Both Huntsman and Johnson have favored fighting with social conservatives over rethinking foreign policy — with dismal poll numbers to show for it. So despite initial impressions that much has changed since 2008, the Republican foreign policy debate may remain Paul versus everyone else.
For the most part, this is right. It is a measure of how little has changed that two of the most prominent people Antle identifies as challengers of the party consensus on foreign policy are Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels. Whatever his reservations about nation-building, Christie has endorsed Romney, so there is nothing in Romney’s foreign policy agenda to which he objects strongly enough to keep him from supporting Romney’s nomination. There is much less to the idea of Christie as a skeptic of activist foreign policy than meets the eye, but even if there weren’t Christie has made it clear that re-thinking America’s role in the world is not a top priority. Gov. Daniels was probably the most outspoken advocate of cutting military spending and re-examining overseas commitments, but he was also known to be one of the people most eager to see Paul Ryan run. Ryan has made clear that he has no interest in reducing military spending or re-examining foreign entanglements.
It’s true that foreign policy isn’t the reason why these two have expressed support for Romney and Ryan. In both cases, it is economic policy and entitlement proposals respectively that have trumped everything else, which points to something more significant about the new batch of Republican skeptics. Christie called for greater discrimination in what the U.S. tries to accomplish abroad, but that doesn’t matter to him all that much so long as Romney’s economic policy is satisfactory. Ryan’s entitlement proposals mattered far more to Daniels than the former’s full embrace of hegemonist arguments. Even when a leading Republican is willing to advance arguments for restraint and prudence in foreign policy, there are usually other issues that take much greater precedence. This is one reason why unabashed hegemonists often receive the backing of more skeptical Republican politicians, and why the 30-40% of Republicans who are now regularly opposed to military adventures and nation-building are continually under-represented in the presidential field and the party’s national leadership: most of the skeptics care far more about other issues, so they’re willing to support candidates whose foreign policy they don’t support.
On a related point, one reason why the debate keeps returning to “Paul versus everyone else” is that Rep. Paul doesn’t repeat standard mantras about supposedly grave, existential threats from other states when common sense tells him that the threat is minimal. Almost everyone else (except Johnson) feels compelled to repeat what many of them must know is nonsense because it is expected that they should demonstrate “toughness.” At the Ames debate earlier this year, Paul put the supposedly great Iranian threat in perspective by comparing it to the threat that the USSR once posed, and noted that the U.S. managed to contain and deter the much greater Soviet threat. He went on to say, “Iran is a threat because they have some militants there, but believe me, they’re all around the world and they’re not a whole lot different than others.” So here we have Paul acknowledging a threat from Iran, but refusing to exaggerate it or hype it into something that it isn’t. This leads Antle to make the untrue statement that he “sometimes sounds as if he is suggesting Iran is a benign power.” Of course, there is a world of difference between saying that the minimal Iranian threat to the United States is something that can be managed and claiming that the Iranian regime is “benign.” The relevant question is whether the threat from Iran is so intolerable that it requires the U.S. to adopt policies of ever-tightening sanctions or preventive war. The answer is clearly no, but that doesn’t stop almost all of the Republican candidates from backing such policies. So long as the others feel that they must at least pay lip service to the idea that Iran is a monstrously powerful threat to the United States, Republican foreign policy debate is going to remain heavily biased in favor of confrontation and war.