Will the GOP be libertarian or authoritarian?

“It’s now Authoritarian vs. Libertarian…” — Matt Drudge’s tweet about Republicans who support NSA spying and Syrian intervention, September 3, 2013

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin asks “Will Ted Cruz and Rand Paul Split on Iran?” in which she applauds Cruz for taking a hawkish stance, and chastises Paul for being cautious.

But another question might be — will Republicans break from conservatism over Iran?

Conservatives should remember what happened last time promoting or defending war became a primary focus. Under George W. Bush, the debt almost doubled and government grew at a rate surpassed only by Obama.

Any conservative still scratching their head over how this happened can stop scratching.

The focus for Republicans at that time was defending the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, waterboarding, “enhanced interrogation tactics,” indefinite detention and other Dick Cheney heirlooms. It wasn’t just that these things distracted conservatives from shrinking government — support for war and an anti-civil liberties agenda had supplanted small government among conservatives’ priorities. The time in between September 11, 2001 and the rise of the Tea Party, conservatism simply became something else.

Today, Tea Party Republicans have led in opposing intervention in Libya and Syria, have criticized Obama’s drone policies and spearheaded an uprising against warrantless spying on American citizens. Under a Democratic administration that often resembles Bush-Cheney on national security, the American right of 2013 has in many ways done a 180 from its 2003 self.

The old Bush guard has bemoaned this rise in libertarian influence in the GOP for a few years now. It’s easy to understand why: It is a philosophy that contradicts, and is largely incompatible with theirs.

When it comes to foreign policy and civil liberties, the opposite of libertarianism (a preference for liberty over security) might be authoritarianism (security takes precedent over liberty). Republicans who want less war and government spying on citizens are anathema to Republicans who’ve long preached the virtues of war and a powerful national security state. It’s a stalemate: Libertarian Republicans and most conservatives thought Obama wanting war with Syria was absurd. Hawks thought it absurd the president didn’t want war enough.

There isn’t an individual liberty most hawks wouldn’t surrender or unconstitutional government action they wouldn’t support, if it meant keeping us “safe.” For them, continuously expanding executive power and government overreach aren’t cause for concern, but important tools. While Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner was blasting the NSA’s spying on citizens as a bridge too far last summer, Senator Lindsey Graham said he was “glad” the federal government was collecting every Americans’ phone data. Such enthusiasm for government surveillance is strange, particularly for anyone describing himself as a conservative. Even so, during the Bush era Sen. Graham would have had plenty of right-wing company. In today’s GOP, Graham’s blind trust in government sounds naïve and weird.