It's John McCain's party again: How the GOP returned to total hawkishness

With the rise of ISIS, whatever GOP debates there were about the wisdom of interventionism are gone

Published September 5, 2014 4:12PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/AP/Jonathan Ernst/Chris Usher/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/AP/Jonathan Ernst/Chris Usher/Kevin Lamarque)

Treasured American war machine John McCain engaged in a touch of gloating this morning on Twitter, linking to an article in the Washington Post about how whatever faction of "anti-interventionism" there ever was within GOP ranks has been effectively stamped out.

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How gratifying, indeed. What a sunnier, simpler world we now inhabit, in which the GOP no longer has any space for ideological debate about the appropriate use of American military might. John McCain has reason to gloat. He won.

Not that long ago, the prospect of military intervention in Libya in 2011 and against the Assad regime in 2013 split the Republican Party. You had unyielding Senate hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham arguing relentlessly for intervention and regime change, while other senators like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz weren't so sure. Yes, they may have had less-than-intellectual motives: These were military actions that Barack Obama wanted, so of course they merited opposition. Well, whatever.  The point is that there were Republicans who were against taking sides in various overseas civil wars, to the grating frustration of the traditionally hawkish party establishment.

But then ISIS murders two American journalists. Any questions about the wisdom of taking on a prolonged cross-border war against an Islamic army in two countries went out the window. Screw caution. Let's go git 'em!

A thirst among many conservative activists for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy was clear over the weekend at a meeting of Americans for Prosperity, the tea-party-affiliated group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. The loudest applause came when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a potential presidential candidate, called for bombing the Islamic State “back to the Stone Age.”

Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leader of the GOP’s anti-interventionist wing who is seen as a top-tier contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, has joined in the calls for a more hawkish approach.

It's Rand Paul who's the real special case, here. Paul had spent the summer attacking "war hawk" Hillary Clinton relentlessly, fending off criticism from the likes of Dick Cheney -- who started an anti-"isolationist" advocacy group with the sole purpose of ensuring Rand Paul doesn't become president -- and writing critically about the role American interventionism played in the rise of groups like ISIS. And then sometime last week, in a fascinating moment of political whiplash, he decided, yeah, let's blow 'em all to smithereens! U-S-A, U-S-A! (U-S-A?) U-S-A! 

The best part about Rand Paul flip-flops is that, when you call him out on it, he gets really defensive and acts like the puny little heads in the media just don't "get" him. Earlier this summer he denied ever suggesting that foreign aid to Israel be eliminated, even though he had proposed a bill to do exactly that. He was offended that anyone would ever dare suggest he wanted to do this thing that he was on the record as explicitly wanting to do.

And he got mighty defensive yesterday, penning an opinion piece for Time about how, as usual, he's been perfectly consistent in his foreign policy. It's a mealy-mouthed jumble. If he were president, he says, bad things would not happen anywhere in the world. The piece is a litany of nice-sounding, button-pushing non sequitur.

Our recent foreign policy has allowed radical jihadists to proliferate. Today, there are more terrorists groups than there were before 9/11, most notably ISIS. After all the sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq, why do we find ourselves in a more dangerous world?

And why, after six years, does President Obama lack a strategy to deal with threats like ISIS?

This administration’s dereliction of duty has both sins of action and inaction, which is what happens when you are flailing around wildly, without careful strategic thinking.

And while my predisposition is to less intervention, I do support intervention when our vital interests are threatened.

Oh good, well that clears all that up. He doesn't like intervention, except when he does. Stop bothering him.

The hyperbolic war chanting surrounding ISIS suggests that Cheney's pro-intervention pressure group need not ever have been formed. It seems laughable to have ever thought that there would be a viable Republican presidential candidate in 2016 who would stake out and defend an anti-interventionist posture. There won't be any grand ideological debates between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio or whoever about "America's role in the world." We'll see the same old same old, a battle of dueling press releases saying I'd kill all those people real good followed by Nah I'd kill 'em more.

Congratulations to John McCain. It's his party, and he doesn't even care who knows.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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