NASHUA, N.H. (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham took their debate over America’s role in the world from the U.S. Senate floor to the campaign trail on Saturday in an early sign that foreign policy is likely to be a flash point in the 2016 election.
At a gathering of 18 potential and actual White House contenders, Paul accused fellow Republicans of being too willing to commit U.S. troops to foreign conflicts without a clear idea of how to get them out.
“We have to decide when getting involved is good and when it’s not so good,” the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator said. “There’s a group of folks in our party who think it’s always good. There’s a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more.”
That drew a rebuke from Graham, a South Carolina senator and Air Force reservist who frequently criticizes Democratic President Barack Obama for not being aggressive enough with adversaries like Iran and the Islamic State. Graham has not yet declared his candidacy but says he will make up his mind in the coming months.
“His foreign policy views are more in line with Obama than they are with the Republican Party,” Graham told Reuters.
At this point, Paul appears to be the man out. Most of the other Republicans seen as potential candidates have lined up behind the party’s traditionally aggressive approach to foreign policy, despite the unpopularity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were started by the last Republican president, George W. Bush.
“Obviously, Rand Paul’s an outlier,” said former diplomat John Bolton, a foreign-policy hawk who is considering a White House run.
Though nearly 20 Republicans are viewed as likely candidates, only Paul, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have formally declared that they will run.
Foreign policy could be an advantage for whichever Republican candidate goes on to face former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or another Democrat in the November 2016 election. Likely voters say Republicans are more likely than Democrats to deal with the threat of terrorism by a seven-point margin, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. (goo.gl/YB77Hc)
Paul said the United States often creates greater instability when it gets involved in chaotic places. “Why in hell did we ever go into Libya in the first place?”
Speaking a few hours later, Graham said the United States will inevitably have to send ground troops back to the Middle East to avert another September 11-style attack.
“The people taking this stage, telling you ‘Just leave them alone, stay away from those people, don’t get involved,’ well, that won’t work because they’re not going to leave you alone,” he said.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Diane Craft