I’m often asked, “Jack, why do you talk about foreign policy so much?” That’s simple—because foreign policy is unquestionably the most significant divide on the American Right. In fact, until mainstream conservatives rethink this issue, any desire for smaller government will continue to be in vain.

Recent political history highlights this constant obstacle. In the 2008 presidential election, how could so many conservatives hold their noses to vote for John McCain? That’s easy—despite McCain’s sponsorship of amnesty for illegal aliens, enacting campaign finance reform, his support for TARP and virtually all of George W. Bush’s big government agenda, the senator was still seen as “strong” on national defense. How could so many conservatives ignore Ron Paul during the Republican primaries, whose conservative platform was arguably purer than that of any Republican presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater? That’s easy too—by opposing the Iraq war, the congressman was viewed by his party as being “weak” on national defense. At the 2008 Republican National Convention, hawkish liberal Democrat Joe Lieberman was given a prime time speaking role and Paul wasn’t allowed inside the building. Talk host Sean Hannity regularly referred to Lieberman as his “favorite Democrat,” but usually referred to Paul begrudgingly and disparagingly, if at all.

But this once rigidly enforced division has since become blurred, not-so-coincidentally as Obama continues to pick up where Bush left off. First, Paul’s profile and influence has risen significantly since 2008, within the GOP and beyond. Obama’s exorbitant spending has helped shift rank-and-file Republicans’ focus from war-at-all-costs to cost-cutting, something reflected most explicitly by the Tea Party. Popular mainstream conservative pundits like George Will and Tony Blankley now openly question the wisdom of carrying on in Afghanistan. When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dared to challenge Obama’s “land war” in Afghanistan, the pro-war, any war hardliners who rallied around Bush and McCain—from neoconservative pundits like Bill Kristol to their politician advocates like Senator Lindsey Graham—publicly excoriated the RNC head. Popular conservative pundit Ann Coulter not only defended Steele but harshly attacked Kristol and the neoconservative agenda of “permanent war.”

Praising Coulter, MSNBC conservative talk host Joe Scarborough noted:

“When Ann Coulter comes out criticizing Republican foreign policy… you know a real debate’s about to begin in the Republican Party. The party has been the party of endless wars, now, for the last five, six, seven years, with George W. Bush promising to export democracy across the globe… You know for too long you’ve had John McCain, and you’ve had Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman define what it meant to be a Republican when it came to foreign policy, when in fact the Republican Party historically has usually been for restraint, accused of being ‘isolationists’ in the past, now it seems like a small group of people want to fight every war in every corner of the planet and it’s just not good for the party.”

The MSNBC host’s assessment is a good synopsis of the foreign policy insanity that has long handicapped any serious chance of conservatism taking root within the GOP, something the “small group of people,” or neoconservatives, that Scarborough notes, have always known well—which is precisely why they worked so hard to redefine conservatism as support for perpetual war. If during the Dubya years, “conservatism” meant support for endless global military adventures then the expansion of government power and spending necessary to sustain such a project was justified in the minds of right-wingers, and usually on “patriotic” grounds. Does this not aptly describe the last Republican administration and it’s almost singular appeal to conservatives? This narrative was also supposed to carry McCain with GOP voters in 2008, who had planned to run primarily on a “national defense” platform until the economy dictated otherwise.

To lose this issue, or to give any ground whatsoever to foreign policy dissenters on the Right, is exactly what the old Republican guard fears most—and it is also the issue which prevents the GOP from becoming a conservative party in any substantive manner.

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