When Rand Paul protested the Obama administration’s secretive drone policy by filibustering John Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA, it galvanized the Republican Party. He was joined not just by constitutional conservatives who owed their election to the Tea Party, but mainstream members of the Republican leadership team.
Republicans who had never publicly given much thought to drone strikes before, either in the United States or abroad, wrapped themselves in the mantle of “Stand with Rand.” Republican committees even raised money off the 13-hour filibuster.
Paul’s attempted filibuster of judicial nominee David Barron was less eventful. Barron wrote the controversial legal memo justifying the extrajudicial killing of American citizens. Its legal reasoning was invoked against Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, on the grounds that Awlaki was a member of al Qaeda.
The junior senator from Kentucky spoke for about a half an hour. There was no great outpouring of Republican support. The one Democrat who crossed party lines to support last year’s filibuster, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, said he respected Paul’s “intellectual rigor” but wound up supporting Barron.
Zack Beauchamp writes that waning interest in drone strikes among Republicans coincides with increasing focus on Benghazi, soon the subject of a select committee investigation. “The more party pushes on Benghazi,” claims Beauchamp, “the more it commits itself to an aggressive foreign policy.”
Certainly that’s a possibility. But it’s worth noting that Paul’s initial drone filibuster succeeded after the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi first became a major concern on the right. Paul’s exchange with Hillary Clinton over the Obama administration’s Benghazi reaction was, in fact, was a huge hit with conservatives over two months before he pivoted to Brennan and drones.
Suffice it to say that Republicans—and particularly Tea Party conservatives—still have competing impulses on foreign policy. Hawkishness may still be the dominant impulse, but that doesn’t mean the foreign-policy debate is altogether lost.
During the drone filibusters, Paul has focused less on the potential blowback from collateral damage overseas than the Bill of Rights implications of striking American citizens. The reason for that is simple: it places the McCain-Graham wing of the party in the position of betting on Barack Obama’s omniscience; it also illustrates the tensions between expansive war powers and constitutionally limited government.
Most conservative Republicans don’t trust Obama’s IRS. Why would they trust him with even a theoretical a presidential kill list? And contra Lindsey Graham, many conservatives don’t think of the United States as a battlefield—they regard it as a constitutional republic.
Benghazi may be a battle cry among GOP hawks, but it also serves as a parable illustrating the perils of feel-good interventionism. The vacuum created by U.S.-led regime change in Libya has clearly unleashed and empowered al-Qaeda and other anti-American terrorist actors. Much the same thing happened on a bigger scale in Iraq, but this war was initiated by a Democratic president without even the modicum of congressional approval sought by George W. Bush, or even the illusion of a connection to 9/11.
No 9/11 connection beforehand, that is. The Benghazi tragedy occurred on the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States.
One can argue, as many Republicans do, that the solution to problems created or exacerbated by military interventions is a bigger military footprint. Boots on the ground in Libya, no withdrawals from Iraq or Afghanistan, no matter what the local governments say.
Yet conservatives have long recognized unintended consequences and sunk costs in other contexts. When billions or trillions have been spent on some unrealized social objective at home, they are the first to object when someone suggests the solution is to spend a few billion or trillion more. They are also the first to question whether Medicaid expansion is more likely to bring about the health outcomes enjoyed by members of Congress—or veterans on waiting lists at the VA.
Alas, conservatives don’t always think this way about war. From Vietnam to Iraq, they have often sounded like heavily armed liberals defending flailing government programs: all that is necessary is more resources and more confidence in the mission. But there is no reason conservatives couldn’t start to think of war and foreign policy this way, especially if conservative leaders they trust start to make this case to them.
Even if such an argument can’t be won in the 2016 primaries, it is still worth having. Yes, it will be more difficult to mobilize conservatives against an interventionist Republican president than a Democratic commander-in-chief. It will still be better in the long term to have prominent conservative skeptics of military adventurism speaking out no matter which party holds the White House.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?