Egypt is sliding into chaos, with hundreds dead from the latest clash between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military leadership. Some say the country, the largest Arab nation, could descend into civil war.
Will the U.S. stand by as it has in Syria, and watch the carnage mount?
This could Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s moment. As he lays the groundwork for his run for the White House in 2016, nothing will distinguish the libertarian, Republican senator more vividly from his competition than his views on national security and foreign policy.
Paul has been described as an isolationist – a “crazybird” by fellow Republican Senator John McCain -- for his view that the U.S. should meddle in overseas affairs only when our national interest is directly at stake.
Rand Paul believes Americans are tired of war.
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Paul thinks it’s just that stance that will appeal to voters, especially young voters. He believes Americans are tired of war. He may be right, according to recent polling. Over 60% of Americans say we should not get involved in Syria; more than 70% say we should avoid engaging in Egypt.
But, will GOP elders – like John McCain -- support a more tempered approach to foreign engagements?
They should at least welcome the debate. Dissension over security and foreign policy is not new to the GOP.
Prior to 2001, Republicans traditionally were of two minds.At one end of the spectrum were realists George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon, whose restrained foreign policies mirror those of libertarians today. Their stance was ideologically neutral, supportive of détente and global stability.
A more aggressive foreign policy is also a Republican tradition, particularly during the Eisenhower, Reagan, and George W. Bush administrations.
Though lauded as a great realist, Eisenhower initiated the “rollback” of communism and aggressive intelligence operations in Guatemala and Iran.
Reagan’s defense buildup was part of a renewed pushback against Soviet influence and W., of course, favored a forward-leaning approach to fighting terrorism.
The harder line on fighting terrorism and to engagements overseas was so popular after 9/11 that even Democrats signed on.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is interventionist – pushing our intrusions in Libya and Syria. If she runs for the White House, as seems likely, Paul’s more cautious approach could drain Democrat ranks.
Like the mess in Egypt, Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance have opened a door for Paul, and cracked the GOP’s long-time hawkish consensus.
The Kentucky senator blasts the NSA program as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, while many of his colleagues condone it for the sake of national security.
New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, who will almost surely run for president, has already engaged in this debate.
Soon after the House nearly voted to defund the NSA surveillance program, Christie described the “strain of libertarianism” responsible for the pushback as “dangerous.”
Senator Paul would argue that it’s the GOP’s hard line on defense and security that’s dangerous – at least to their White House ambitions.
He believes Republicans can capture the presidency in 2016, but only by offering up a “transformational” candidate – one who changes the way voters think about our two political parties. He hopes to be that candidate, and he considers privacy concerns – NSA snooping, indefinite detentions of U.S. citizens, cyberintrusions and the like – the issue that will attract new voters to the Republican column.
Paul notes that support for the Fourth Amendment – the right of people to be secure in their houses and persons and bans unreasonable searches and seizures -- crosses party lines; it is also attractive to young voters, essential to a GOP comeback.
The traditional Republican pitch for low taxes doesn’t inspire millenials, who mostly don’t make much money. What they might care about, is keeping federal mitts off their emails, health records, and credit card bills – all of which appears fair game today.
While polling shows Americans conflicted on NSA snooping, nearly half of all young people say it’s more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate threats. Only 28% of those over 50 agree with that view.
Paul believes his stance on privacy issues might also move the needle with African-Americans, who oppose “unreasonable” searches, as they might describe New York’s controversial Stop & Frisk program.
More broadly, Senator Paul may appeal to Republicans and others who consider themselves fiscal conservatives but social liberals.
He pushes free-market solutions in health care; as a doctor, he is on solid ground here and can mount an aggressive attack on ObamaCare -- something Mitt Romney, author of a similar program, was unable to do.
Given the bumpy roll-out of President Obama’s health care overhaul that could be an important issue in 2016. Still, Paul will have to overcome resistance from his own party, and especially from defense hawks like McCain.
A hawkish stance on security and foreign affairs has dominated GOP policy since 9/11, but that doesn’t mean that Paul’s more tempered approach lies outside the GOP’s historical tent.
It is thus intellectually bankrupt (as well as politically suicidal) to dismiss the supporters of restrained security policies as “whacko birds” or worse.
Libertarianism and privacy are attractive to young people, who should be a natural fit within the small government party. They might even help it win some elections. But first, Republicans have to allow their foreign policy debate to be a debate again.
Andrew Peek was a strategic adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewLPeek.