The New York Times has an article up titled "Foreign Policy Ascends as Issue for Republican Presidential Contenders." Headline notwithstanding, the piece is not about how internationally inexperienced governors such as Chris Christie and Scott Walker are blank slates onto which interventionist elites are projecting their ideological visions of American power. Nor is it a deep dive into the messy, real-world complications of more aggressively fighting against the amorphously barbaric Islamic State. (The only relevant policy statement in this story comes from Jeb Bush: "Taking them out is the strategy." Thanks for clearing that up, Jeb!) The article is not even an entertaining romp through outsider darling Ben Carson's potentially controversial ideas about whether America is prophecized to form an apocalyptically disastrous alliance with the Roman Catholic Papacy.
No, the Times is basically concerned with how "the hawkishness now defining the early campaign could imperil the presidential hopes of Senator Rand Paul." Witnesses for the prosecution include three notable Iraq War enthusiasts:
"The guy who's now got the biggest challenge because of this is Rand Paul," said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker. "The Rand Paul worldview, which I suspect will change, is just incompatible with reality." […]
"I think most of the Republican candidates or prospective candidates are headed in the right direction? there's one who's headed in the wrong direction," said [John] Bolton, suggesting most Republicans would be "horrified" by Mr. Paul's views on international affairs. […]
With Republican candidates increasingly attacking Mr. Obama for what they see as his unwillingness to project American strength, Mr. Paul's support for the administration's policies on such issues as negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program will stand out—and force him into some awkward situations.
"You're not going to find any of the Republicans, even those who might well have behaved like Obama, standing up and defending Obama," said Richard Perle, a prointerventionist defense official who served in the Reagan administration.
In fairness, Newt Gingrich is intimately familiar with foreign policy views that are "incompatible with reality," having asserted in March 2003 that "A hateful regime will be gone, and except for Saddam, French President Jacques Chirac and the media analysts, almost no one will have had the sky fall on the them."
And horrifying foreign policy views? I would definitely nominate Bolton's Orwell-mangling notion that to oppose an American-led war against a dictator is equivalent to being objectively pro-dictator. That kind of shoddy argumentation has a lousy track record in producing policy successes.
Even at this war-weary date, there are few penalties in American public life for being overly enthusiastic about military intervention. Intervention-skeptics, meanwhile (particularly though not only within the Republican Party), are treated like potentially radioactive aberrants, no matter how much their views line up with American public opinion. Mix that all up with the utter lack of concrete policy interest apparent in 95 percent of political reporting, and you get a lot of content-free chest-thumping about getting tough and facing down our enemies and so forth. (My favorite example with Bolton: After the Russians began biting off chunks of Ukraine, we asked him what he would concretely do different if he were president right now, and he said to go back in time and admit Ukraine into NATO.)
It's true that voters (and especially Republicans) are feeling more hawkish towards ISIS right now, that Rand Paul will be constantly put on the defensive, and that his own specific views on intervention can be worthy of criticism and difficult to pin down. (To see an attempt at the latter, read my January issue Q&A with the senator here.) But it's also true that Paul's foreign policy views have been persistently attacked for years, without knocking him far from the lead in the GOP field. Call me an optimistic realist (or something), but I think there's political space for a candidate to suggest that U.S. military interventions in the Middle East are fraught with unforeseen dangers, and should be approached less promiscuously than in the past. As Paul foreign advisor Richard Burt tells the Times,
He needs to talk through with primary voters the kinds of questions that need to be asked before we commit U.S. forces abroad: How we can't just have a visceral reaction. How does this impact American interests and security?
Watch Reason TV on the Rand Paul/GOP foreign policy divide from the 2012 Republican National Convention: