In another part of his post on Republican foreign policy reform, Ross Douthat considers Rand Paul’s tenure in the Senate so far as an example of how to broaden Republican foreign policy debate:
Paul is, in essence, a non-interventionist who’s been trying to rebrand himself as a realist to better influence a party that’s been dominated by hawkish voices since the early 2000s. And his strategy, crucially, has been neither the “go along to get along” approach that McCarthy criticizes nor some kind of frontal, guns-blazing assault on the “Fox-fed” ideas of “Tea Party neocons.” Instead, Paul has done what successful politicians tend to do: He’s picked his battles, done outreach to his critics, and consistently framed his arguments in language that conservative voters and activists understand. This has enabled him to break with the party’s hawkish tilt on a number of substantive questions, from the Libya and Syria debates to issues of executive power to the question of whether containment should be an option for dealing with Iran, without coming in for anything like the attacks that greeted Hagel’s nomination.
One might point out the important difference that Hagel was nominated for a major Cabinet position with the potential to have some direct influence on administration policy. He faced an extraordinary smear campaign and a concerted effort to block him because his record of mild dissent might conceivably affect the making of policy. Sen. Paul has faced relatively limited resistance to his foreign policy views so far because he is a junior senator in the minority. Rand Paul’s opposition to the Libyan war or his rejection of arming Syrian rebels has not provoked the same kind of full-scale onslaught directed at Hagel because no one in the party views his dissenting positions on these specific issues to be as threatening or worrisome as Hagel’s role at the Pentagon. Sen. Paul can argue that containment of Iran should be an option without serious consequences because he is in no position to implement a policy of containment. Hagel was made to disavow this idea because he would be in a top administration position.
Sen. Paul has not yet encountered the same degree of hostility because he does not yet pose enough of a threat to the ideological enforcers that have been obsessed with blocking and/or damaging Hagel. One other reason that he has not yet been given the Hagel treatment is that he has not broken ranks with a Republican administration on a major foreign policy issue. The treatment accorded to Hagel in recent months is very likely to be a foreshadowing of what Sen. Paul can expect from the same people in a few years’ time, because these enforcers obviously have no interest in accurate or fair portrayals and they won’t be placated by attempts to speak in terms that conservatives would understand. That’s what shouldn’t be forgotten. Republican advocates of restraint and skeptics of military action can frame their arguments in language that is acceptable to movement conservative audiences as much as they want, but it won’t stop the heresy-hunters in the movement and the party from seeking their political ruin.
Dan can speak for himself, but in my view the Hagel confirmation process was proof that realists have no place in the contemporary GOP because the Senate Republican and movement conservative reaction to Hagel’s nomination was the equivalent of a bright, flashing sign saying, “No realists need apply.” The message and the loathing it conveyed were unmistakable. Can anyone seriously look back at the last three months of Republican hysteria and panic over Hagel’s nomination and say that Dan’s analysis is wrong? I don’t think so.