U.S. Senator Ted Cruz speaking with attendees at the 2015 Iowa Growth & Opportunity Party at the Varied Industries Building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz speaking with attendees at the 2015 Iowa Growth & Opportunity Party at the Varied Industries Building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa. Gage Skidmore

The Hawkeye State Sours on Hawkish Republicans

Four years ago, Iowans rewarded the neocon-inflected campaigns of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. This year, four of the top five finishers are critics of unnecessary interventions.

For the last three election cycles, Iowa Republicans have chosen among large fields of GOP candidates vying for the nomination of a party without a clear leader. Mike Huckabee won in 2008. Rick Santorum was victorious in 2012. And Monday, caucus-goers elevated another Christian who trumpets his faith. “To God be the glory,” Senator Ted Cruz declared at the beginning of his victory speech. “Tonight is a victory for courageous conservatives all across Iowa and our great nation.” Donald Trump and Marco Rubio finished next in a near tie. Ben Carson was fourth. Rand Paul, a distant fifth, rounded out the delegate winners.

Before the vote, some thought Trump might win Iowa, crush in New Hampshire, and run the table. Instead, Iowa was notable for another outcome that would have been unthinkable four years ago, when Santorum and Mitt Romney nearly tied, Ron Paul came in third, Newt Gingrich took fourth, Rick Perry was fifth, and Michelle Bachman sixth. In that contest, only Paul was a critic of hawkish foreign policy.

This year, among the top five finishers who won delegates, only Marco Rubio is a full-throated defender of the GOP establishment’s neocon-inflected foreign policy. Cruz, Trump, Carson, and Paul have all declared the Iraq War an obvious mistake. Carson’s other foreign policy views may be too incoherently expressed to reveal anything much. But Cruz, Trump, and Paul are all coherently critical of the American intervention in Libya and the notion of pursuing regime change in Syria.

It isn’t that GOP voters won’t support hawks anymore. Rubio may yet win the nomination. If he loses, it’s unlikely that his foreign policy will be the deciding factor. It is nevertheless significant that Republicans no longer need to be hawks to win. In Iowa, well over 50 percent of the electorate seems to support candidates who are openly skeptical of major wars of choice supported by rivals in this campaign.

A couple years ago, Ross Douthat suggested that a Rubio-versus-Paul primary would clarify two substantive directions that Republican voters could take their party. Back then, Douthat preferred Rubio’s domestic agenda and Paul’s foreign policy:

Paul casts himself as the heir to the realist tradition in Republican foreign policy, while Rubio’s record and statements are more in line with the neoconservatism of the Bush era. To use specific Obama-era examples, a Paul-led G.O.P. would presumably oppose Libya-style humanitarian interventions and eschew gambits like our effort to aid Syria’s rebels, while a Rubio-led G.O.P. might be willing to put American boots on the ground in both situations. These are not small differences, and they might be magnified in larger crises… Paul’s ties to his father’s more paranoid worldview are problematic, but the realism and restraint he’s championing seem wiser than the G.O.P.’s frequent interventionist tilt.

To imagine Rubio as a successful foreign policy president, I have to imagine an administration in the mold of Ronald Reagan’s, where hawkish rhetoric coexists with deep caution about committing U.S. ground troops — and I think there’s reason to worry we’d get incaution and quagmire instead.

I'd prefer Paul’s principled noninterventionism to the neither-a-neocon-nor-a-noninterventionist Cruz. But even the latter is a step away from the Iraq War. I’d prefer almost anyone to Trump, with his ugly attacks on ethnic minority groups. Nonetheless, his frank assessments of the D.C. elite’s foreign-policy failures are refreshing.

Rubio’s strong third-place finish may be enough to unite the Republican establishment behind his candidacy. If so, there may be usefully substantive  foreign-policy debates yet to come this election cycle. On the other hand, whereas a contest with Paul would’ve almost certainly adjudicated foreign interventions and civil liberties, a long fight among Rubio, Trump, and Cruz seems more likely to turn on immigration policy, trade, and social welfare programs (and to feature enough confounding variables to obscure any new GOP consensus).

Against Bernie Sanders, it’s hard to say how much a GOP nominee would focus on foreign policy. If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, it will be interesting to see if a Trump or Cruz campaign would try to ding her as recklessly hawkish or how Rubio would attack a woman who shares so many of his foreign-policy instincts. Meanwhile, the notions that Iraq was a prudent war and that George W. Bush “kept us safe on 9/11” seem about as popular as Jeb Bush was Monday night.

That is progress.