My esteemed predecessor Kevin Drum thinks the talk of a foreign policy split in the GOP is mostly “an invention of bored Beltway reporters trying to drum up some conflict.” He suggests the only divisions that matter are between Rand Paul and everyone else, and that’s nothing new.

I don’t want to get in a fuss-fight with Kevin, and would observe that the unmentioned question on this topic is “compared to what?” I’ve been dismissive of the “Republican civil war” meme according to which being for or against rape/incest exceptions to an abortion ban represents a vast philosophical gulf, and tactical arguments over exactly how to deny people health insurance reflect deep matters of principle. Compared to these “battles,” the fact that Republicans don’t seem to have a clear grasp any more of America’s role in the world is a pretty big deal. And while Kevin rightly suggests dissent against GOP foreign policy orthodoxy has always existed, it certainly didn’t exhibit itself in, say, the vote to go to war in Iraq in 2002, when 97% of House Republicans and 98% of Senate Republicans voted together.

Kevin concedes the shift of rank-and-file GOP opinion on Iraq (and other potential foreign interventions) is interesting, but regards it as “very, very soft.” I dunno about that. Ten years ago virtually everyone even vaguely associated with the GOP (other than Ron Paul) was in full triumphalist frenzy over Iraq, treating George W. Bush as a world-historical colossus, and Dick Cheney as a prophet. Now when Cheney calls the Iraq war a victory that was thrown away by Barack Obama, and demands a fresh war, most Republicans are giving him the back of their hands.

Kevin asks a good question, though: is the perception of GOP disunity on foreign policy purely a matter of the attention being drawn to Rand Paul, who is really nothing more than his father’s son? Again, I’m less interested in Paul’s own views than in the possibility that he will make it possible for other 2016 presidential candidates to break away from the old neocon and realist schools that share a commitment to higher defense spending and U.S. global hegemony. Already Ted Cruz has declared himself “half-way” between Paul and John McCain on foreign policy. And such potential candidates as Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and even Mike Huckabee have the flexibility to position themselves at any number of points on the spectrum.

Besides, even if it does wind up being Rand Paul versus the world, it’s a sign of real change within the GOP that he’s not being hooted off the stage (much as Ron often was, both literally and figuratively) for his non-interventionist views. The big question is to what extent the new respectability of non-interventionism in the GOP is purely a product of reaction to Barack Obama’s occasional interventionism. When he’s gone from the scene, will Republicans default right back to where they were in 2008? Kevin seems to think so, but there are more and more signs those days are gone, with GOPers at sea with no clear anchor.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.