From reading the political press these days, one could get the impression that the Republican Party, from top to bottom, has radically altered its principles on foreign policy. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), an isolationist, is said to be a serious contender for the 2016 GOP nomination. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum have recently come out against military intervention in Syria, as have Tea Party heroes Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Last week the Hill reported:
“A decisive vote against President Obama’s plan for strikes in Syria would cement a sharp shift by the Republican Party away from the hawkish military posture it adopted after the terrorist attacks that occurred 12 years ago this week.”
Even some steadfast Republican hawks agree. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) told the Hill, “It’s probably an indication that the party has become less internationalist and more isolationist.”
But King should know his colleagues better than to think that the majority of them are expressing anything beyond reflexive opposition to President Obama. The politically shrewd approach for the party out of power in Washington is relentless opposition that makes the president look ineffectual, rather than cooperation that makes him look statesmanlike. Republicans’ landslide victory in the 2010 midterms vindicated that strategy. The only way to oppose Obama now is to oppose interventionism. But come 2016, we may see the re-emergence of interventionist Republicanism — and if not before they win back the White House, then surely thereafter.
Polls show that Republican voters remain more hawkish than Democrats, as they have been for decades. Earlier this summer, Republicans were more likely to back the Syria intervention by 10 points, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and you can be sure that gap would be wider if it were President Romney proposing the bombing. (CNN found virtually identical results to Pew.)
But those numbers have shifted. More recent polling from NBC News shows a decline in public support for attacking Syria, coming entirely from a drop among Republicans. What this suggests is not that Republicans have all suddenly changed their minds about America’s role in the world. Rather, their party leaders have opposed President Obama on everything, and the rank and file have followed suit. As Nate Cohn of The New Republic writes, “The easiest explanation is partisanship.”
Even the main beneficiary of this new partisan alignment, Rand Paul, knows it may be temporary. BuzzFeed’s political editor McKay Coppins raised the possibility of a more substantive realignment in his entertaining profile of Rand Paul last week:
“Paul’s brand of Republicanism has spread deeply within his party. He successfully rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers against a military intervention in Syria; thoroughly embarrassed Republican leaders who supported the air strikes; and temporarily elevated himself to the role of de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP…. Paul, in short, is winning.”
But Paul’s victory will be short-lived, as his views have spread shallowly rather than deeply. The evidence is in Coppins’ very next sentence:
“The Syria debate marked the first time since House Republicans tried to keep America out of the Kosovo conflict in 1999 that a libertarian approach to foreign policy seriously challenged the GOP’s old-guard caucus of hawks.”
What did Kosovo have in common with Syria? A Democrat was in the White House. Republicans do sometimes oppose military interventions, but rather than Syria being a shift towards principled pragmatism, it is just part of their tradition, going at least as far back as World War Two, of opposing wars only when their party is out of power.
Both parties tend to favor executive power, military action, and deficit spending when their party is in power and criticize the same things when they are on the sidelines. President George W. Bush ran for president proposing a “humble” foreign policy that would eschew “nation building.” He flip-flopped on that, just as President Obama has become more enamored of extra-constitutional approaches to fighting terrorists now that he sits in the Oval Office. And since Obama took office, congressional Republicans who supported full-scale invasion of Iraq have opposed much more limited interventions in Libya and Syria.
In general, though, one can observe certain tendencies over time: since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidents have run up larger budget deficits, and they tend to support more unilateral military action. That’s why some prominent Republican opponents of the Syria intervention, such as Rick Santorum and Marco Rubio, have simultaneously complained that Obama should have been more aggressive in supporting the rebels while contorting themselves to oppose anything Obama actually proposes. Their stance on Obama’s particular proposal in Syria does not signal a larger shift in their thinking on foreign policy, nor that they will try to out-dove the Democrats if they run for president in 2016. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the most popular Republican politician in the country, has adopted a hawkish foreign policy posture and attacked Rand Paul and libertarianism.
A lot of conservatives are also proudly proclaiming their party’s direction on foreign policy is a result of the rising popularity of libertarian conservatism. But that assumes that Republicans’ shift away from a bellicose foreign policy and towards smaller government is unrelated to which party holds the reins of power. When the other team controls the federal government, rediscovering your long lost small government principles rather than your affection for asserting American power in the Middle East is the opportunistic move.
Does any intelligent observer really believe that if super hawk John McCain had won in 2008 the years since would have seen a move towards foreign policy isolationism in the GOP? As Coppins writes, “Paul acknowledges that his ideas have benefitted from ‘a degree of partisanship’ on the right. Republicans, after all, might not be quite so skeptical of executive power, or outspoken against the ever-expanding surveillance state, once one of their own is in the Oval Office.”
The Paul family’s neo-isolationism is gaining a temporary foothold among congressional Republicans and Tea Party activists for the same reason that those two groups have recently joined the Pauls in opposing routine debt ceiling increases and loose monetary policy. And those fair-weather friends will abandon their newfound principles as soon as the next president they supported takes office.
Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Washington Monthly, The New Republic and The Guardian. Opinions are his own.