Republicans jockeying for their party’s presidential nomination in 2016 face the problem of having to stand out from each other while holding remarkably similar views. Repeal Obamacare, cut spending, ban abortion. . . . The list goes on.
It’s even more difficult for the 2016 hopefuls in the Senate to stand out – frenemies like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz – because their voting records are as similar as their policies.
But one area where they are beginning to stake out their own territory is on foreign policy.
After a decade embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, Republicans are divided between the interventionists and neo-Conservatives, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the isolationists, a sentiment that is growing in popularity in the Tea Party. The contenders are starting to choose sides, or, ever-diplomatic, cling to safety in the middle ground.
Marco Rubio of Florida, once the darling of the Tea Party movement that swept him into the Senate in 2010, is carving out a space closer to the interventionist wing of his party. In a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank on Wednesday, Rubio sought to estalish his own foreign policy doctrine.
Rubio’s message to war-weary Republicans was: I get where you’re coming from.
“For many Americans, a focus on other nations seems misplaced when there are so many problems at home,” Rubio said, according to his prepared remarks. “This leads many to question whether our government should spend time and resources on the freedom and security of someone an ocean away. After all, what do we gain from such involvement?”
But if the isolationists took some encouragement from this line of argument, Rubio quickly cautioned this was the wrong approach – one led by misguided isolationists (though he did not name names). Instead, he suggests diplomacy, foreign aid and, when necessary, military intervention as the best weapons in America’s foreign policy arsenal.
“Imagine if the beaches of Normandy were never touched by American boots. Imagine if our foreign aid had not helped alleviate many of the world’s worst crises. Imagine if nuclear proliferation had continued unfettered by U.S. influence. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the world’s democracies may not exist had America remained disengaged,” he said.
Support for foreign aid – a policy Tea Party Republicans often rail against – is a key part of Rubio’s foreign policy prescription.
Rubio’s argument to skeptical Republicans was that foreign policy was not merely for foreigners. It also impacted Americans at home.
“Foreign policy is domestic policy,” he said. “When liberty and economic prosperity spread, they create markets for our products, visitors to our tourist destinations, partners for our businesses, investors for our ideas, and jobs for our people.”
Though, seeking a position in the middle ground, Rubio specifically eschewed the terms “hawk” and “dove,” he is positioning himself far away from the GOP’s isolationist wing.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 hopeful closely aligned with the libertarian camp, has also sought to clarify his foreign policy ideas in recent weeks. Paul enjoys adulation for his libertarian approach to security, opposing NSA snooping, the administration’s drone policy, and calling for a more isolationist approach abroad.
To appeal to Republicans nationally, however, Paul has to make those positions appear more moderate and more palatable. To this end, he addressed cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina last week, and invoked former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower.
“America must be and will be engaged with the world, commercially, diplomatically, and when necessary, militarily. To be engaged, though, does not always mean to be engaged in war,” Paul said.
“Reagan believed in peace through strength… Ike ‘believed, with good reason, that once the violence begins, everything changes and you can throw your plans in the trash,’” he said, quoting a biography of the former five-star general and Republican president.
Paul, who helped lead the opposition to President Obama’s scuttled proposal for limited intervention in Syria, held that line. “We have no legitimate national interest in Syria,” he said.
Rubio, conversely, said Wednesday that Obama had failed to get involved in Syria early enough to be effective, but said he voted against intervention this summer “because [the president] had no strategy beyond symbolic missile strikes.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, the freshman from Texas whose popularity among Tea Party types has skyrocketed since he brought on a government shutdown over Obama’s health care law, has also sought to stake his claim on foreign policy, delivering an address at the conservative Heritage Foundation in September.
“In my view, President Obama is both too hawkish and too dovish at the same time,” said Cruz, toeing the line between the isolationists and interventionists. “He’s too hawkish, too willing to use U.S. military might in defense of international norms in Syria in a way that is not directed at protecting our nation… And yet, simultaneously, he is too dovish when it comes to standing up and defending our national security interests.”
Which brings us to the one point Rubio, Paul and Cruz can agree one: Whatever the way forward for foreign policy, the president is doing it all wrong.