Here’s Why GOP Interventionism Is Back
Republican hawks have regained some of their swagger. Lindsey Graham is talking with a straight face about running for president. Stephen Hayes opened a piece in the Weekly Standard by claiming, “The Republican flirtation with dovish noninterventionism is over. It wasn’t much of a thing.”
After trying and conspicuously failing to unseat Walter Jones or Justin Amash, what accounts for this new confidence? First, obviously, is the effect of world events on domestic political conditions.
Until recently, the most promising foreign-policy attacks on President Barack Obama came from a less interventionist direction. Being anti-drone and anti-surveillance, at least as far as the existing policies are concerned, was also “anti-Obama.” So was opposing weapons transfers and some forms of aid to Egypt.
It’s no accident that the most effective Republican criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy were related to these issues. When Republicans tried to out-hawk Obama, the president triangulated easily: his administration was killing terrorists like Osama bin Laden but avoiding costly new Iraq-style occupations. By and large, that’s the foreign policy the American people want.
But Iraq has since descended into chaos. The Islamic State is on the march in Iraq and Syria. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is on the move against Ukraine. The objective results of Obama’s foreign policy no longer look so good—Joe Biden’s 2012 boast that bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive feels like it was uttered a lifetime ago—and partisan jibes about “leading from behind” or Democratic dovishness have attained an air of plausibility.
Of course, the blame for many of these problems could be at least partially assigned to inept interventions on which many hawks wish to double down. It is hard to imagine that either Iraq or Libya would currently be teeming with jihadists, for example, in the absence of wars for regime change.
Nevertheless, the narrative that Obama is on the golf course while the Putins of the world are eating his lunch is better supported by the headlines.
Second, no new challenger to the hawks’ dominance of Republican foreign policy really emerged in this year’s primaries as Amash and Rand Paul did in 2010 or Thomas Massie in 2012. Incumbents like Jones and Amash beat back neoconservative primary opponents, but newcomers like Greg Brannon in North Carolina lost.
Graham faced at least two primary challengers who were critical of his hawkish foreign policy, Lee Bright and Nancy Mace. Neither of them really emerged and Graham was able to win re-nomination with relative ease, a fact that may account for him entertaining presidential ambitions now.
Third, the more hawkish Republicans are getting new reinforcements for the first time since Marco Rubio was elected. For a while, it seemed like some of the GOP foreign-policy debate reflected a generation gap. The hawks, aside from Rubio, were mainly older like John McCain and some of the House committee chairs. The intervention skeptics were generally younger and newer to Capitol Hill, especially after Ron Paul retired.
Tom Cotton is a relatively young hawk. He also finally seems poised to take out Democratic Sen. Mark Pyror in Arkansas, raising his profile from congressman to senator. Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall has run such a stridently liberal campaign that even a debate moderator called him “Mark Uterus.” But he has been a strong proponent of civil liberties and a skeptic of war, and he now may lose his seat to Republican Rep. Cory Gardner.
“Republican Senate candidates in North Carolina, Alaska, New Hampshire, Iowa, Arkansas, and elsewhere are running with a heavy emphasis on their hawkishness,” writes Hayes. It’s debatable how big of a role these candidates’ hawkishness is actually playing in their competitiveness and in at least two of those races—North Carolina and New Hampshire—the Republican hawk seems to be underperforming.
But none of them appear to be a Mike Lee or Ken Buck on foreign policy and civil liberties, much less an Amash or Paul. The 2010 Republican Senate candidate in West Virginia worried about the United States following the British Empire in decline “because they kept chasing things around the world.” Even Ted Cruz tried to appeal to conservatives and libertarians who wanted GOP foreign policy to look very different than it did under Bush-Cheney.
The Republican hawks should be careful about what they wish for, however. Their positions poll well among the GOP rank-and-file as long as they remain rhetorical weapons against the Democrats. If they ever actually got the opportunity to seriously contemplate putting boots on the ground in all the places McCain and Graham envision, the electorate would recoil quickly.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?