Simi Valley—As a result of President Obama’s success in getting the Iranian nuclear accord past a well-coordinated and obscenely well-funded American-Israeli effort to derail it, a spate of stories have appeared over the last week suggesting that the Israel lobby, and perhaps American neoconservatism generally, may be now something of a spent force in Republican politics. Yet anyone watching the second Republican primary debate last evening would be quickly disabused of such a notion. If the candidates’ positions on foreign policy were anything to go by, the neocon outlook—which is in essence a frightened, xenophobic, reflexive militarism—continues to have a stranglehold on a Grand Old Party, which cannot seem to shake some Very Bad Ideas.
It was clear from the outset that nearly all of the candidates who made their way to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last night had, at a minimum, two objectives: first, to pay sufficient fealty to the memory of the “the Gipper” and, second, try to derail the Donald Trump juggernaut. The one exception, naturally, was Trump himself, who did manage to pay due respect to the late president’s memory, all the while finding ample time, as he always does, to sing a song of himself.
The debate was a two-part affair. Governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Lindsey Graham, former senator Rick Santorum, and former governor George Pataki were featured on the undercard. Most notably, Graham whipped up his usual stew of rabid Islamophobia and unhinged militarism, topped off with a dollop of lugubrious anecdotes about what, in all fairness, must have been a most unenviable backwoods childhood. His vision of the world America faces is unremittingly hostile. He proposes to send 10,000 American troops to Iraq in order to “destroy” the Islamic State. He would also send ground forces into Syria, because, according to Graham, if the United States doesn’t topple Assad (the secular dictator who happens to be fighting the very same Islamic radicals the United States itself is currently bombing), the Syrian civil war could soon pose a direct threat to what Republicans gratingly and unceasingly call “the Homeland.” According to Graham, “if you are not ready to do these things, you are not ready to be Commander-in-Chief.” QED.
The main event came quickly enough, and on the foreign-policy side of the ledger it was, for those of us appalled by the incessant and reckless militarism that has become the hallmark of American foreign policy over the past quarter-century, a largely dispiriting affair. Of the 11 candidates who made it to prime time, only Senator Rand Paul made the feeblest attempt to defy the GOP’s orthodox militarism.
Before the campaign began in earnest this summer, Paul was seen by many, including Time magazine, which put him on its cover in October 2014, to be a top contender for the nomination. He is now routinely mocked by Trump for his low poll numbers. Paul’s sinking poll numbers are interesting for what they say about the current disposition of Republican primary voters. According to several long-time Republican Party watchers I spoke to recently, Rand is finding far less success than his father had at similar points in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, not simply because he is a lackluster and disinterested candidate, but because his brand of foreign policy realism now holds little purchase among Republican primary voters who are obsessing over the degradations of the Islamic State. It seems Paul’s problem is that in the current environment of ISIS hysteria, the more he touts his opposition to the Iraq, Libya and Syrian debacles, the deeper he sinks into oblivion.