Texas Gov. Rick Perry waits to meet President Obama on the tarmac in Dallas prior to a meeting, on July 9, 2014.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry waits to meet President Obama on the tarmac in Dallas prior to a meeting, on July 9, 2014. // Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Rand Paul vs. Rick Perry: The GOP’s Battle for the Future of National Security

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday hit Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy as “curiously blind” to threats to the homeland. Paul shot back Monday that Perry’s new glasses haven’t improved his foggy, hawkish view of the world. They’re both right about one thing: the Republican Party remains baldly divided over its vision for the future of U.S. national security.

“Unfortunately, we live in a world where isolationist policies would only endanger our national security even further,” Perry wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Friday. “In the face of the advancement of the Islamic State, Paul and others suggest the best approach to this 21st-century threat is to do next to nothing.”

“I personally don’t believe in a wait-and-see foreign policy for the United States,” he continued. “Paul is drawing his own red line along the water’s edge, creating a giant moat where superpowers can retire from the world.”

Paul has made headlines in recent weeks for defending President Barack Obama’s measured response to Iraq’s unraveling and blaming the Iraq mess on Bush administration officials who led the charge to invade Iraq in the first place, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney. Paul vehemently opposes putting U.S. ground troops in Iraq — a move that most Americans also oppose.

“If refusing to send Americans to die for a country that refuses to defend itself makes one an ‘isolationist,’ then perhaps its time we finally retire that pejorative,” Paul wrote in his Monday retort to Perry. “Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t want to send U.S. soldiers back into Iraq. Is Perry calling the entire country ‘isolationist’ too?”

“The let’s-intervene-and-consider-the-consequences-later crowd left us with more than 4,000 Americans dead, over 2 million refugees and over trillions of dollars in debt,” Paul continued. “If repeating the same mistakes over and over again is what Perry advocates in U.S. foreign policy, or any other policy, he really should run for president.”

Thus far, Paul has led the GOP pack of presidential contenders as one of the loudest and clearest voices on national security. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who sits on the Select Intelligence Committee, also has tried to establish himself as a defense and national security leader, falling somewhere between Paul’s non-interventionism and more hawkish conservatives like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. On Iraq, Rubio quickly called for “military action from the air.”

Perry’s surgical strike on Paul – sent from Texas to the Washington Post — indicates the senator is, for now, the one to beat for his party’s nomination. But using Paul as a stand-in for an isolationism movement that’s gaining momentum highlights a deeper, existential issue for the Republican party: Who will carry the “strong on defense” mantle in 2016? A GOP rift this wide – and this public – on an issue like Iraq also reveals that Republicans have a long way to go to clarify any unified foreign policy message – something that plagued the divided 2012 primary field and ultimately left former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney unable to articulate enough distinction from Obama’s own approaches to major national security issues such as ending the Iraq War or negotiating with Iran.

By his takedown attempt, Perry at least seems to be trying to contrast himself with Paul and Obama, and speak for the muscular interventionism of the GOP’s more hawkish establishment. McCain, the reigning spokesman of the Republican defense establishment without an obvious heir, declined on Sunday to take a side on the Paul-Perry spit-balling, beyond stating that “a withdrawal to ‘Fortress America’” is not the answer. He admitted that Paul appeals to voters, a tacit acknowledgement that the debate itself shows deepening cracks in the party’s national security platform that endanger Republican hawks. But he chose to emphasize his oft-repeated criticism of the president for what he calls a failure of leadership – the one refrain Republicans seem to be unified in singing against Obama.

“I’m not particularly interested in getting between Senator Paul and Governor Perry, but I do believe that the things we’re seeing in the world today in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime is a direct result of an absence of American leadership,” McCain said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” “and we are paying a very, very heavy price now, and we will in the future until we decide to understand that America has an essential role in maintaining peace and stability throughout the world.”

“That does not mean sending combat troops everywhere,” McCain said.  

For Paul, backing Obama while claiming to represent mainstream views has pitfalls. He has admitted that some of his foreign policy positions are aligned with Obama, but not without saying the same is also true of Perry.

“In fact, some of Perry’s solutions for the current chaos in Iraq aren’t much different from what I’ve proposed, something he fails to mention,” Paul said Monday. “His solutions also aren’t much different from President Barack Obama’s, something he also fails to mention.”

But as Republican presidential candidates try to make the case that they are commander-in-chief material, they will have to do more than posture against each other for distinction; they’ll have to convince voters they would do something different (and better) than Obama. And Hillary Clinton.