Rand and Rubio’s war for the future of war

Christopher Bedford | Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation

There’s a war waging within the Republican Party, and even the most casual observers are starting to notice. Its outcome will determine the foreign policy of the GOP and, if they’re lucky, the country.

The basis of the conflict is this: The GOP has been without a coherent foreign policy since President George W. Bush left the White House in 2008. In the absence of any single executive leader, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have dominated the debate, promoting, by and large, a continuation of Mr. Bush’s hawkish freedom agenda.

Using their decades of experience, their roles in prominent committees, their rank and their access, the two filled the void, advocating for a robust American military and an assertive projection of force.

But a key aspect of Messrs. McCain and Graham’s dominance in GOP foreign policy was their prominent roles in promoting it on cable news. And here’s a secret: The folks who run cable news consider a U.S. senator’s opinion on any issue — including foreign policy — worthy of coverage. That means that if any U.S. senator decided they, too, had a point of view on foreign policy, they could join the debate. And, it just so happens, two young men had just that intent.

Enter: Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — two men who are seeking to define the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. They are also two men who differ greatly in their views on America’s proper role in the world. And, we dare suggest, it is very likely that one of them — but only one of them — will win.

Mr. Rubio’s rise in the GOP’s foreign policy debate began in earnest in 2012 when the freshman senator gave a speech at the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

In the bipartisan, hawkish speech, he spoke of “how good a strong and engaged America has been for the world” and “that what happens all over the world is our business.”

He also said that he had “recently been relying heavily on” the work of Robert Kagan — a neoconservative who had served as an adviser to Mr. McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.

More recently, Mr. Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bulked up his office’s foreign policy expertise, hiring leading neoconservative Jamie Fly as counselor for foreign and national security affairs in January 2013. Mr. Fly came to the Senate from his role as head of the Foreign Policy Initiative (a project of, among others, Mr. Kagan and neoconservative top dog Bill Kristol) and, before that, the administration of President George W. Bush. The move was not without its critics, and symbolized another step toward a run for the presidency.

The following month, Mr. Rubio departed on a trip commonly regarded as a must for serious presidential candidates, landing in Israel on Feb. 17.

But the freshman from Florida is not the only sheriff in town.

Sen. Rand Paul has also taken a prominent place in the current — and future — Republican foreign policy debate.

A month before Mr. Rubio made his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Mr. Paul visited Israel with a group of Evangelical Christians to beef up his pro-Israel Republican bona fides. While there, Mr. Paul — a staunch opponent of foreign aid — gave a speech telling an Israeli audience “it will be harder and harder to be a friend if we are out of money.”

Upon his return, the Kentucky freshman drew a clear line with some of the anti-Israel fringes of his father’s support base, which he inherited in part as Rep. Ron Paul retired and the son ascended. (RELATED: Rand Paul: U.S. should make clear to world ‘any attack on Israel will be treated as an attack on the United States’)

The next month, 10 months after Mr. Rubio made his Brookings address and just before Mr. Rubio toured Israel, Sen. Paul delivered his overarching foreign policy address at the decidedly hawkish Heritage Foundation. In it, Sen. Paul differed starkly from Mr. Rubio, saying that “the looming debt crisis will force us to reassess our role in the world” and that he will be a “voice for those who wish who wish to see a saner, more balanced approach to foreign policy.” (BEDFORD: The good, the bad and the ugly of Rand Paul’s foreign policy address)

But it wasn’t until March that Sen. Paul’s foreign policy, and the larger battle within the GOP, launched into the public consciousness. On March 6, Mr. Paul gained national attention, filibustering the confirmation of John Brennan as director of the CIA for 12 hours and 53 minutes in an effort to force President Barack Obama’s administration to say that it would not target U.S. citizens inside the country with drone attacks. (RELATED: Twitter: ‘Over a million tweets sent’ about Rand Paul filibuster)

The move took the news and social media by storm, gaining Mr. Paul a larger national celebrity. It also rained on another parade across town: Messrs. McCain and Graham’s March 6 compromise dinner with Mr. Obama.

And while young Republican stars like Sens. Rubio, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were quick to join their fellow in his protest, Messrs. McCain and Graham — formerly the sole spokesmen of GOP foreign policy — hurled insults at the upstarts. (OPINION: Why did McCain and Graham lash out at Paul over his filibuster?)

Before the elder statesmen knew it, their attacks backfired, and the two were subjected to a host of attacks online, on television and on radio. (RELATED: McCain: I’m a ‘maverick’ for disagreeing with Bush, ‘angry old man’ for disagreeing with Rand Paul [VIDEO])

But make no mistake: While the two joined forces on the Senate floor that evening, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul offer drastically differing views on the United States’ role in the world.

While Mr. Rubio has said “we need to begin to prepare people for” a strike against Iran to prevent them from becoming a nuclear power, Mr. Paul was the sole senator to vote against a non-binding resolution (sponsored by Mr. Graham) to oppose Iran’s nuclear program, saying “A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive war.”

While Mr. Paul disagreed with former Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s support for Syrian rebels and said that he does not “support a call for intervention in Syria,” Mr. Rubio has said “What the opposition really needs is access to ammunition… And I think that’s a step I’m prepared to advocate for.”

While Mr. Rubio has stated his “belief that Afghanistan’s security is critical to our own security” and said that the United States’ military commitment “should reject artificial timelines for troop withdrawals,” Mr. Paul wrote that “America would be more secure and stronger economically if we recognized that we have largely achieved our objectives in Afghanistan and moved aggressively to bring our troops and tax dollars home.”

While Mr. Paul voted to end congressional authorization for the Iraq War, Mr. Rubio voted against that amendment and has said that “the world is better off because [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein is no longer in charge.”

While Mr. Rubio voiced support for overthrowing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Paul opposed U.S. military involvement.

Indeed, there is no missing that, while both are members of the Grand Old Party, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul have starkly different views on a properly conservative foreign policy. And both men are ratcheting up their campaigns — both inside the Senate and in the realm of public opinion — to see their view triumphant.

Messrs. Rubio and Paul’s battle for foreign policy dominance will continue to unfold, and its outcome will have drastic implications for American and global security.

President Ronald Reagan said “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.” The direction we take may well be decided by either Mr. Paul or Mr. Rubio. The end game is the 2016 Republican primary. Watch closely.

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