For decades, Democrats have spoken hopefully of contradictions within the Republican party that should prove unsustainable in the long run. Libertarians and religious conservatives have been considered ultimately irreconcilable, for instance, and yet the party has held and flourished, still more united by what all oppose -- "big government" above all -- than divided over doctrine. Perhaps it will be foreign policy that does the trick. If so, the libertarians may still play the destructive role liberal hopes have assigned to them. Given the heated rhetoric within the party over extending or replacing the Patriot Act, and Senator Paul's role as a provocateur, one can honestly wonder whether foreign-policy debates could tear the GOP apart.
The field for the party's presidential nomination next year is now as polarized as it can get with the long-expected entry today of Senator Graham into the race. The South Carolinian is spoiling for a fight with the self-styled Islamic State. Graham's is the rhetoric of a decade ago: the U.S. will have to fight the Daesh on their ground if we don't want to have to fight them on our own. Paul's is also the rhetoric of a decade ago, but his is the anti-interventionist rhetoric of blowback. Apart from his grandstanding tactics against the Patriot Act, Paul has provoked a firestorm within his own party by arguing that American foreign policy created the IS, or at least made it whatever threat it is today. He blames our zeal to topple the Assad regime in Syria as well as the long-term destabilization or Iraq. All this is heresy to those GOP hawks -- and not just Republicans think this way -- who insist that the IS, like all Islamic extremists, generated spontaneously out of pure religious fanaticism. Republican hawks in particular want to blame President Obama for getting out of Iraq too quickly and leaving us incapable of controlling events -- in other words, for not projecting American power aggressively or pre-emptively enough. As long as Islamist extremists remain rhetorically committed to waging jihad against or within the United States, Republicans and hawks in general believe they still have grounds for preventive war in the Middle East. Paul appears to disagree, and for that disagreement fellow Republicans are telling him he's unfit to be President. Do they mean he's unfit to be a Republican? Since they can't read them out of the party, all they can hope to do is primary him eventually or so humiliate him during the primary season that he'll never be taken seriously by Republicans again.
Naturally enough, foreign policy defines neither major party. There are Democratic hawks as well as Republican anti-interventionists. Understandably, domestic policy defines the parties, but should globalization dim the border between foreign and domestic policy, it may be more difficult for either party, but the Republicans especially, to accommodate potentially polarizing disagreements over foreign policy. Paul clearly sees some linkage already, since his main concern seems to be the way warmongering abroad threatens freedom and privacy at home. Some have always seen a linkage, assuming that war forces a zero-sum choice between guns and butter. Could a party eventually define itself by its foreign policy while accommodating disagreement on domestic issues? Could the people demand that the parties define themselves by their foreign policies? If that happens we could have a moment like the 1850s, when a party system defined by one set of issues fell apart because new issues had to be addressed. Could foreign policy be for the Republicans what territorial slave policy was for the Whigs, whose demise opened the Republicans' way to power? We shouldn't be too optimistic, since this isn't the first time the GOP has seemed split between interventionists and "isolationists." Those earlier conflicts ended with isolationist submission to interventionist ascendancy, but what if the stakes do become higher, as we concede is possible, and what if Paul refuses to submit? What if he becomes convinced that the "national-security state" specifically, rather than "big government" in general, is the real threat to American liberty? What he does matters because right now Rand Paul probably is the most powerful and popular dissident in this country against American foreign policy and its attendant surveillance practices. It's a shame that a Republican has to play that role, but he hasn't played it to the end yet -- and for all we know there may be a costume change to come before the curtain falls.