- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 31, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This year’s Republican presidential wannabes are finally engaging on real issues and by doing so, they’re giving Republican voters a chance to choose among them for serious policy rather than stylistic reasons. The debate cycle began with everyone focusing on Donald Trump’s entertaining outrageousness, Ben Carson’s laid-back style, Jeb Bush’s lethargy and Ted Cruz’s off-putting demeanor. But after a few rounds, they have begun to get serious and in the process, they may give Republican voters and ultimately general election voters an opportunity to answer some real questions about the country’s future.

The CNN national security and foreign policy debate combined with the back and forth among the candidates since is at long last giving GOP voters a chance to decide whether they fully support the interventionist policies championed by the neoconservative wing of their party since Sept. 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq, the quasi-realist policies that dominated the thinking of party foreign policy experts before Sept. 11, or the skeptical assessment of involvement beyond our shores advanced by Sen. Rand Paul. The airing of these differences in front of an audience of millions is especially important at this time because the neoconservative wing of the party has for some years dominated the public debate.

Although South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who engagingly represents the bellicose aggressiveness of his Senate colleague and former presidential candidate John McCain, never got traction with the public and has suspended his campaign, Florida freshman Sen. Marco Rubio represents the same sort of thinking and seems to be gaining strength in some quarters. He, Mr. Graham, Mr. McCain and others have had the luxury until fairly recently of employing what they like to describe as the “isolationist” views of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul as a sort of straw man in the foreign policy debate, which has allowed them to characterize the alternatives as withdrawal from a dangerous world or engaging our enemies abroad so we won’t have to fight them on our own soil.

That has changed since the CNN debate with the emergence of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as a major contender, who seems unwilling to ape the views of either Mr. Paul or the McCain-Rubio wing of his party. Mr. Cruz may have other problems, but is staking out ground attractive to many GOP primary voters who, while they don’t want a leader who seems congenitally afraid to provide the international leadership historically required of U.S. presidents. aren’t comfortable with a leader who sees himself as a sort of international super cop on steroids.

Representatives of all three strains like trying to identify with the policies of former President Ronald Reagan, but Mr. Cruz may be coming closer to channeling Mr. Reagan than the others. Mr. Reagan believed in peace through strength, of course, but was extremely reluctant to resort to force unless vital U.S. interests were at stake and he could see no alternative. He believed in a military strong enough to deter adversaries rather than as a force to be deployed at the drop of a hat. The Reagan view may have been best expressed by Colin Powell, of all people. He was asked by Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who wanted to put U.S. “boots on the ground” in the Balkans, why we spend so much on the military if we didn’t want to use it. Gen. Powell’s reply was simple enough: “We spend that money so we won’t have to use it.”

Mr. Paul as president would certainly be reluctant to use force internationally, but leaves one with the impression that he just doesn’t understand the need to maintain a strong military so we won’t have to, while Mr. Rubio appears to believe that there isn’t a problem anywhere that can’t be solved by dispatching American troops and armor. In his speeches, he champions just such a view, having declared recently, for example, that as president, “I will use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace or outer space.” That may be a great-sounding line, but as policy it doesn’t make much more sense than his suggestion that he will consider any disruption of commerce resulting from conflicts among other nations as essentially an act of war against the United States. One can only hope that if he is actually nominated and elected, someone will introduce Mr. Rubio to the role of “vital national security interests” as the key to a rational foreign policy.

Mr. Rubio and his allies are trying to demonize Mr. Cruz as an isolationist whose sins have included “embracing” Libya’s late dictator Moammar Gadhafi because he didn’t support Mrs. Clinton’s desire to overthrow the man, and Syria’s Bashar Assad because he resists the idea that inserting the U.S. military into that nation’s tragic and complex civil war would be all that smart. These two men have different views of what we should be doing going forward. But to characterize Mr. Cruz as somehow weak and unpatriotic because of legitimate differences that can only help voters make an informed decision is unbecoming. It may hurt Mr. Rubio in the long run.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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