- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The rise of Islamist guerrillas in Iraq is forcing 2016 GOP presidential contenders to pick sides in the ongoing debate over whether the invasion of Iraq was worth it and whether the U.S. should re-engage in the Arab nation’s mounting problems.

It’s the latest round in what’s been an ongoing internal fight over foreign policy and military force that kicked into gear in the wake of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, and which is shaping up as a key part of the battle for the GOP’s presidential race.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky have been the most vocal, and are lining up once again on different sides of a debate over Iraq.

Mr. Rubio has called for more involvement, saying the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a direct threat to the U.S. and is trying to establish a base of operations, much like al Qaeda did in Afghanistan to plan the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr. Paul has called for the United States to stay out of Iraq, saying American policy is emboldening ISIL, and says it’s time to reject former Vice President Dick Cheney’s vision of a more robust presence in the Middle East.

“The Republican Party is at a crossroads, and it is a party in search of a foreign policy,” said K.T. McFarland, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs under President Reagan.

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Mrs. McFarland said the GOP’s challenge is to find a middle ground between the “neocons who were discredited after Iraq and Afghanistan” and the isolationists that see little use in projecting military power.

“I think American foreign policy belongs somewhere in the middle, which is [that] we are not afraid to use American force overseas as long as we have the support of the American people with a clearly defined objective and [are] able to win,” she said. “That is the view that is not articulated.”

Other possible 2016 presidential candidates have been reluctant to weigh in on the unfolding chaos in Iraq. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s office did not respond to an inquiry about his stance, and others have stayed silent. They have, however, offered glimpses into their worldviews.

Mr. Cruz has said that, on foreign policy, he stands somewhere between Mr. Paul and the more pro-defense Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has warned against Mr. Paul’s libertarian approach to foreign affairs, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has, according to Time, warned about the “dangers of ‘American passivity’” and about the “push towards neo-isolationism.”

Just as Iraq was a defining issue for the 2008 Democratic primary, the state of the global war on terror could help decide the direction of the GOP in 2016.

Mr. Paul and Mr. Rubio, both elected as part of the tea party wave in 2010, differ over how to handle the civil war in Syria.

Mr. Rubio has called for more engagement with Syria’s rebels, while Mr. Paul said there is no clear national interest in doing so.

On Iraq, Mr. Rubio warned on the Senate floor that the United States must play a bigger role in the conflict, saying the longer it waits, the greater the chances are that extremists will attack the United States.

“Some will argue that the challenges faced by Iraq or countries such as Jordan are none of our business. That we have spent too many years, lives and dollars trying to make Iraq and the broader Middle East a better place,” Mr. Rubio said. “None of the options before us are ideal, but the question is whether we take action against ISIS now or deal with the consequences later here on U.S. soil. The stakes are too high for us to continue to ignore this problem.”

Mr. Paul, meanwhile, told attendees at the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference last month that “some in my party have distorted this belief in ‘peace through strength’ into a misguided belief that we should project strength through war.”

“Even when we’ve tried through good intentions to make the world a better place, our actions have often backfired,” Mr. Paul said. “Jesus reminds us what our goal should be when he proclaims blessed are the peacemakers, for they should be called the children of God.”

Mr. Paul, though, risks getting tied to his father, Rep. Ron Paul, whose “noninterventionism” cemented his rock-star status among the ascendant libertarian wing of the party but turned off other primary voters.

“I believe Paul’s preference for nonintervention, which echoes Obama’s largely hands-off policy to date, will have an emotional appeal to many voters — but as they think about it, they’ll realize that the hands-off approach is part of what got us to where we are, so whether one ultimately thinks the Iraq war was a mistake or not, complete disengagement now is unrealistic,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Rubio’s own call for a muscular foreign policy will anger the growing libertarian wing of the GOP, however.

Rubio, even though he didn’t cast a vote in favor of the Iraq War, because he wasn’t there, has cast his lot with Iraq War supporters, and I don’t think it is particularly surprising that Iraq war supporters like [conservative commentator] Bill Kristol have been singing his praises,” said Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

“He is their guy — at least one of the them. So I think he represents that wing of the party that believes the war was worth fighting for and believes likewise that additional uses of force around the world are generally a good idea,” Mr. Preble said.

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