Let’s Have a War

At CPAC, a new generation of conservatives wrestles with what it means to be a foreign policy hawk.

Sen. Rand Paul waves after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.
Sen. Rand Paul waves after addressing the CPAC at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center on March 7, 2014, in National Harbor, Md.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Twenty-five years since Oliver North was convicted for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. Twenty-three years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And yet here he is, the ever-more grizzled “host of ‘War Stories’ with Oliver North,” standing between American flags and issuing warnings about the Russian bear.

“The people of Ukraine are this very minute paying the terrible price for America’s leadership deficit disorder and the Obama organization’s utopian rush to unilateral disarmament,” says North. “That’s where we’re headed. We don’t need a head of state who guts our defenses and draws phony red lines with a pink crayon.” North pauses for the guffaws. “Yeah, I did say that.”

North’s crowd is in on the joke, and they’re too young to remember how it started. The Conservative Political Action Conference skews toward 20-somethings. The 2013 in-person straw poll found that 54 percent of attendees were younger than 25 and 74 percent were younger than 40; the crowd didn’t look any older this year.

The conference also skews libertarian, more and more every year since Ron Paul ran for president (2008) and Rand Paul went to the U.S. Senate (2010). Large-print placards around the conference center warn attendees not to distribute “campaign material.” Stretch your legs and you’ll see a half-dozen students wearing STAND WITH RAND T-shirts, bright red, decorated with silhouettes of the Brillo-haired Kentuckian.

In that same 2013 poll, CPAC-ers were asked whether their “most important goal” in politics was to “promote individual freedom” or to “secure and guarantee American safety at home and abroad.” Seventy-seven percent chose liberty. Eight percent, basically a rounding error, pushed the hawk button.

And now, Russia was starting a small war. Conservatives had been hating the Russians long before they had been Standing With Rand. All day Thursday, the thousands who packed into CPAC’s main ballroom heard their movement’s icons cry out against isolationism. They’d known foreign adventurism and intervention as Obama policies, blights on both parties, not part of the Republican Party they were rebuilding. They were being tested, and by people who claimed to know much more about how the party should defend America.

“Can you just imagine Ronald Reagan dealing with Vladimir Putin?” asks onetime UN Ambassador John Bolton, one of the only representatives of the George W. Bush administration to show at CPAC. “Reagan called a strong defense budget the ‘vital margin of safety.’ We are losing that vital margin all around the world. … Putin has a growing defense budget and ours is shrinking.”

If you’re Standing With Rand, that’s never worried you. The senator had supported the forced cuts of sequestration, encouraging his colleagues to “jettison some of the crap” in the defense budget and live with lower spending levels. If you’re, say, a 21-year-old CPAC attendee, you were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. You were 8 years old on Sept. 11, and maybe 10 for the start of the war in Iraq. You’ve never been a hawk.

And at CPAC, you’re seeing the hawks sprint back into the spotlight. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio uses his Thursday speech to rally conservatives in a global fight against “totalitarianism.” Afterward, he tells the New York Times that “there are forces within our party, there have always been in American politics, that basically say, ‘Who cares what happens everywhere else? Just mind our own business.’”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ventures from the main conference to an alternative all-day meeting of hawks—itself, a sign of how much ground has been lost to the libertarians—and explains how he differs with Paul. Sure, the Kentucky senator was right about Syria, but the hawks were right about Iran.

“When Iran describes Israel as the Little Satan,” he says, “and America as the Great Satan, we have every interest to make sure they don’t acquire the weaponry to kill millions of Americans.”

Cruz and 42 other Republican senators had signed on to new sanctions against Iran. Paul had not.

On Friday, Paul arrived at CPAC for a full day of movement building. Around noon, he was scheduled to talk to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren, so his advance team encourages Stand With Randers to get Paul in full view of the camera. Hassan Sheikh, 26, a law student who runs Nebraska’s branch of Young Americans for Liberty, talks about Ukraine while the shot is being blocked.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re not goading ourselves into yet another expensive adventure in a foreign country,” he says, wearing a Stand With Rand shirt over a white shirt and tie. “Our allies in Europe and Asia don’t need us the way they used to. It’s absolutely preposterous that we have more than 440 military bases all across the world. That’s just an expense that taxpayers don’t need.”

Paul arrives, talks, and leaves, so he can be guided to a crowded book signing in CPAC’s exhibit hall. Aaron and Elizabeth Littlefield, aged 21 and 18 and newly married, come away with valuable copies of Paul’s Government Bullies. They didn’t follow politics when the war in Iraq began; they have only really paid attention to the Obama foreign policy. And they don’t like it.

“Obama’s foreign policy has shown the United States to be weak—that we don’t want to do anything,” says Elizabeth. “Countries don’t take our red lines seriously. We are starting to lose our standing.”

“Ron Paul was a staunch isolationist,” says Aaron, “whereas Rand Paul does believe we live in an international community. That’s one of the big differences between supporters of Ron and Rand.”

It truly is. Not far from the book signing, waiting to be interviewed by RT (formerly Russia Today), is Richard Spencer. Years ago he and some fellow paleo-conservative 20-somethings co-founded the Robert Taft Club, a conservative society for talks and debate; it had booked Ron Paul during his 2008 campaign. Since then Spencer had edited one of the magazines that Jack Hunter—Paul’s old co-author—had written for. Hunter resigned from Paul’s staff after the media belatedly discovered his career as the “Southern Avenger.” To Spencer, the new-old hawk feel of CPAC was absolutely pathetic.

“They want to claim Obama’s not doing enough and he’s weak,” he says. “Conservatism is a child of the Cold War. It’s probably hard for some people to imagine not having a Cold War mentality. It’s very hard for someone to come hear and talk about reaching out to Russia, and to say we have so much more in common with Russians as human beings, and as a society.”

It’s hard because the millennials who adore Rand Paul didn’t necessarily sign up for non-intervention. Shortly after 2 p.m., Paul gives his CPAC address. He mentions his 2013 filibuster that asked the Obama administration whether it thought it could legally kill American citizens with drones. The crowd, packed to the walls, erupts with applause. It’s the only thing Paul says about foreign policy.

So he’s off to a McCormick and Schmick’s for a meet and greet with Greg Brannon, Tea Party candidate running for Senate in North Carolina. “Ron Paul is the statesman of our generation,” he tells a supporter. He repeats the line in a short speech, standing beside Paul. When more supporters talk to him about Ukraine, he says he’s been studying up to “understand every rock and blade of grass” in that country, wrestling with how America should respond to Russia.

Dozens of CPAC ticket-holders crowd the room, angling for pictures with Paul or ordering a boozy concoction called “Senator’s Iced Tea.” Travis McCormick, a 24-year-old campaign worker from Texas, says he voted for Ron Paul’s campaign twice. He’s stayed in politics to manage a race for railroad commissioner.

“I was in middle school when the Iraq war started,” he says. “I didn’t think much of it. As I got older, I figured going over there wasn’t the best idea.”

“It’s kind of indicative of this entire administration,” he says. “Foreign policy’s been put on the back burner. When Romney got criticized for bringing up Russia, I think that was a key moment.”

Brannon’s supporters linger, and Paul leaves. He stops by a happy hour for his RANDPAC—in and out, done before 6. Some students and activists migrate from that bar to one hosting a happy hour for the Leadership Institute. That’s where I run into Pete Chamberlain, a liberty activist who’d been selling T-shirts with Edward Snowden’s face (that one thoughtful-looking shot, from the first interview he did) and the word “HERO.” He wore one of the shirts under a blazer and talked about the return of the hawks.

“Putin’s a strongman,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t like any politician that rules in such a way. I would say it’s no different than Obama. So I see the Bill Kristols of the world, the Charles Krauthammers, say we’ve got to stand strong on Russia. But we’ve got no dog in that fight. People say, ‘Oh, we’re for smaller government and less spending,’ and we spend more on defense than, what—the next seven biggest countries, combined, spend on defense?”

The new, young, skeptical branch of the conservative movement would keep puzzling this, into the night, as the Russians dug in.