It's hard to remember through the fog of constant war, but the 2008 presidential election was a contest between two candidates who were propelled into their nominations by the anti-war vote.
Barack Obama, we remember. He was the one who opposed the Iraq war in real time, campaigned on that stance daily, and benefited from the pent-up passion of that once huge but now nearly extinct tribe known as the anti-war left. As the Iraq war and President George W. Bush each became less popular by the day, Obama became the conduit for people frustrated by the foreign policy status quo.
John McCain was arguably the most interventionist major-party nominee in several generations; in 1998 he authored the idea of "rogue-state rollback," whereby the U.S. would fund anti-dictator insurgents all over the globe and come to their defense militarily should the authoritarian regimes gain the upper hand. But he nonetheless received a plurality of the anti-war vote—roughly double that of a principled noninterventionist, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)—during the crucial early-state GOP primaries that sealed his nomination. Such was his original reputation as a media-friendly "maverick" that journalists and voters alike assumed the guy they liked so much couldn't possibly be in favor of constant pre-emptive war.
Such are the inadequacies of America's two-party system: The majoritarian impulse against war and global police work gets funneled into candidates who openly campaign, as Obama did, on redoubling old interventions (such as the war in Afghanistan) while being open to launching new ones (such as the war in Libya).
The lesser of two interventionists not only has turned out to be fond of deploying military force, to the point of using his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech as an opportunity to muse on the concept of "just war"; he also has embraced and extended many of his predecessor's controversial methods for waging war, from warrantless surveillance to secret overseas detention camps. We now live in a country where the president asserts and flexes his right to send drone assassins after any human being (including any American) he identifies as an enemy anywhere in the world.
For the beleaguered anti-war remnant, the temptation is always to throw out the trigger puller in chief, in the hope that the new regime will take a less meddlesome and costly approach. But in 2012, despite the rise of a small but growing band of intervention skeptics within the national GOP, the Republican Party has openly campaigned on restoring, not pruning, America's primary role in world affairs.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney—like almost all of his challengers, from Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum to Tim Pawlenty—is an Iran hawk, promising to leave "all options open" in the quest to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. "The Iranian leadership," Romney told Human Events in October 2009, "is the greatest immediate threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany."
That is not a recipe for the kind of "humble" foreign policy that George W. Bush advocated before the 9/11 attacks. Nor is Romney's vow to keep military spending no lower than 4 percent of gross domestic product, which would amount to an estimated 42 percent hike during his first term at a time when (as Republicans otherwise like to remind us) the federal government is overstretched and dangerously indebted.
The top of the Republican ticket, including vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has a reputation as a fiscal conservative, is campaigning as if the post-9/11 Bush foreign policy was coherent, popular, effective, and affordable. It was none of the above.
At the 2012 Republican National Convention in August, the GOP tried to present a unified front, selling this warmed-over Bushism to the assembled delegates and the nation at large. McCain devoted nearly all of his speech to foreign policy, warning (inaccurately) that "we can't afford another $500 billion in cuts in our defense budget on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts that the president is already making." (In fact, Obama's "cuts" were only trims in projected growth.)
McCain pilloried the president for not providing military help to insurgents in Iran and Syria, dubiously claiming: "The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater. People don't want less of America; they want more.…If America doesn't lead, our adversaries will, and the world will go darker, poorer, and much more dangerous."
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was greeted at the convention with a hero's welcome, made a similar (and similarly vague) case for a renewed American exceptionalism. "I know…there is a wariness," Rice said. "I know that it feels as if we have carried these burdens long enough. But we can only know that there is no choice, because one of two things will happen if we don't lead: Either no one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind."
The last line, based on a quote from an anonymous Obama administration functionary in a May 2011 New Yorker article about U.S. diplomacy and the Arab Spring, has become the Republicans' favorite snarky put-down of Obama's foreign policy. It neatly encapsulates the chest thumping that passes for international theorizing within the GOP mainstream.
America must lead from the front! OK, swell, but what's the limiting principle? Where do busted budgets and backlash fit into the equation? If other countries always look to Washington to take responsibility, will they ever begin to behave responsibly on their own? Does this unbounded vision of American power reflect any awareness that power inevitably corrupts?
The one Republican who consistently asks such questions is now retiring from politics (see Senior Editor Brian Doherty's "Ron Paul: Man of the Left," page 30). At the GOP convention, Paul's anti-interventionist supporters were repeatedly given the back of the party's hand, in a series of procedural skirmishes and shouting matches. Dr. No was not offered a speaking slot—understandable, since he did not offer the requisite endorsement of Mitt Romney—but he was granted a four-minute tribute video. The one issue that went unmentioned even once during the montage? Paul's foreign policy critique, the single biggest engine of his support.
One politician did break the on-stage silence of the noninterventionists: Paul's son and putative political heir, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In a speech that was well received by the sort of people who wouldn't give his dad the time of day (Commentary magazine's John Podhoretz exclaimed "Rand Paul is a star!"), the curly-haired Tea Party champion issued a critique that the GOP has long needed to hear. "Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent," Paul said. "And we must never—never—trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security."
Paul represents a minority strain among the GOP's Capitol Hill caucus. His ideas will not inform a Romney foreign policy, and they are unlikely to forestall a second term for Obama. No matter who wins in November, the American president will wage existing wars, start new ones, and flex executive power in a way that makes principled libertarians wince.
But you can't win the battle of ideas without being able to state them to the audiences that matter. It's not much consolation for the lives that will be lost, or the treasure that will be squandered, but at least Rand Paul is letting future voters and politicians know there is an alternative.