Paris Attacks Could Give Neocon Presidential Candidates a Big Boost

November 18, 2015, 3:07 PM UTC
Republican Presidential Candidates Hold Third Debate In Colorado
BOULDER, CO - OCTOBER 28: Presidential candidates Sen. Marco Rubio (R) (R-FL) speaks while Jeb Bush looks on during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at University of Colorados Coors Events Center October 28, 2015 in Boulder, Colorado. Fourteen Republican presidential candidates are participating in the third set of Republican presidential debates. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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Last week’s attack in Paris has provoked a wide range of reactions — horror, anger, revulsion. The tragic event has triggered calls for war and for peace. And, of course, they’ve added a new kind of fuel to the partisan bickering on this side of the Atlantic.

Most notably, the Paris attack may very well speed up a phenomenon that was already well underway in the U.S.: the revitalization of neo-conservativism, an ideology many thought had faded into oblivion with the end of the George W. Bush administration.

Neoconservatism posits that the West, especially the U.S., should use its military and financial might to shape the world, spreading democracy and the American way. The neocon movement most recently came to a head during George W. Bush’s administration, when adherents like Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney pushed for intervention in Iraq.

In the aftermath of the Iraq war, amid all of its problems, public appetite for American interventionism had fizzled. Barack Obama’s presidency has, in large part, responded to that sentiment, with the withdrawal of troops in Iraq, the scaling down of the ground effort in Afghanistan, and an overall emphasis on relatively limited military intervention on the global stage.

Today, though, presidential candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, though, have campaigned on the idea that the U.S. ought to play a key role in shaping the world, particularly in volatile regions like the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Thomas Moriarty, a lecturer at the School of International Service at American University, notes that public disapproval of President Obama’s foreign policy has given these candidates the room they need to bring old-school neoconservative thought back into the mainstream.

President Obama’s approval on foreign policy sat at just around 38% in the most recent Real Clear Politics average.

In the GOP presidential nomination race, Lindsey Graham has been the most vocal proponent of the neoconservative message — it’s essentially impossible to ask him a question without him working “radical Islamic terror” and the need to use force to stop it into the answer. But Graham was polling too low to even make it into the undercard at the most recent Republican debate. Just the same, three serious candidates are leading the neocon resurgence: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and (sometimes) Ted Cruz.

In a speech earlier this year, Rubio laid out his foreign policy plan:

My foreign policy consists of three pillars. The first is American strength. This is an idea that stems from a simple truth that the world is at its safest when America is at its strongest. When America has the mightiest Army and Navy and Air Force and Marine Corps and Coast Guard and intelligence community in the world, the result is more peace, not more conflict.

To ensure our strength never falters, we must always plan ahead. It takes forethought to design and many years to build the capabilities we may need at a moment’s notice. So to restore American strength, my first priorities will be to adequately fund our military. This would be a priority even in times of peace and stability, though the world is neither peaceful nor stable.

Jeb Bush has advocated for a return to policies similar to those of his brother. He reiterated recently his support for the intentions surrounding the Iraq invasion, and he had one of his few debate bright spots when he chastised Donald Trump for saying that the U.S. should let Russia handle ISIS and come in to pick up the pieces.

Cruz, Moriarty notes, has professed some neoconservative views, but he also has a libertarian streak. For instance, he wants to reform the intelligence community’s collection of metadata, while Bush and Rubio have both advocated for expanding it.

Moriarty says that foreign policy is almost never the driving force behind presidential election results. Its always a secondary issue, one in which one candidate may separate himself from the frontrunner, rather than the reason a candidate becomes popular. The attacks in Paris, though, could heighten foreign policy’s role in the 2016 race. And it could provide just the kick the reemerging neocons need to get themselves to the forefront of voters’ minds.

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