New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made news July 24 by warning, “this strain of libertarianism that’s going through both parties right now and making big headlines, I think, is a very dangerous thought.”
Christie was talking about the strain of foreign policy libertarianism, associated most prominently with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that, broadly speaking, opposes most military interventions and is suspicious of government surveillance.
The fact that Christie felt the need to address the growing influence of this movement (also associated with the term paleoconservatism) speaks to the big shift in Republican views on foreign policy that’s taken place over the past five years
That said, I think a lot of people may be reading too much significance into recent developments indicating a shift, such as the 94 votes in favor of Rep. Justin Amash’s amendment that would have defunded the National Security Agency’s program that harvests phone records to track terrorist activity.
There are a number of reasons why the shift is a natural development, the most obvious being that the further away the nation moves from the Sept. 11 attacks, the less willing people are to cede power to the government in the name of security. The experience of the Iraq War, no doubt, also chastened the interventionist impulse.
But there’s also another important change. Historically, conservatives have tended to be much more skeptical about interventionist foreign policy when a Democrat is in the White House. A good example of this is the widespread conservative opposition to the 1999 Kosovo war under President Clinton.
To get a sense of what things were like back then, it’s worth looking at this May 1999 Washington Times article by Ralph Hallow, “Conservatives not behind Kosovo effort.”
The article opened with a quote from Angelo Codevilla, the Boston University international relations professor, who said that, “You can shoot a cannonball through the ranks of conservatives and not hit anyone who supports the war.”
Hallow went on to describe how conservatives support “non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries except to counter threats to vital U.S. interests” and explains how they were skeptical of exporting democracy by force.
It quoted L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Media Research Center, explaining the strong conservative opposition to the Kosovo intervention. In contrast, neoconservatives Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, supporters of the Kosovo war, complained about anti-war papers being put out by “once-Reaganite think tanks.”
In response, Hugh C. Newton, then spokesman for the Heritage Foundation, said, “Other than Kristol and Kagan in the Weekly Standard, most conservatives are appalled at what we’ve gotten into … and are very reluctant to commit ground troops, especially under a president we don’t trust anyway.”
This isn’t to suggest that there weren’t important differences between Kosovo and Iraq. But the point about trust is significant. Because conservatives are distrustful of Obama and his motives, they’re much more suspicious about his foreign policy decisions and use of surveillance powers. For instance, I find it highly unlikely that an NSA defunding measure would get 94 Republican votes in the future were a Republican president doing the surveillance.
That’s why it’s too early to tell whether this libertarian trend is situational and reflective of the current political dynamic or part of a more significant long-term ideological shift.