Senator Rand Paul, ostensibly the heir to his father’s reputation as one of America’s premier go-to libertarians, recently said that as president he would “destroy ISIS militarily.” Given that libertarians often see eye-to-eye with the left in opposing imperialism and the security state, the media gave the story a moderate amount of attention before letting it fade into the static. After all, in the post-Romney era, what’s so new about a probable presidential aspirant flip-flopping when it’s politically expedient?
Pundits would do well to scratch a little deeper here. More specifically, they should pay attention to the backlash Paul is receiving from millennials, the group whose disproportionate support is a reason he is currently among the Republican frontrunners for the 2016 GOP nomination. Hillary Clinton, too, has paid a price for her rhetorical vacillations from hawkishness to dovishness and back again, as partially indicated by the attention given the prospective presidential candidacy of another prominent anti-interventionist, independent Senator Bernie Sanders (who caucuses with the Democrats). Combined, these developments point to one of the most important emerging stories of the 21st century: National politicians seeking to fare best at the hands of millennials must speak to their concerns about the post-9/11 military-industrial complex and security.
Before World War II, American foreign policy was theoretically based in the principles embodied in a public letter George Washington published near the end of his presidency in 1796. It stated that the United States would “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” and was “neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences” in our commercial or geopolitical relationships. Americans should “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments,” he argued, recognizing them as “inauspicious to liberty” and “particularly hostile to republican liberty.” This isolationism was somewhat broadened in 1823 when James Monroe, through the so-called “Monroe Doctrine,” officially reiterated America’s avowed avoidance of international entanglements while simultaneously linking it with a vow to oppose any attempts by foreign empires to harass or colonize other nations in the Western hemisphere. Hence when Woodrow Wilson attempted to enter America into the League of Nations after World War I, he was met with resounding defeat by the nation’s bedrock isolationism.
None of this stopped the United States from starting acquisitional wars when powerful business interests could effectively lobby them to do so (the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War). At the same time, America didn’t become a superpower until the outbreak of World War II. In the same year that he violated Washington’s third-term precedent, Franklin Roosevelt ran for reelection on an open program of providing financial assistance to the Allies as they struggled against the Nazi Empire… one supported by his Republican opponent, Wendell Willkie. While both candidates in the election of 1940 had to remain nominally isolationist to appease large anti-interventionist wings in their parties, the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and German declaration of war against America changed everything. Within months, America had ended 12 years of the Great Depression by building up an unprecedented military-industrial complex.
Psychologically, Americans adjusted to living in a world in which there loomed a genuinely sinister existential threat. First it was fascism and the coalition led by the Third Reich (1941-1945). During the Cold War (1945-1991), it was Communism and the Soviet Union. The few Republicans and Democrats who ran for president while openly opposing the new security state model either failed to get nominated (Republican Robert Taft in 1940, 1948 and 1952) or lost in landslides (Democrats George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988).
Millennials, on the other hand, have been shaped in a world where the national traumas of World War II and the Cold War are the stuff of history textbooks. When history looks back at the factors that shaped the foreign policy views of the millennial generation, it will identify two definitive experiences, among others.
Most obvious is the September 11th terrorist attacks. The genuine fear and devastation felt by millions of Americans entirely unconnected to the 3,000 victims lost that day cannot be questioned. At the same time, a far smaller percentage of Americans were directly affected by that event than personally felt the effects of World War II and the Cold War (especially the Cold War’s bloodiest “hot” manifestations, particularly the Korean War and Vietnam War). The existential fear of Islamofascist terrorism has been accompanied by a wariness of the less savory aspects of the American security state, from erosions of civil liberties (the Patriot Act, revelations of domestic spying by the NSA) to violations of human rights (the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, the use of torture on terrorist suspects). Even the militarization of law enforcement at home is tied to this deeper distrust; in the unprecedented number of Americans living behind bars (with 716 per 100,000 Americans, we now have the largest prison population in the world), the draconian response to protesters in Ferguson and our increased awareness of systematic immoralities like the war on drugs and pervasive racism among police officers and our criminal justice system, millennials actually do have a palpable connection to the security state.
Another turning point, of course, was the war in Iraq. As it became increasingly clear that George W. Bush’s channeling of America’s post-9/11 energies into toppling Saddam Hussein was based on a deliberately misleading premise (namely, that Hussein was tied to the 9/11 attacks), many millennials were led during their politically formative years to deeply distrust the integrity of their government’s foreign policy making apparatus. In addition, similar to the Vietnam War a generation earlier, the Iraq War provided millions of young voters with their first rallying point issue to stimulate their participation in the electoral process. It’s important to remember that when Barack Obama became the first president to get elected in part due to support from millennials, it was largely because of his longstanding opposition to both that conflict and other Bush era excesses like the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay – both of which had been initially supported his main opponent in the Democratic primaries and the presumptive frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. It’s hardly a coincidence that the other prominent presidential candidates most associated with pioneering ways to use the Internet for mobilizing millennials were also conspicuously anti-security state – namely Howard Dean in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. Outside of electoral politics, polls consistently show millennials as being more anti-security state and anti-interventionism than previous generations (best chronicled in the survey databases at PollingReport.com).
Just as Rand Paul implicitly acknowledged the lingering influence of hawks in the conservative movement through his recent statements about ISIS, so too has Obama deferred to the weight of internationalist Democrats in his multiple interventions (such as during the 2011 Libyan revolution or in the ongoing crisis with ISIS in Syria and Iraq). Their lack of ideological fealty notwithstanding, however, it is important to remember that both Obama and Paul owed their large national followings among youth to their initial Washingtonian foreign policy beliefs.
It’s true that their stances sprang from very different ideological sources: Obama was drawing on the anti-imperialism and anti-statism developed by the New Left as a response to the unpopular Vietnam War (its greatest success before Obama was the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, although his landslide defeat stifled the New Left’s sway in the Democratic Party for the next third of a century), while Paul is a throwback to the paleoconservatism that last peaked among Republicans in the first decade of the Cold War (their last major candidate was Robert Taft, who barely missed the GOP nomination in 1940, 1948 and 1952). Nevertheless, their appeal to millennials was based in the collective historical experiences that have gradually shaped our generation’s foreign policy philosophy. Just as World War II and the Cold War taught earlier generations that America needed to be a superpower for both its own good and that of the entire world, so too have 9/11, the war in Iraq and the consequent growth of the security state convinced this one that it is fundamentally dangerous and un-American.
For now, of course, the stance du jour among leading presidential candidates seems to be to dance between America’s now-established tradition of militarism and the new generation’s inclinations. For the time being, politicians like Obama on the left and Paul on the right have tried to find a balance between these two, often being charged with flip-flopping in the process. Over time, however, millennials will gradually replace baby boomers as the dominant generational voting bloc. When that happens, it will be the course of wisdom for future anti-imperialists on both sides to be staunch in their confrontation of the post-9/11 military-industrial complex and security state. At that point, America's flip-flop foreign policy will be an historical footnote.