Most Americans don’t think much about politics, let alone foreign policy issues, as they go about their daily lives. It’s not that they don’t care: it’s just that the daily grind doesn’t permit most people outside of Washington, D.C. the luxury of contemplating the fate of nations with any regularity. There is one exception, however, and that is during election season, and specifically – when it comes to foreign policy – every four years, when the race for the White House begins to heat up. The President, as commander in chief, shapes US foreign policy: indeed, in our post-constitutional era, now that Congress has abdicated its responsibility, he has the de facto power to single-handedly take us into war. Which is why, paraphrasing Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is certainly interested in you.
The most recent episode of the continuing GOP reality show, otherwise known as the presidential debates, certainly gave us a glimpse of what we are in for if the candidates on that stage actually make it into the Oval Office – and, folks, it wasn’t pretty, for the most part. But there were plenty of bright spots.
This was supposed to have been a debate about economics, but in the Age of Empire there is no real division between economic and foreign policy issues. That was brought home by the collision between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul about half way through the debate when Rubio touted his child tax credit program as being “pro-family.” A newly-aggressive and articulate Rand Paul jumped in with this:
“Is it conservative to have $1 trillion in transfer payments – a new welfare program that’s a refundable tax credit? Add that to Marco’s plan for $1 trillion in new military spending, and you get something that looks, to me, not very conservative.”
Rubio’s blow-dried exterior seemed to fray momentarily, as he gave his “it’s for the children” reply:
“But if you invest it in your children, in the future of America and strengthening your family, we’re not going to recognize that in our tax code? The family is the most important institution in society. And, yes…
”PAUL: Nevertheless, it’s not very conservative, Marco.”
Stung to the quick, Rubio played what he thought was his trump card:
”I know that Rand is a committed isolationist. I’m not. I believe the world is a stronger and a better place, when the United States is the strongest military power in the world.
“PAUL: Yeah, but, Marco! … How is it conservative … to add a trillion-dollar expenditure for the federal government that you’re not paying for?
“PAUL: … How is it conservative to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures? You can not be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you’re not going to pay for.
Here, in one dramatic encounter, were two worldviews colliding: the older conservative vision embodied by Rand Paul, which puts domestic issues like fiscal solvency first, and the “internationalist” stance taken by what used to be called Rockefeller Republicans, and now goes under the neoconservative rubric, which puts the maintenance and expansion of America’s overseas empire – dubbed “world leadership” by Rubio’s doppelganger, Jeb Bush – over and above any concerns over budgetary common sense.
Rubio then descended into waving the bloody shirt and evoking Trump’s favorite bogeyman – the Yellow Peril – to justify his budget-busting:
“We can’t even have an economy if we’re not safe. There are radical jihadists in the Middle East beheading people and crucifying Christians. A radical Shia cleric in Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon, the Chinese taking over the South China Sea…”
If the presence of the Islamic State in the Middle East precludes us from having an economy, then those doing their Christmas shopping early this year don’t seem to be aware of it. As for the Iranians and their alleged quest for nuclear weapons, IAEA inspectors are at this very moment verifying the complete absence of such an effort – although Sen. Paul, who stupidly opposed the Iran deal, is in no position to point this out. As for the fate of the South China Sea – if we could take a poll, I wonder how many Americans would rather have their budget out of balance in order to keep the Chinese from constructing artificial islands a few miles off their own coastline. My guess: not many.
Playing the “isolationist” card got Rubio nowhere: I doubt if a third of the television audience even knows what that term is supposed to mean. It may resonate in Washington, but out in the heartland it carries little if any weight with people more concerned about their shrinking bank accounts than the possibility that the South China Sea might fall to … the Chinese.
Ted Cruz underscored his sleaziness (and, incidentally, his entire election strategy) by jumping in and claiming the “middle ground” between Rubio’s fulsome internationalism and Paul’s call to rein in our extravagant military budget – by siding with Rubio. We can do what Rubio wants to do – radically increase military expenditures – but first, he averred, we have to cut sugar subsidies so we can afford it. This was an attack on Rubio’s enthusiasm for sugar subsidies, without which, avers the Senator from the state that produces the most sugar, “we lose the capacity to produce our own food, at which point we’re at the mercy of a foreign country for food security.” Yes, there’s a jihadist-Iranian-Chinese conspiracy to deprive America of its sweet tooth – but not if President Rubio can stop it!
Cruz is a master at prodding the weaknesses of his opponents, but his math is way off: sugar subsidies have cost us some $15 billion since 2008. Rubio’s proposed military budget – $696 billion – represents a $35 billion increase over what the Pentagon is requesting. Cutting sugar subsidies – an unlikely prospect, especially given the support of Republicans of Rubio’s ilk for the program – won’t pay for it.
However, if we want to go deeper into those weeds, Sen. Paul also endorses the $696 billion figure, but touts the fact that his proposal comes with cuts that will supposedly pay for the hike. This is something all those military contractors can live with, and so everybody’s happy, at least on the Republican side of the aisle, and yet the likelihood of cutting $21 billion from “international affairs,” never mind $20 billion from social services, is unlikely to garner enough support from his own party – let alone the Democrats – to get through Congress. So it’s just more of Washington’s kabuki theater: all symbolism, no action.
Paul’s too-clever-by-half legislative maneuvering may have effectively exposed Rubio – and Sen. Tom Cotton, Marco’s co-pilot on this flight into fiscal profligacy – as the faux-conservative that he is, but it evaded the broader question attached to the issue of military spending: what are we going to do with all that shiny-new military hardware? Send more weapons to Ukraine? Outfit an expeditionary force to re-invade Iraq and venture into Syria? This brings to mind Madeleine Albright’s infamous remark directed at Gen. Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”
In this way, Paul undermines his own case against global intervention – and even his own eloquent argument, advanced in answer to Rubio’s contention that increasing the military budget would make us “safer”:
“I do not think we are any safer from bankruptcy court. As we go further, and further into debt, we become less, and less safe. This is the most important thing we’re going to talk about tonight. Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending? Can you be for unlimited military spending, and say, Oh, I’m going to make the country safe? No, we need a safe country, but, you know, we spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined.”
I have to say Sen. Paul shone at this debate. His arguments were clear, consistent,
and made with calm forcefulness. He distinguished himself from the pack, including
Trump, who said “I agree with Marco, I agree with Ted,” and went on to mouth
his usual “bigger, better, stronger” hyperbole that amounted to so much hot
Speaking of Trumpian hot air: Paul showed up The Donald for the ignorant blowhard he is by pointing out, after another of Trump’s jeremiads aimed at the Yellow Peril, that China is not a party to the trade deal, which is aimed at deflecting Beijing. That was another shining moment for Paul, who successfully juxtaposed his superior knowledge to Trump’s babbling.
This obsession with China’s allegedly malign influence extended to the next round, when foreign policy was again the focus. In answer to a question about whether he supports President Obama’s plan to send Special Operations forces to Syria, Ben Carson said yes, because Russia is going to make it “their base,” oh, and by the way: “You know, the Chinese are there, as well as the Russians.” Unless he’s talking about these guys, Carson intel seems a bit off.
Jeb Bush gave the usual boilerplate, delivered in his preferred monotone, contradicting himself when he endorsed a no-fly zone over Syria and then attacked Hillary Clinton for not offering “leadership” – when she endorsed the idea practically in unison with him. Bush added his usual incoherence to the mix by averring that somehow not intervening more in the region “will have a huge impact on our economy” – but of course the last time we intervened it had a $2 trillion-plus impact in terms of costs, and that’s a conservative estimate.
Oddly characterizing Russia’s air strikes on the Islamic State as “aggression” – do our air strikes count as aggression? – the clueless Marie Bartiromo asked Trump what he intends to do about it. Trump evaded the question for a few minutes, going on about North Korea, Iran, and of course the Yellow Peril, finally coming out with a great line that not even the newly-noninterventionist Sen. Paul had the gumption to muster:
“If Putin wants to go and knock the hell out of ISIS, I am all for it, one-hundred percent, and I can’t understand how anybody would be against it.”
Bush butted in with “But they aren’t doing that,” which is the Obama administration’s demonstrably inaccurate line, and Trump made short work of him with the now undeniable fact that the Islamic State blew up a Russian passenger jet with over 200 people on it. “He [Putin] cannot be in love with these people,” countered Trump. “He’s going in, and we can go in, and everybody should go in. As far as the Ukraine is concerned, we have a group of people, and a group of countries, including Germany – tremendous economic behemoth – why are we always doing the work?”
Trump, for all his contradictions, gives voice to the “isolationist” populism that Rubio and his neocon confederates despise, and which is implanted so deeply in the American consciousness. Why us? Why are we paying everybody’s bills? Why are we fighting everybody else’s wars? It’s a bad deal!
This is why the neocons hate Trump’s guts even more than they hate Paul. The former, after all, is the frontrunner. What the War Party fears is that Trump’s contradictory mixture of bluster – “bigger, better, stronger!” – and complaints that our allies are taking advantage of us means a victory for the dreaded “isolationists” at the polls.
As for Carly Fiorina and John Kasich: they merely served as a Greek chorus to the exhortations of Rubio and Bush to take on Putin, Assad, Iran, China, and (in Trump’s case) North Korea. They left out Venezuela only because they ran out of time, and breath. Fiorina and Kasich were mirror images of each other in their studied belligerence: both are aspiring vice-presidential running mates for whatever Establishment candidate takes the prize.
Yes, it’s election season, the one time – short of when we’re about to invade yet another country – when the American people are engaged with the foreign policy issues of the day. And what we are seeing is a rising tide of disgust with our policy of global intervention – in a confused inchoate sense, in the case of Trump, and in a focused, self-conscious, occasionally eloquent and yet still slightly confused and inconsistent way in the case of Sen. Paul. Either way, the real voice of the American heartland is being heard.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.