With the world in chaos and voters losing faith in President Obama’s leadership, the Republican Party has an opportunity to reclaim its place in the foreign policy conversation. First, though, the party has to figure out what it wants to say. Its leaders have the basic gist: Obama bad. It’s the delivery and the details where things get a little fuzzy. Right now there are at least three competing GOP visions to Obama’s world view.
Sen. Rand Paul is the most articulate voice in the conservative movement for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. On the other end of the spectrum, there is former vice president Dick Cheney, arguing for a forceful U.S. military presence in the middle of the chaotic Middle East. Between those two are those Republicans who believe in a robust American role in world affairs but recognize the practical limits of military force.
This middle group has a lot of adherents but no spokesperson. If they would like to assert themselves, they better find a champion soon because right now the media, Cheney, and Paul are all conspiring to drown out their views. And unless someone can articulate a non–Dick Cheney vision of the world, Rand Paul is poised to win the conversation.
In the wake of the recent turmoil in Iraq, Paul has come across as thoughtful and measured in both his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and on Meet the Press. He is critical of the president, but also of the architects of the Iraq war.
This is a good place to start if you want to begin a conversation with the American people. They are neither fans of the Iraq war, nor the president. Paul also is in sync with the national mood about foreign meddling. According to an April Pew poll, 52 percent of Americans believe that the United States should mind its own business and let other countries get along as best they can. In 2004, that number was 30 percent. Americans are also saying, by a margin of 51 percent to 17 percent, that the United States does too much rather than too little in helping solve the world’s problems. Despite Republicans’ recent criticism of the president, they are slightly more likely to share this view than Democrats—52 percent to 46 percent.
Paul offers a stark test for intervention in Iraq—or just about anywhere—now: Is it worth sacrificing his son? “Do I want to send one of my sons, or your son, to fight to regain Mosul?” he asked on Meet the Press. “These are nasty terrorists, we should want to kill them, but … who should want to stop them more? Maybe the people who live there. Should not the Shiites, the Maliki government, should they not stand up? And, if they’re ripping their uniforms off and fleeing, if they don’t think Mosul is worth saving, how am I going to convince my son or your son to die for Mosul—another bad terrorist? And yes, we should prevent them from exporting terror; but, I’m not so sure where the clear-cut, American interest is.”
That may be the wrong test for a foreign policy. The world may not be as simple as Paul claims and the first-term senator may be badly misrepresenting the Reagan foreign policy he claims to champion. But who will step forward to articulate that alternative worldview?
Right now the alternative to Paul’s vision comes from Cheney. The former vice president is raising money for a new hawkish foreign policy organization and his fundraising emails sound just like his own Wall Street Journal op-ed. President Obama is weak, says Cheney, and terrorists are going to take advantage. This blunt, Hobbesian worldview and language is indistinguishable from Cheney’s posture of the past 13 years. There’s nothing in his pitch for a future foreign policy that acknowledges any personal mistakes or evolution in his thinking to match a changing world.
Cheney is unpopular and so are the policies he advocates. Three-fourths of the country opposes sending troops to Iraq (which Cheney supports), according to a recent CBS poll. Cheney thinks the Iraq war he helped launch was a success. According to a recent CBS poll, only 18 percent think that the Iraq war was worth it. That’s the lowest that figure has ever been, though it is still higher than Cheney’s approval rating when he left office, which was 13 percent.
But what’s more entertaining than a Dick Cheney vs. Rand Paul fight? Their differences are stark! And both are good copy and rile up readers and viewers. The fight helps both Paul and Cheney, too. Paul needs the Cheney cartoon vision of foreign policy realism to convince primary voters that they must vote for him to avoid a return of neoconservatives like the guy in the cowboy hat with the knife in his teeth. Cheney needs Paul to convince foreign policy hawks that they should listen to him because the party might flounder and wind up supporting an isolationist who will bring terrorists to our doorsteps.
The country has soured on Obama’s foreign policy stewardship. A plurality of 36 percent of the country thinks his policies have made America less safe, up from only 19 percent who felt that way in October 2011. For the past two years, the Republican Party has been regaining the edge on the question of which party do you trust on foreign policy, which it lost after the Bush-Cheney years.
The opportunity, say those on the right who critique Obama, is a foreign policy vision that outlines a more assertive American foreign policy than the one Paul would support but one that doesn’t necessarily revolve solely around military might.
The conversation about this new view of power is happening in the think tank world. Former Republican officials and their policy gurus are thinking through what power means in the 21st century. But what is required—especially in a campaign against Hillary Clinton, who has an expertise in foreign affairs—is an articulate champion of views who can get past the GOP’s association with the toxic Iraq war. But whoever the GOP’s foreign policy wise men are, they better speak up. Because right now Dick Cheney and Rand Paul are speaking for you.