The GOP’s Non-Interventionist Moment Has Passed

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke was on my podcast the other day to discuss his new book “The Conservatarian Manifesto.” According to Cooke, the “conservatarian” label includes people who were “disappointed by the Bush administration,” but also skeptical of libertarianism on (among other issues) foreign policy.

This is interesting. If one were to learn anything from the Bush era, wouldn’t it be that the utopian notion of “spreading Democracy” is fraught with danger? Cooke and I may lament No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D, but it was the Iraq War, not domestic policy, that nearly destroyed the Bush presidency, and with it, the modern Republican Party.

Could there really be a significant contingent of hawks out there who were simply repelled by Bush-era spending and big government? And, if so, isn’t it a little big concerning that we weren’t more chastened by the Iraq experience, if for no other reason than that it serves as a prerequisite for avoiding future mistakes?

I’m not doubting Cooke’s observation, in fact, I suspect he’s on to something. A theoretical observer of today’s Republican Party who was dropped here from another planet would be forgiven for not noticing we’re still not that far removed from a Republican president being held responsible for what turned out to be a pretty big foreign policy disaster.

There is, of course, a wide foreign policy spectrum, and a lot of ground between isolationism and adventurism, but it’s pretty obvious the default position for the Republican Party (and, perhaps, for America) is to err on the side of the latter. It was convenient to criticize Bush, but it is now even more convenient to criticize Obama. And events that happened on his watch — ranging from the rise of ISIS to Russia’s “annexation” of Crimea — has discredited “leading from behind,” and perhaps made the George W. Bush “Miss Me Yet?” billboard message more appealing.

Just as Reagan demonstrated peace through strength, while simultaneously learning the lessons of Vietnam, it’s entirely possible that the GOP can be hawkish while also avoiding the mistakes of the Bush era. Nobody today is clamoring for boots on the ground, but whether it’s sending military advisers to Iraq, or the current dustup over the Iranian deal, one gets the sense that there is almost zero evidence of any sort of “Iraq Syndrome.” And if you believe that a humble foreign policy requires the occasional chastening, this is slightly concerning.

And this, of course, is also bad news for Rand Paul. As one Republican insider told Politico: “[I]f this election becomes about foreign policy and national security — and I believe it will — Rand Paul loses.” I’m not so much lamenting this development as marveling at it. If you want a sense for how fast the evolution has been on the right, consider that in 2010, Rand Paul was elected to the U.S. Senate. And then last year, the much more hawkish Tom Cotton joined him. It might be a coincidence, but their elections seemed to track pretty consistently with the zeitgeist.

Matt K. Lewis