They could caucus in a phone booth. They are known as “realists,” and their default position on questions of foreign policy and national security is one of skepticism about the value of interventions abroad and of respect for privacy at home. In a debate largely being litigated within the ranks of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill, the realists don’t have a prayer of prevailing in an up-or-down vote against the neoconservative wing of the party, proponents of an interventionist ethos to embed American values in lands far removed from domestic shores and traditions.
And yet the realists soldier on. They consider restraint a virtue and argue that foreign military adventures inevitably entail unpleasant and unforeseeable consequences. To nobody’s surprise, the realists were trounced on September 13 when the Senate slammed the door on Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s challenge to the legal authority that administrations of both parties have embraced since 9/11 to wage war. Paul’s target was actually two laws, each known as an AUMF, or “authorization for the use of military force.” One AUMF, enacted in 2001, allowed the government to pursue terrorists in the wake of 9/11; the other, passed a year later, flashed a legal green light for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
The Senate vote, rejecting Paul’s measure 61 to 36, was the first on an AUMF in 15 years. The idea that the government is taking war actions on the basis of outdated laws persuades realists such as Paul that Congress is shirking its constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on questions of war and peace. Or, as Representative Dave Brat of Virginia put it in a Facebook post, “Passing the buck.” Trump administration decisions to up the ante in Afghanistan and to launch a retaliatory missile strike against the Assad regime in Syria lend a sense of urgency to the debate.
More broadly, the realist-neocon debate defines a fault line on issues that include sanctions, military spending, basing decisions overseas, NATO expansion, the electronic surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act, and much more.
Within the ranks of the congressional realists are two Capitol Hill lifers—Representatives John Duncan of Tennessee and Walter Jones of North Carolina. Both became realists with the votes they cast years ago on U.S. military intervention in Iraq. The other realists brought their worldview with them as they entered Congress: Rand Paul and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and Representatives Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky, and Brat.
At least one Democrat, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, consistently reflects a realist position in her votes and public statements. Other Democrats can be counted on for support on particular issues: California Representative Barbara Lee and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine on the need for an updated AUMF; Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy on issues related to Syria and the Middle East. The underlying philosophy may be different, but realists also can count on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s vote on many issues of consequence to them.
America’s role in world affairs may be the overarching question, but Gabbard’s battlefield experience infuses the debate with the perspective of a veteran whose résumé includes two combat tours in Iraq. A major in a National Guard medical unit responsible for the combat zone welfare of 3,000 soldiers, Gabbard fumes at the failure of decision makers to grapple with what she describes as “the devastation, suffering, and destruction” left in war’s wake. Also on her radar is an oddity of American regime-change policy that has permitted the flow of taxpayer dollars to terrorist networks, even including ISIS and al-Qaeda, as part of the effort to unseat Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Gabbard has introduced legislation to stop that. Jones, Lee, and Massie are among her House cosponsors. Paul has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
Unlike Brat, who flies under the radar to keep a focus on constituent and mainstream conservative issues, Jones is upfront about his dissents from neocon orthodoxy. His apostasy did not come lightly. First elected to the House in 1994, Jones found himself representing a district with two important Marine installations plus about 80,000 military retirees. Much of his turf was once his father’s— Walter B. Jones Sr., a Democrat, who served in the House from 1966 to 1992. Jones explains his current contrarian posture as if it were penance for supporting the now outdated measure that gave the Bush administration authority to invade Iraq.
A short time after casting that vote he found himself at a funeral for a local Marine, killed in action. The widow was close by—in tears. “I cried with the wife, and it awakened me to what I had done,” Jones recalls. Compounding his sense of guilt was the knowledge that he had cast a “yes” vote despite a suspicion that the administration had manipulated the evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
Duncan’s route to realism was similar but not identical. Duncan, also the son of a longtime congressman, voted in 2002 against the Iraq invasion bill. The vote was courageous given the hype and post-9/11 emotionalism of that moment. It placed Duncan in a precarious minority; only seven other Republicans in Congress did likewise. One of them was Rand Paul’s father, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
“I thought it might be ending my political career,” Duncan recalls. “It shocked my constituents, and, for three, four years, it was clearly the most unpopular vote I ever cast. Then, slowly, slowly, slowly it became the most popular I ever cast.”
Duncan, who is retiring at the end of his current term, cast that vote all the wiser for having voted for the first Gulf War in 1991. He supported Desert Storm on the strength of warnings from the first Bush administration that Saddam Hussein was a threat to peace, stability, and the regional balance of power. Once the fighting started, the Iraqi troops showed little war-fighting prowess. Duncan concluded that the premise for intervention was flawed.
Duncan supported Donald J. Trump over the 16 other competitors for last year’s GOP presidential nomination because he chose to hear only the notes of what sounded like foreign policy realism in Trump’s rhetoric. And now he and his realist colleagues are dealing not only with the fire and fury of a warlike president but a sense of deja vu: They had been heartened by George W. Bush’s rhetoric of realism and restraint during the 2000 presidential campaign when the then-Texas governor was promising not to pursue nation-building as president.
That didn’t last long after 9/11. Soon Bush was transformed into a crusader president who would be egged on by a growing body of congressional neocons. “I think presidents, when they are put in a position of holding so much power, feel compelled to use that power,” says Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Liberty Caucus in the House and is an outspoken defender of American privacy rights.
Amash describes himself as “a Hayekian libertarian”—a reference to F. A. Hayek, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and political philosopher. With a libertarian’s suspicion that government’s heavy hand in setting national security and foreign policy is likely only to make matters worse, Amash adds, “I believe we should have peaceful relations with other countries…and be cautious about military engagement and military adventurism.”
That attitude plays well in Michigan’s Third Congressional District, once Gerald Ford’s political base. “Back home, neoconservatism is not popular,” Amash says. “Most constituents don’t hold that worldview, and they would not want me to hold that worldview.”
When Trump launched a missile strike last April to punish the Assad regime for an alleged chemical attack on its own citizens, Utah’s Senator Lee was quick with a rebuke, saying, “The Constitution, with good reason, says that in order to declare war, you have to go to Congress.”
Like other realists, Lee has also been a hawk on safeguarding American privacy rights from government surveillance and specifically on checking provisions of the Patriot Act he considers intrusive on civil liberties.
Sanctions policy also constitutes a flash point between realists and neocons. Amash, Massie, and Duncan accounted for the three Republican floor votes in the House on July 25 against a bill to toughen sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Like his fellow realists, Massie dismisses sanctions as ineffective, counterproductive, likely to punish innocent citizens at home, and an albatross burdening U.S. companies trying to do business overseas.
Thus he was chagrined that one of his first votes when he arrived on the House floor in early 2012 was in support of a sanction. The measure was embedded in a convoluted legislative confection written to accomplish two goals at once: to repeal the Cold War- era sanctions on the old Soviet Union for barring its Jewish citizens from emigrating to Israel and to impose a new set of sanctions to punish Russia for the death of a whistleblower, Sergei Magnitsky.
An MIT graduate with a goofy sense of humor, Massie describes the measure as a “crap sandwich.” The promise to get rid of the outdated emigration sanctions law represented the bread, while resumed meddling in Russia’s politics by imposing an entirely new set of sanctions represented the rest of the sandwich.
Then there is NATO. During a visit in early August to the Republic of Georgia, Vice President Mike Pence strongly supported Georgia’s admission to the Atlantic security alliance.
Pence’s rhetoric at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili made clear that membership would include the full panoply of American military support if the Russian bear were to make ugly noises towards its neighbor.
Paul saw that one coming over two years ago. “Not advisable,” Paul said in a 2015 interview with Reason, noting that Georgia historically has fallen within Russia’s geographic sphere of influence. “We have to approach things from where we are, and not from where we want to be,” said Paul.
Their shared libertarian/realist views lend continuity to the careers of the Pauls, father and son. At one time or another, they both have had their sights trained on Arizona Senator John McCain, the old neocon war- horse of regime-change battles, past and present.
After running in the 2008 GOP presidential primaries, Ron Paul refused to endorse McCain, the eventual nominee. In an op-ed posted last spring on CNN, Rand Paul took aim at McCain and his close political ally, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: “They’ve been wrong about every major intervention of the past two decades in the Middle East. Maybe it is time to quit listening to them.”
There are costs to being an unbending maverick. Jones has faced leadership-backed challengers in previous Republican primaries and is bracing for another. In one recent election cycle, outside groups dumped more than $1 million into the effort to evict him from Congress. He has been passed over for subcommittee chairmanships on the House Armed Services Committee as payback for his contrarian views on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Asked how American policy would be different if realists were in charge on Capitol Hill, Massie says, “It would involve a much smaller global footprint for the United States.…We would leave Afghanistan. We would not be trying to engage in another war in Syria. I think we need to listen to South Korea on the issue of North Korea. They stand to have millions of casualties in the first few hours of a war with North Korea.”
Gabbard attributes the nuclear-arms standoff on the Korean peninsula to “decades of U.S.-led regime change wars.” This history, she explains, has caused Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to double down on his nuclear stockpile, hoping to avoid the fate of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both lost their power and their lives once they gave up efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.
Interventionism, declares Gabbard, has been “a destructive legacy.”
Finlay Lewis has covered Washington for nearly half a century. He is currently a contributing writer for CQ-Roll Call.