Whatever else it has done, the Ukraine crisis has served as a major tonic for American conservative foreign policy hawks, who have recently been losing ground not only with the general public but inside the Republican Party, where hatred of Barack Obama has sometimes trumped the desire for an interventionist foreign policy.
Now hoary old voices of blood lust are heard again, even at the young-libertarian-skewing CPAC, per this account from Dave Weigel:
Twenty-five years since Oliver North was convicted for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. Twenty-three years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And yet here he is, the ever-more grizzled “host of ‘War Stories’ with Oliver North,” standing between American flags and issuing warnings about the Russian bear.
“The people of Ukraine are this very minute paying the terrible price for America’s leadership deficit disorder and the Obama organization’s utopian rush to unilateral disarmament,” says North. “That’s where we’re headed. We don’t need a head of state who guts our defenses and draws phony red lines with a pink crayon.” North pauses for the guffaws. “Yeah, I did say that.”
Conservatives had been hating the Russians long before they had been Standing With Rand. All day Thursday, the thousands who packed into CPAC’s main ballroom heard their movement’s icons cry out against isolationism. They’d known foreign adventurism and intervention as Obama policies, blights on both parties, not part of the Republican Party they were rebuilding. They were being tested, and by people who claimed to know much more about how the party should defend America.
“Can you just imagine Ronald Reagan dealing with Vladimir Putin?” asks onetime UN Ambassador John Bolton, one of the only representatives of the George W. Bush administration to show at CPAC. “Reagan called a strong defense budget the ‘vital margin of safety.’ We are losing that vital margin all around the world. … Putin has a growing defense budget and ours is shrinking.”
If you’re Standing With Rand, that’s never worried you. The senator had supported the forced cuts of sequestration, encouraging his colleagues to “jettison some of the crap” in the defense budget and live with lower spending levels. If you’re, say, a 21-year-old CPAC attendee, you were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. You were 8 years old on Sept. 11, and maybe 10 for the start of the war in Iraq. You’ve never been a hawk.
But the average rank-and-file member of the Republican “base” isn’t a 21-year-old college student wearing a “Stand With Rand” t-shirt, is it? More typical is a 65-year-old white man whose first political memory was the Goldwater campaign, in which the desire to “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin” was as strong a mobilizing sentiment as hostility to such unconstitutional domestic measures as Medicare or the Civil Rights Act. On the long path from then to now, some of conservative activists’ most thrilling moments, in fact, involved smiting college students opposed to overseas military adventures, from the “effect corps of impudent snobs” denounced by Spiro Agnew during the Vietnam War to the sniveling appeasers willing to let Saddam Hussein run amok. So of course it is second nature for older conservatives to take the rhetorical uniform of the Cold War, dry-cleaned recently for the occasional march for war with Iran, out of the closet for its original purpose. And the return of the war party was notable at CPAC:
[A]t CPAC, you’re seeing the hawks sprint back into the spotlight. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio uses his Thursday speech to rally conservatives in a global fight against “totalitarianism.” Afterward, he tells the New York Times that “there are forces within our party, there have always been in American politics, that basically say, ‘Who cares what happens everywhere else? Just mind our own business.’”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ventures from the main conference to an alternative all-day meeting of hawks—itself, a sign of how much ground has been lost to the libertarians—and explains how he differs with Paul. Sure, the Kentucky senator was right about Syria, but the hawks were right about Iran.
It will be fascinating to watch this, the one real ideological “split” within a right-wing dominated Republican Party, work its way out during the 2016 presidential cycle.