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Perry, Paul, and an overdue debate

It's not just a fight for 2016 positioning -- would-be Republican leaders have to decide what the party's foreign policy is going to be.
Texas Governor Rick Perry awaits the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama in Dallas, July 9, 2014.
Texas Governor Rick Perry awaits the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama in Dallas, July 9, 2014.
At first blush, this week's dustup between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) over foreign policy seems easy to overlook. After all, their squabble almost certainly has everything to do with 2016 positioning, and since neither of them has demonstrated any real proficiency on international affairs anyway, their disagreement isn't likely to add much to the public discourse.
But taking a step back, it's best not to dismiss this too quickly.
For years, Republicans were considered the dominant party on foreign policy. For most of our lifetimes, nearly every prominent GOP voice was united behind a similar set of principles; the party had statesmen eager to defend those principles; and there wasn't any real doubt as to how the party approached international affairs.
All of that has changed quite dramatically in recent years. Ed Kilgore argued this week that the Perry/Paul food fight offered little in the way of substance, but there's a schism that Republicans are going to have to deal with, probably quite soon.

The sharp exchange last weekend between Rick Perry and Rand Paul over Iraq -- and more broadly, its relationship to the "Reagan legacy" in foreign policy -- may have seemed like mid-summer entertainment to many observers, or perhaps just a food fight between two men thinking about running against each other for president in 2016. But from a broader perspective, we may be witnessing the first really serious division in the Republican Party over international affairs since the 1950s. Republican unity on foreign policy and national security matters during the long period since "isolationists" and "internationalists" battled for party supremacy in the age of Taft and Dewey has been remarkable....

The streak has ended, though, and the party's vision has fractured. Right now, in 2014, what's the Republican Party's position on U.S. policy in Iraq? On relations with Russia? On intervention in Syria's civil war? No one can say for sure, and prominent GOP officials don't agree among themselves.
It's tempting to say the party's position is "the opposite of whatever President Obama thinks," but that's hardly the basis for a credible foreign policy. It's equally tempting to say the Republican line "whatever we think Reagan may have liked," but that's arguably even worse.
John Dickerson recently had some related thoughts:

With the world in chaos and voters losing faith in President Obama's leadership, the Republican Party has an opportunity to reclaim its place in the foreign policy conversation. First, though, the party has to figure out what it wants to say. Its leaders have the basic gist: Obama bad. It's the delivery and the details where things get a little fuzzy.

I'm skeptical about the criticism of the president. There's ample evidence that a clear majority of voters actually agree with Obama's foreign policy, though the public is discouraged by unrest. But that's less a condemnation of a leader or his approach and more evidence of discontent about violence abroad. There's admittedly a paradox -- the American mainstream says it disagrees with the foreign policy it agrees with -- but it shouldn't necessarily be seen an abandonment Democratic principles.
Regardless, it's certainly fair to say the GOP line is "fuzzy." Some, including Perry, Dick Cheney and his allies, want the United States to use more force in more places, without too much regard for consequences, costs, or the Geneva Conventions. Rand Paul and his allies, meanwhile, have reached nearly the opposite conclusion: foreign entanglements must, in nearly every instance, be avoided.
Dickerson points to a third contingent that supports "a more assertive American foreign policy than the one Paul would support but one that doesn't necessarily revolve solely around military might," though for now, this faction has no spokespersons.
Ideally, a party would turn to its elder statesmen (and women) to help offer guidance and steady judgment at a time like this, but in recent years, they tend to lose in Republican primaries.