Republicans give peace a chance

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Thought experiment: Rip Van Winkle falls asleep sometime around George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and wakes up in early March.

Rip would have awakened in time to see Rand Paul’s 13-hour “Don’t drone me, bro” filibuster. He would have also witnessed the president’s firmly pro-drone counter-terrorism speech.

While Code Pink remains the same, a lot seems to have changed. Most Republicans, including the leading tea party senators, proclaimed their intention to “Stand with Rand.” What happened to the party of Dick Cheney?

Democrats for the most part seem blissfully untroubled by Barack Obama’s flying-death-robot approach to the war on terror. The “peace candidate” is now superintending a global war.

It’s possible to overstate things, of course. Democrats like Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden have been dismayed by the Obama administration’s shift on civil liberties, perhaps best illustrated by the Associated Press eavesdropping scandal. Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, reinforced by such newcomers as Kelly Ayotte, are miffed at the Paulian “wacko birds” spoiling their party.

Outside of electoral politics, there remain principled liberal voices who point to the collateral damage that can be unleashed by promiscuous drone use abroad. And there are conservatives who think the man who launched a preventive war against Libya without congressional approval is a naive pacifist who would replace “The Star Spangled Banner” with “Kumbuya.”

Even the changes that shock Rip Van Winkle are based partly on partisanship. Now that Democrats occupy the White House, they realize they really like untrammeled executive power after all. Relegated to controlling only the House, Republicans have rediscovered the virtues of congressional oversight and limits to presidential authority.

There’s something about a Democratic commander-in-chief that brings out the inner peacenik in every rock-ribbed Republican. “I figured it up the other day,” Bob Dole growled during the 1976 vice presidential debate. “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans — enough to fill the city of Detroit.”

Nevertheless, the country is now experiencing a less partisan and more nuanced discussion of the war on terror than was the case in the “either with us or against us” days just a few years ago. And at least some of that has to do with a new generation of Republican leaders whose skepticism of government doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.

“I’m glad the President finally acknowledged that American citizens deserve some form of due process,” Senator Paul said in a statement responding to the president’s drones speech. “But I still have concerns over whether flash cards and PowerPoint presentations represent due process; my preference would be to try accused U.S. citizens for treason in a court of law.”

Where the Kentuckian’s father would have been almost alone in his party in expressing such sentiments, the younger Paul has company. In the Senate, he is frequently aligned with Utah Republican Mike Lee and Texas tea party favorite Ted Cruz. There is a small but growing wing of the House GOP that consistently votes to rebuff the Obama administration on issues like NDAA, FISA and the Patriot Act.

The man who popularized the phrase “freedom fries” is also a part of this trend. North Carolina Republican Rep. Walter Jones once protested the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” of France for their reluctance to go along with the Iraq war. He now is one of the most reliable antiwar Republicans in Congress.

Obama has helped shift the debate as well. Sometimes this is for bad reasons, like his radical departure from his campaign rhetoric about the limits of military force and government surveillance powers. Other times it has been for good reasons, such as his attempt to tease out a way to deal with the terrorist threat without costly large-scale invasions and occupations of foreign countries.

As quickly as things have changed, they could still change again. The GOP debate could be shut down by the election of a conventionally hawkish Republican president. The Democrats could determine that Libya- and Kosovo-style interventions, punctuated by occasional drone strikes and arms shipments to dubious rebel groups, are politically safe.

In the meantime, wacko bird-watching seems like a healthier hobby than freedom fry consumption.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the recently released book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.