GOP Debate: The Triumph of ‘Isolationism’

The two frontrunners for the GOP presidential nomination aren’t drinking the neocon Kool-Aid, and this became readily apparent on the stage of the GOP presidential debate.

Donald Trump opposed the Iraq war, thinks we should be happy Putin is taking on ISIS in Syria, and more recently called Charles Krauthammer a “warmonger.” This last alone would be enough to provoke his excommunication from the ranks of acceptable GOP nominees, but to make matters worse The Donald is horning in on the neocons’ hate-all-Muslims shtick while combining it with heretical “isolationist” views. You can hear the teeth-grinding all the way from Washington and the West side of Manhattan.

Ted Cruz is another highly problematic candidate from the neocon point of view. His major sin in their eyes is his co-sponsoring of the USA Freedom Act, which kinda-sorta (but not really) reined in collection of bulk meta-data by US government agencies. Aside from that, however, there’s his deviation from the neocon party line on Syria, “democracy” promotion, and the whole “regime change” policy, which has been nothing but a disaster for both the United States and its targets.

What we saw on the stage was prefigured in the days leading up to the debate. In a recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, Cruz said

“More data from millions of law abiding Americans is not always better data. Hoarding tens of billions of records of ordinary citizens didn’t stop Fort Hood. It didn’t stop Boston. It didn’t stop Chattanooga. It didn’t stop Garland. And it failed to detect the San Bernardino plot.”

Neocon favorite Rubio has been running attacks ads aimed at Cruz, claiming his support for the USA Freedom Act has put the nation in peril, but Cruz didn’t back down. And Rand Paul came to his defense:

“Marco gets it completely wrong. We are not any safer through the bulk collection of all Americans’ records. In fact, I think we’re less safe. We get so distracted by all of the information, we’re not spending enough time getting specific immigration – specific information on terrorists.

“The other thing is, is the one thing that might have stopped San Bernardino, that might have stopped 9/11 would have been stricter controls on those who came here. And Marco has opposed at every point increased security – border security for those who come to our country.”

In an election in which protecting the nation’s borders is at the center of the political debate, the Cruz-Paul beat-down of Rubio on this issue has effectively put him out of the running. Rubio can repeat the “radical Islamic terrorism” mantra until he’s blue in the face, but he’ll never get over this huge contradiction.

The argument over regime-change in Syria, Libya and throughout the Middle East was substantial – and resulted in a clear victory for the anti-regime changers, namely Cruz and Paul. Cruz told the audience that we shouldn’t intervene in Syria’s civil war and that “as bad as [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad was and is, radical jihadis controlling Syria would be a significant turn for the worse.” He skewered not only Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on this question, but also “the Washington Republicans,” a trenchant phrase.

The Libyan intervention, says Cruz, was a “disaster,” and replacing authoritarian leaders like Qaddafi and Assad with radical jihadists is inimical to US interests. He challenged Rubio on his support for the Hillary-Obama policy of regime change in Libya – which led to chaos and jihadist dominance of that unfortunate country.

This is not to say Cruz is an anti-interventionist: not by a country mile. He wants to “carpet-bomb” ISIS, and deploy “whatever ground troops are necessary.” However, he also denounces the obsession with “boots on the ground” as “a talismanic demonstration of strength. That is getting the deployment of military force precisely backwards. This is not a game of risk, where politicians move armies around to demonstrate their machismo.”

When he said this in his Heritage speech, this was rightly interpreted as a frontal assault on Marco Rubio, the neocon poster boy, and the reference to “machismo” was – again, rightly – seen as a hit on the chickenhawkish tendency of laptop bombardiers with impeccable neoconservative credentials but no military experience or knowledge. This provoked lots of incoming fire from such worthies as Bret Stephens, Stephen Hayes, and Max Boot. The neocons are particularly perturbed that Cruz has had the gumption to attack them by name, and their anger was channeled in this piece by Eliana Johnson and Tim Alberta in National Review:

“[W]hen Ted Cruz, on the campaign trail in Iowa and again in an interview with Bloomberg News, recently pointed the finger at ‘neocons’ in an attempt to defend his own understanding of American interests abroad, the response among some conservative foreign-policy experts – many of whom the term has been used to disparage — was of shock, anger, and dismay. ‘He knows that the term in the usual far-left and far-right parlance means warmonger, if not warmongering Jewish advisers, so it is not something he should’ve done,’ says Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration National Security Council official and a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘It’s an epithet. It’s always used pejoratively. And the main thing I resent about it is, it’s a label, it’s a way of avoiding arguments,’ says Eliot Cohen, a Bush administration State Department official and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.”

We aren’t allowed to utter the word “neoconservative,” unless of course we’re Irving Kristol, who wrote a whole book about neoconservatism, or unless we’re Eliana Johnson, one of the authors of the article cited above, who last year wrote a piece declaring “the neocons are back”!

We aren’t allowed to talk about the neocons because to do so would expose them for what they are: a political cult that glories in war, and has infused American politics with its toxic ideology of perpetual conflict and unmitigated statism. Talk of “neocons” also brings to the surface the neoconservative institutions that have been key to pushing America into one disastrous military adventure after another.

All this was the run-up to the Rubio-Cruz battle on the debate stage, which Rubio lost decisively – with help from Rand Paul, who effectively attacked the Florida Senator on border security. As Cruz and Paul went after him, you could see the neocons’ poster boy looking visibly thrown off balance, that bland airbrushed façade pierced by an arrow shot directly into his Achilles’ heel. Rubio fought back by arguing that Cruz voted against the defense authorization bill – because it allowed the government to hold Americans without trial – but Cruz pointed out that when it comes to actually defending the nation’s borders, Rubio would have allowed people to pour into this country without any vetting.

Paul made the same point:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow. I think those who have wanted regime change have made a mistake. When we toppled Gadhafi in Libya, I think that was a mistake. I think ISIS grew stronger, we had a failed state, and we were more at risk.”

Paul, by the way, not only had a great night, but he also managed to land the only blow on frontrunner Trump:

“I’d like to also go back to, though, another question, which is, is Donald Trump a serious candidate? The reason I ask this is, if you’re going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails. That entails getting rid of the First amendment, OK? It’s no small feat. If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there’s something called the Geneva Convention we’re going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America. So when you ask yourself, whoever you are, that think you’re going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?”

Trump’s answer was incoherent, and grimaces he made while Paul was skewering him didn’t help either.

Rand Paul scored another bull’s eye in his confrontation with Chris Christie, who declared he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot down a Russian plane over Syria (because he’s from New Joisey!) “If you want World War III,” said Paul turning to Christie, “you’ve found your candidate.”

That was a knockout punch.

And Rand had a great – even inspiring – opening statement, which had the advantage of being the first on deck:

“The question is, how do we keep America safe from terrorism? Trump says we ought to close that Internet thing. The question really is, what does he mean by that? Like they do in North Korea? Like they do in China?

“Rubio says we should collect all Americans’ records all of the time. The Constitution says otherwise. I think they’re both wrong. I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them. I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won. Regime change hasn’t won. Toppling secular dictators in the Middle East has only led to chaos and the rise of radical Islam. I think if we want to defeat terrorism, I think if we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS. If we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground – the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.

“As commander-in-chief, I will do whatever it takes to defend America. But in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for. Today is the Bill of Rights’ anniversary. I hope we will remember that and cherish that in the fight on terrorism.”

It would be hard to imagine a better summation of the libertarian position on foreign policy and its connection to civil liberties. Rand gave voice to it with eloquence and an eye for the weaknesses of his opponents.

So who won the debate? There’s no clear answer to that question. But what’s clear is who lost: Rubio got creamed, and Christie (who, as I write, is being touted by the clueless she-devil Megyn Kelly as having “scored big”!) is a close runner-up. The icing on the cake is the marginalization of the nearly forgotten Carly Fiorina, who was reduced to screaming from the sidelines like an out-of-control bag lady.

What was striking about this debate, which was entirely devoted to foreign policy and national security, is that Cruz, who represents the hardcore conservative “movement” voters, felt compelled to court – and echo – the “isolationist”-realist component of the party. Trump, for all his belligerent bombast, made a point of repudiating the entire record of the Bush years: “What have we got to show for it? The Middle East is a mess – a mess!” Everyone else is miles behind these two in the polls – and the War Party isn’t happy about that. They’re losing control of the Republican party – and they’re losing the battle of ideas. This in spite of the San Bernardino attacks, the Paris massacre, the constant fearmongering of the national media, and the relentless neocon propaganda machine.

The power of anti-interventionist sentiment in this country is a force to be reckoned with. It may manifest itself in a distorted, contradictory, and inarticulate form – as is the case with Trump – or in a more sophisticated, albeit dodgy character like Cruz, but anyone running for office in this country is forced to deal with it, and appeal to it. Or, like Lindsey Graham, they can take it on, denounce it (as he did several times in the undercard debate, specifically attacking Cruz and Paul), and be relegated to the margins: Graham is now at under one percent in the polls.

The neocons are frothing at the mouth this morning over Cruz’s explicit appeal to the dreaded “isolationists,” and none are frothier than Jennifer Rubin, who screeches:

“Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) outdid himself last night in his courting of the Trumpkin base. In doing so, he sank further into the far-right brew of isolationism and xenophobia.

“At one point in the debate, Cruz proclaimed: ‘Wolf, I believe in an America-first foreign policy, that far too often President Obama and Hillary Clinton – and, unfortunately, more than a few Republicans – have gotten distracted from the central focus of keeping this country safe’” Cruz is an Ivy League-educated man and knows full well the history of the isolationist ‘America First’ policy.”

Of course he knows his history – the history of wars fought to bail out foreigners from their own folly. Is that “xenophobia”? Tough! Although I would venture the theory that  what the American people are infused with is neocon-phobia – yes, Republican voters. And it’s about time.

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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.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].