Will the GOP be libertarian or authoritarian?

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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“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.

There is a correlation between a wartime mindset and government growth that some conservatives have begun to realize. When your foreign policy and national security positions require massive government action and apparatus, you become more forgiving, and even trusting, of big government overall. It’s not that GOP hawks love big government per se, it’s just that they don’t mind it so long as they still get the foreign policy and national security measures they want. It’s not that they hate the Constitution and its protections, but that their unlimited view of what America can accomplish abroad makes them favorable or more trusting of unlimited government at home.

For Republicans, libertarian or authoritarian, it’s a matter of priorities.

Republicans should have two primary concerns about Iran — preventing them from acquiring nuclear weapons but also preventing an American-led war with Iran. The first could potentially have disastrous results. The second would definitely have disastrous results, if Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything.

Even limited strikes could be extremely risky. As Robert Blackwill, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, has noted, “If the United States attacked, Iran would face a decisive and far-reaching choice: Respond in a fashion that sought to avoid escalation of the conflict and maximize its perception in world opinion as the innocent and aggrieved victim of American anti-Islamic aggression, or react in ways that make a prolonged conflict more likely.”

Blackwill asks,”What enthusiast for bombing Iran can confidently foretell the answer to that question?”

There’s nothing wrong with conservatives having differing or critical opinions of the Obama administration’s six-month agreement with Iran. But the harshest conservative critics — and there are many — seem offended that there are any negotiations, leaving military action as the only option. Perhaps not since Ronald Reagan sat down with Mikhail Gorbachev have Republican hawks so blasted a president for preferring diplomacy to war.

Iran is not Munich in 1939, just like Iraq in 2003 was not Munich, Libya wasn’t in 2011 and neither was Syria this year. Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev weren’t Munich either.

This is 2013, for Iran, Israel, America — and the Republican Party.

The GOP should insist on a strong national defense but also on avoiding war at most costs, rather than going back to promoting it at any cost. They should recall Reagan’s “peace through strength,” without ignoring the peace part.

For conservatism’s sake, Republicans have to learn from their recent past. A majority of Americans oppose Obamacare but do not want war with Iran. Why now shift focus away from a popular issue like opposing Obamacare to harp on something unpopular?

Republicans can either continue to fight for individual liberty or they can revert to the authoritarianism of old. The first path can grow the party’s popularity and base.

The second path will grow government. Every time.