Neoconservative Republican lawmakers and news media this week sharply criticized Kentucky senator Rand Paul who filibustered President Barack Obama’s nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency. The exchange reveals a deep divide within the Republican Party about the future of its foreign policy.
Paul, who was elected with more than 55 percent of the votes in Kentucky in 2010, held up Brennan’s nomination out of concern that his CIA could use unmanned aerial vehicles to strike citizens on American soil. Attorney General Eric Holder assured the senator that the administration had “no intention” of using such drone aircraft to target Americans at home. But hypothetically, Holder acknowledged that the president can use lethal force within United States territory to eliminate “enemy combatants,” even if they’re citizens.
The significance that libertarians like Paul attach to that nuance was evidently lost on several of his Republican colleagues who berated him for filibustering Brennan’s nomination.
“I don’t remember any of you coming down here suggesting that President Bush was going to kill anybody with a drone,” South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham said on Thursday — although the likes of Paul weren’t members of the Senate during the previous administration when Graham was.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was the party’s presidential candidate in 2008, quoted from The Wall Street Journal which had editorialized earlier in the day that if Paul wanted to be taken seriously, “he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms. He needs to know what he’s talking about.”
If the criticisms of Paul’s filibuster reflect an establishment Republican disdain for his libertarian foreign policy, which is anathema to the interventionism of neoconservatives like McCain, former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint was right when he warned in January of last year that the party could split “if Republicans don’t figure out how to listen to and understand some of the things” that Ron Paul, Rand’s father and a congressman at the time, was saying.
“I don’t like the derogatory things some of the Republicans say about Ron Paul,” DeMint complained on Fox News’ Hannity. “The whole debate within the Republican Party needs to be between conservatives and libertarians.”
Although DeMint was talking about economic and fiscal policy, his argument holds true for foreign policy debate as well. Rand Paul, like his father did, laments the kneejerk reaction of many Republicans to advocate intervention whenever there is a crisis in the world. This neoconservatism has been discredited in the eyes of the majority of Americans who have little enthusiasm anymore for overseas military adventurism after more than a decade of war.
Lindsey Graham may be “disappointed that you no longer apparently think we’re at war,” as he put it on Thursday, while a minority of Republicans lawmakers and a majority of voters nationwide no longer wants to be at war. There’s a difference and when hawks like Graham and McCain and the editors of The Wall Street Journal refuse to recognize it, rather belittle the noninterventionism of libertarians as well as the “Old Right” or paleoconservatives, they make it nigh impossible for their party to develop a comprehensive foreign policy critique of the president that could redeem it to the electorate.