How Should Republicans React to Tyrants?

Maduro and Castro vs. Rubio and Cantor.

Florida Republican Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor Tuesday to slap down one of his colleagues. “A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba,” Rubio said. “[It] sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise.”

The senator in question was Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat who loves Cuba’s national health care system and at times sounds like he has read the Cuban ministry of propaganda’s talking points a bit too uncritically.

“I heard about their wonderful literacy rate, how everyone in Cuba knows how to read,” Rubio continued. “That’s fantastic. Here’s the problem: they can only read censored stuff. They’re not allowed access to the Internet. The only newspapers they’re allowed to read are Granma or the ones produced by the government.”

Rubio didn’t confine his remarks to the Castros’ dictatorship in Cuba. He also spoke at length about human-rights violations being perpetrated by Cuba’s imitators in Venezuela. “This is what they do in Venezuela,” he said after showing slides of beaten and detained demonstrators. “This is what the allies of the Castro regime does, this is what they export.”

Viva Rubio!” cheered the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. And indeed there is a hunger, especially among conservatives, for people to speak out as forcefully against tyranny abroad as they do against big government at home. That was Ronald Reagan’s approach, after all.

But many of the Republicans inclined to speak out in this fashion are men of action, not just words. And that’s where the cheering becomes less warranted. While Rubio has been more cautious than John McCain or Lindsey Graham, his wing of the party seldom sees a foreign crisis that does not call for sanctions, embargoes, even military action.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf examined House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s foreign-policy address at the Virginia Military Institute. The results were what you might expect. In Cantor’s telling, the United States pulled out of Iraq too soon and is about to make the same “mistake” in Afghanistan.

Cantor laments the Obama administration’s failure to pursue regime change in Syria and America’s “light footprint” in Libya. Add Iran to the list of targets—the like the size of the U.S. government, the Axis of Evil has grown since the Bush years—and sprinkle in China and North Korea.

But how many wars, cold and hot, can one country fight simultaneously? Cantor’s speech was titled “An America that Leads.” Too many Republicans base their foreign policy on an old journalism cliché: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

One of Ron Paul’s chief virtues is that he understands that limited government doesn’t end at the water’s edge. During the Republican debates of the last two presidential election cycles, he forcefully challenged his party’s hawks and the country’s largely unexamined shift toward a policy of preventive war.

But when it came to tyrannical governments overseas, Paul often sounded blasé. This wasn’t always the case. He once criticized communist regimes just as forcefully as the average Cold War hawk, without supporting all their military interventions. But he would not speak the way Rubio does today and, for good and for ill, found it impossible to comprehend (much less assuage) the GOP base’s post-9/11 fear of terrorism.

The Republican Party once had a leader who was able to speak honestly about the true nature of hostile foreign governments while at the same time hesitating to use military force. His name was Ronald Reagan. Reagan was no realist and certainly no noninterventionist. But the neoconservatives often liked his rhetoric much more than his actual policies.

Today, rhetoric is the one side of the equation necessary to qualify as a “neo-Reaganite” on foreign policy. No one skeptical of large-scale military interventions need apply. But maybe it’s possible to be frank about the way foreign dictators often mistreat their own people, while emphasizing America’s example, as opposed to its military might, as a possible corrective.

Despite reviving the GOP’s Old Right antiwar tradition, Ron Paul—an early supporter of Reagan in 1976, though later a critic—was unable to strike that balance. Perhaps the son can succeed where the father failed.

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