Unleashed: The GOP vs. The World

The GOP has become wedded to a liberation doctrine that essentially allows its champions to present bombing and invading countries at will as acts of supreme moral virtue.

May-June 2015

IN FEBUARY 2013, Senator Rand Paul delivered a speech at the Heritage Foundation. It was called “Restoring the Founders’ Vision of Foreign Policy.” In it Paul sought to outline a fresh foreign-policy path for the Republican Party, which was tepidly beginning to debate the limits of intervention abroad. At the outset Paul declared, “I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.” He argued that radical Islam posed a threat to the United States but that the best way to defang it wasn’t to engage in permanent wars in the Middle East. Instead, he invoked the shade of George F. Kennan, asserting that a containment policy toward Iran and other countries would be the most effective way of deterring America’s foes:

I think all of us have the duty to ask where are the Kennans of our generation? When foreign policy has become so monolithic, so lacking in debate that Republicans and Democrats routinely pass foreign policy statements without debate and without votes, where are the calls for moderation, the calls for restraint?

Anyone who questions the bipartisan consensus is immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged. The most pressing question of the day, Iran developing nuclear weapons, is allowed to have less debate in this country than it receives in Israel.

Paul’s speech did not receive much attention, but the following month his thirteen-hour-long filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to become CIA director did. Paul became something of a folk hero for his rather sweeping denunciation, on civil-liberties grounds, of the Obama administration’s widespread use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Paul said he would “speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”

Two years later, as the Republican presidential race heats up, however, the GOP is doubling down, whether the issue is government surveillance or confronting foreign adversaries. One possible presidential aspirant at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference said this about the need to counter the virulent threat posed by the Islamic State: “When I look at spending and what we should spend money on—this or that or national defense—for me, the priority is always national defense. . . . Our freedom is threatened from outside our borders.”

The speaker was Rand Paul. In recent months, Paul seems to have experienced a conversion when it comes to intervention abroad. Paul, who has repeatedly come under heavy fire from neoconservatives, is not simply offering rhetorical bonbons to mollify his detractors, but also refurbishing his foreign-policy stands. And his pivot is meeting with some degree of success: “It’s nice to have a common view from a Republican point of view of the role of national security,” Senator Lindsey Graham told the New York Times. Paul has offered a bill to cut off aid to Palestinians, reversed himself on drones—“If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and fifty dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him”—signed a GOP Senate letter formulated by freshman Senator Tom Cotton whose purpose was to imperil the Obama administration’s attempts to reach a nuclear agreement with Tehran, and proposed boosting defense spending.


WHY IS Paul flip-flopping? Why is former Florida governor Jeb Bush signing on neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq War, while repudiating establishment figures like former secretary of state James Baker? And why is Senator Marco Rubio demanding that President Obama unilaterally halt the “spread of totalitarianism” in China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Russia, among other countries?

Much of the answer can be traced to the fact that the GOP has, over the years, become wedded to a liberation doctrine that essentially allows its champions to present bombing and invading other countries at will as acts of supreme moral virtue. The crucible for that doctrine was the 1950s, when a small insurgency on the right—what Dean Acheson called “the attack of the primitives”—targeted both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations as soft on Communism. After China went red and Stalin’s Soviet Union exploded an atomic bomb, a radical conservative faction, spearheaded by William F. Buckley Jr., declared that the Truman administration had it all wrong. Containment was inadequate, a cowardly recipe for defeat. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who fired Kennan from the Foreign Service in July 1953, promised nothing less than the rollback of Communism.

As Russian tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956, however, the Eisenhower administration stood pat. Rollback was exposed as so much bluff and bombast. But as Sam Tanenhaus noted in the previous issue of The National Interest, for Senator Barry Goldwater and his admirers the dream remained alive. They went to war—against the liberal Republican establishment that allegedly was intent on appeasing America’s foreign enemies.