have approached foreign policy from different angles–Rubio from an interventionist point of view and Paul from a pro-disengagement perspective. So it was surely a victory for Paul when Rubio took to the floor of the Senate last week to support Paul’s 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination over the use of drones.

But one senator who wasn’t at the filibuster was New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte. Like Rubio, Ayotte is a fiscal conservative who has made her name on foreign affairs. Unlike Rubio, however, Ayotte can’t so easily distance herself from the party’s old guard, which has been openly feuding with Paul since the filibuster. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sought to portray Paul as outside the mainstream–a “wacko bird,” in McCain’s unfortunate phrasing–further alienating the pair from the party’s conservative base, which rallied to Paul’s defense during the filibuster. McCain and Graham have also been mentors to Ayotte, who seems to have replaced former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in the “three amigos.” The Hill today takes a look at Ayotte’s predicament:

Ayotte agrees with McCain and Graham on U.S. drone policies, though she didn’t take part in their attack on Paul.

“He and I have a different viewpoint,” Ayotte told The Hill. “I certainly respect Sen. Paul for standing up for what he believes in, but I also very much understand and appreciate Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham’s views that they expressed on the underlying policy.”

Ayotte has built up a fiscally conservative record in the Senate — she has a 92 percent rating from the conservative Club For Growth, ninth highest among senators who served in 2012. She’s a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend (her picture is alongside Paul’s on a promotional flyer).

Though she gets less attention than Rubio, who is out in front on the immigration issue as well, how Ayotte navigates these two constituencies is likely to be quite consequential for the GOP’s stand on foreign policy going forward. And it may not be as easy as staking out positions popular with the base; as the Hill notes, instead of appearing at Paul’s filibuster Ayotte was taking part in the president’s “dinner diplomacy”–along with McCain and Graham. The optics were enough to draw the ire of conservatives.

Ayotte’s significance on foreign policy is due in part to the fact that she doesn’t have Rubio’s stature as a national figure. Though Ayotte was mentioned often as a possible vice presidential choice for Mitt Romney last year, she is not considered to be one of the young conservatives leaning toward a presidential run in 2016. That means she either ends up on the ticket as vice presidential nominee or she stays in the Senate (providing she wins reelection in 2016), where she will presumably take an expanding role in shaping foreign-policy legislation.

Ayotte was outspoken in her condemnation of the Obama administration in the wake of the Benghazi terror attack and Susan Rice’s time in the spotlight as a possible secretary of state nominee, for which Ayotte earned plaudits from conservatives who wanted their congressional delegations to hold the administration accountable. But she also opposed the defense cuts in the sequester, and wants to see them reversed. That’s important, because Ayotte sits not only on the powerful Armed Services Committee but is also the ranking Republican on a subcommittee that will have influence over how the sequester military cuts are administered. As the New Hampshire-based Daily Democrat reported:

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over military resources and training, as well as depots and shipyards, business management and contracting oversight, and energy security issues….

Ayotte also served as ranking member of the subcommittee last year. Ayotte said she hopes to identify efficiencies and savings in the Pentagon’s budget and guard against “irresponsible cuts” that would leave troops and defense suppliers “less prepared.”

Ayotte, Graham, and McCain together hold the ranking GOP spots on half the Armed Services subcommittees, and McCain is also on the Foreign Affairs Committee (along with Rubio and Paul). Ayotte has been a proponent of arming the rebels in Syria, expressed concern about a too-hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and has criticized calls to eliminate foreign aid as “penny wise and pound foolish in terms of protecting our own country.”

The media spotlight, for the next few years at least, will likely stay focused on Rubio and Paul. But Ayotte’s position in the Senate as a bridge between the old guard and the young guns may be just as much an indication of how much of a home conservative internationalism will have in the next generation of Republican leadership.

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