In the wake of the Bush/Cheney era, the Republican Party, which has long treated credibility on international affairs as something of birthright, suddenly found itself without a clear foreign policy. GOP officials were due for a spirited, substantive intra-party conversation about how they saw the world and the United States' role in it in the 21st century.
That discussion never really happened. Party elders who used to set the party's direction on foreign policy -- Dick Lugar, John Warner, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, et al -- were politely ignored when they weren't rejected outright. Republicans started defining their agenda by simply rejecting anything President Obama is for, which made much of the GOP base happy, but which does not a foreign policy make.
Nearly eight years after the Bush/Cheney era ended, however, we're starting to see hints of the debate that should have taken place years ago. The Guardian's Sabrina Siddiqui reported yesterday on the Republicans' presidential primary fight and the drive to control the party's direction on foreign policy in the near future.
Marco Rubio on Monday framed the presidential election as a choice that would define America's role on the global stage. In doing so, he took direct aim at both Hillary Clinton's record as secretary of state and Republican candidates he called "isolationists". In response, a spokeswoman for one such opponent, Senator Ted Cruz, called Rubio's stance on foreign policy "incoherent" and "dangerous".
Just on the surface, it's a welcome change of pace when two prominent GOP presidential candidates have a genuine disagreement on something important. Most of the time, the Republican field, despite its enormous size, is annoyingly similar, offering little more than subtle differences over tactics and tone.
But when it comes to international affairs, the simple truth is that Rubio and Cruz offer two very different visions. Their disagreement matters, not just because one of them may be the GOP nominee later this year, but also because the resolution of their argument is likely to set the Republicans' default position in the years to come.
Rubio, a hawk who continues to believe the war in Iraq was a great idea, even knowing how it turned out, spent time yesterday chastising members of his party who question the merits of neo-conservativism. "We have isolationist candidates who are apparently more passionate about weakening our military and intelligence capabilities than about destroying our enemies," the Florida senator said about members of his own party.
Cruz's spokesperson said in a statement soon after, "So Rubio's foreign policy and national security strategy is to invade Middle Eastern countries, create power vacuums for terrorist organizations, allow their people to come to America unvetted, give them legal status and citizenship, then impose a massive surveillance state to monitor the problem. I'm trying to figure out if it is more incoherent than dangerous or vice versa."
New York's Jon Chait explained last week, "While Trump has distracted the party with bombastic grossness, Cruz has undertaken a concerted attack on an unexpected weak point: the belief structure, inherited by Rubio, that undergirds the party's foreign-policy orthodoxy, opening up a full-blown doctrinal schism on the right."
And I think that's a very positive development, not for any partisan reasons, but because major political parties should have foreign policies that extend beyond, "I am for whatever the president is against." Primary elections are, by most measures, a terrific mechanism for parties to work out exactly what it thinks about one of the pillars of modern governing.
Chait added, "Substantively empty though their bluster may be, Rubio and Cruz are pantomiming a deep-rooted, significant breach. While he has very little support among party elites, Cruz seems to believe that Republican voters are hungry for a candidate who will challenge their party's foreign policy at the ideological level. Very soon, we will find out if he is right."