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These questions remained as unaddressed last night as the two biggest legacies of Bush-era front-leading, America's never-ending and continuously deadly military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. As many fans of Rice's well-received speech last night noted, a talent for public speaking does not automatically translate into an aptitude for effective or even coherent management of foreign policy.
"We stand for free peoples and free markets. We will defend and support them," Rice said. Does that include those who seek freedom in dictatorships that America actively supports, like Saudi Arabia?
Lest there be any doubt where even the fiscal conservative wing of the mainstream GOP stands on foreign policy hawkery, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan sealed the evening's Rand Paul rout with yet another shout-out for American exceptionalism:
"In our dealings with other nations, a Romney-Ryan administration will speak with confidence and clarity," Ryan said. "Wherever men and women rise up for their own freedom, they will know that the American president is on their side. Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known."
Two hours before Rand Paul's speech, a gathering of 100 or so people a few blocks away gave a more accurate indicator of where a Romney/Ryan administration might go with foreign policy. In it, Weekly Standard Editor and prominent neoconservative William Kristol conversed with senior Romney adviser and potential secretary of state Tim Pawlenty about how a Republican restoration might play out in the world. It took about 20 seconds after I entered the room before the conversation turned to making sure that "all options are on the table" with Iran.
"I believe it would be in our best interests to do everything that we can to make sure the Iranians believe that we are not bluffing," Pawlenty said, pointing to the freeing of U.S. hostages on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration as an example of changing Tehran's behavior through the demonstrated firmness of resolve. ("I don't think that was a coincidence," he said.)
At the end of the conversation, Kristol expressed gratitude that, even with the economy ailing and the country tired of war, Republicans have rejected the "Buchananite" and "Ron Paulite" temptation of "isolationist" and "protectionist" policies. "We've done our part to prevent that," he said, also giving nod to the anti-Tehran resolve of the GOP presidential field. "Ron Paul was the outlier."
There is no doubt that Kristol is right in the short term, as last night's proceedings attested. Republican foreign policy will be Bush/McCain foreign policy, campaigning on being more robustly interventionist than the war-starting/extending Barack Obama. So does that mean Rand Paul took a sucker's bet?
Not necessarily. Last night's speeches may have contained paeans to America's global policework, but the lines only really drew enthusiastic response when they praised troops or dinged Obama, not when they articulated more Bushism. The speakers avoided talking about the real-world applications of their philosophy, perhaps because those results are wildly (and deservedly) unpopular.
Like a minority Supreme Court opinion, Rand Paul is injecting a long-overdue counter-framework into the conversation, in the hopes that he can eventually rally a majority around his ideas. There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that Ron Paul intends his son to be his more-palatable political heir, and that Rand will be running for president in 2016, either as a radical course-change from Obama or as a dissident uprising against Romney. They are still playing the long game.
It's a thin consolation prize considering the wars and spending and surveillance and assassination to come over the next four years. But if and when America has its day of reckoning, when fiscal and imperial and monetary overstretch necessitate a sharp break from past policy, we'll be grateful that someone within shouting distance of power was laying out a radically different path.