The testy exchange this summer over U.S. counterterrorism practices—involving two leading potential GOP presidential candidates, Kentucky senator Rand Paul and New Jersey governor Chris Christie—is part of a broad and consequential new debate among Republicans over foreign policy and national security. In the past, conservatives and Republicans have tended to agree more than they disagree on such issues.
The notion of a strong national defense, in particular, has been a bedrock principle for conservatives for decades. But tight fiscal constraints, voter fatigue with foreign wars, the rise of a powerful libertarian strain within the GOP, and the reelection of President Obama (together with his relative domestic political success on foreign-policy issues) have all raised the question of where Republicans and conservatives are headed when it comes to America’s role in the world. It is no longer inconceivable that a truly prominent GOP presidential candidate next time around might argue for deep defense cuts, strengthened civil liberties for terror suspects, and reducing U.S. military commitments overseas.