Foreign Policy Cold War Within Conservatism

In a development we should get used to, Marco Rubio went to Rand Paul’s state and made a speech that included some pretty clear if indirect shots at the Junior Senator from Kentucky’s non-interventionist foreign policy views. Here’s Manu Raju’s summary from Politico:

In a soaring speech on the University of Louisville campus, Rubio made the case for American military might around the world, vowing that the U.S cannot “retreat” from international conflicts, must encourage democracy and continue spending money overseas aimed at bolstering the country’s image.

Rubio’s remarks come just as Paul has been trying to clamp down on federal dollars spent on foreign aid and as the Kentucky freshman has been pushing for a “less aggressive” American role in the world — as the two prospective 2016 rivals continue to lay out competing visions of the GOP’s future.

“We can’t solve every humanitarian crisis on the planet, we can’t be involved in every dispute, every civil war and every conflict,” Rubio told a concert hall filled with young adults and middle-aged Kentucky voters. “But we also cannot retreat from the world. It’s not that America will continue to function as the world’s police officer. The problem is that like anything in the world: If you pull back from it, a vacuum will be created.”

Rubio added: “The alternative to U.S. [engagement] on the global stage is chaos.”

Lotta shadow boxing going on there for Rubio, who only mentioned Paul by name in connection with a question on domestic policy.

There are two pretty obvious reasons for Rubio’s indirect approach. The first is the need (and the easy facility) to maintain closed GOP ranks in continuing criticism of Obama’s foreign policy–a need that will only be intensified if it appears Hillary Clinton is on track to succeed Obama as Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. But the second is that Paul the Younger, unlike his father, has shown himself to be very shrewd in choosing his targets on foreign policy: a drone policy identified with Obama that some hard-line defense hawks consider a cowardly alternative to Boots on the Ground; foreign aid to a quasi-Islamist Egyptian regime; an activist role in Middle East diplomacy that conservatives generally denounce as reflecting insufficient unilateral support for Israel, etc., etc.

So the intra-Republican foreign policy debate that never happened in 2012 isn’t going to break out overnight. But if current trends continue, look for neocon advisers to begin clustering around Rubio, even if he veils his foreign policy doctrines within safe Obama-bashing and takes every opportunity to make common cause with Paul. And if Paul does slip and starts making excuses for Iran’s nuclear program like his old man did last year, expect the conservative foreign policy establishment to pounce, even before it starts publicizing what is probably a vast oppo-research file on the senator’s past utterances back when he spent much of his speaking time at John Birch Society dinners and other unfashionable venues.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.