The Republican presidential field may be large in number—there’s Jeb Bush and Scott Walker and Marco Rubio and Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and oh so many others. It may differ greatly in style. But it does not feature a lot of striking differences on policy. Republicans may be the most united on foreign policy. With one exception, Republican presidential candidates are competing to see who is the biggest hawk. On policy towards Israel, they are also trying to show who backs Benjamin Netanyahu most fervently.
Marco Rubio may be trying to stand out as the candidate most concerned with foreign policy. But his views fit neatly into the GOP mainstream. Like his colleagues, Rubio is running as a staunch hawk, attacking Obama for his nuclear arms agreement with Iran and for his normalization of relations with Cuba. Despite the unpopularity of his brother’s war in Iraq, Jeb Bush has denounced the withdrawal of American troops from that country. Scott Walker is still studying up on foreign policy, but his views seem to be conventionally hawkish. Other candidates compete to see who can deliver the most chest-thumping rhetoric about Iran and ISIS. (Daniel Drezner has a nice roundup of the interventionist dominance of the GOP.)
The dominance of neoconservative hawks among the GOP’s foreign policy elites has been especially visible in two recent events involving Jeb Bush’s campaign. James A. Baker III, one of the long list of foreign policy advisors to the former Florida governor, spoke at the annual meeting of J Street, a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization. The former Secretary of State bemoaned Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to a two-state solution. Baker came under immediate fire from numerous top Republicans, while Bush quickly distanced himself from a man long personally close to his family. Nevertheless, Jeb still came under ferocious criticism from supporters of Israel, including some of the GOP’s biggest donors. Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was considered as a top foreign policy advisor to Bush, until concerns were raised about his skepticism about a military attack on Iran.
Rand Paul has moved away from his father’s isolationism, but not enough to satisfy most party insiders. A 501 (c) 4 nonprofit called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America is running an advertisement attacking Paul as “soft” on Iran. In 2013, many Republicans tweeted #standwithrand to show their support for Paul’s attacks on drones and the National Security Agency. Now, Republicans have returned to the party of 2008 and 2012, when Ron Paul stood alone against a field (or more aptly, sky) full of hawks. It’s hard to imagine a party selecting a candidate outside its mainstream in a policy area so important to its elites.
Perhaps nowhere has the hawkish tilt of the GOP been most notable as in the evolution of its policy toward Israel. Not only has the party become more solidly supportive over the past generation, but there is now a much closer alignment between U.S. and Israeli politics than in the past. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had plenty of problems with the Likud governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Now Republicans express uniformly positive views of Netanyahu, while liberal commentators nearly all bemoaned his re-election.
Not only are Republicans more united in support for Israel, but the alliance has become more central to party ideology. During the Cold War, backing Israel was part of a broader strategic vision supporting allies against the Soviet Union. Even Richard Nixon recognized Israel as a strategic ally despite having few emotional ties to the country. Now the U.S.-Israel alliance stands on its own as a central value of the GOP. This worldview has been boosted by a shared fear of terror after 9/11 and by the emergence of white evangelical Protestants as political cornerstones for both the GOP and Israel. These voters express commitment to Israel that outstrips even that of American Jews, and are especially likely to accept religious justifications for Zionism. Likud’s pessimism about diplomacy and its reliance on military force also nicely comport with the dominant foreign policy values of Republicans.
Jim Baker’s ostracism—by his own party—can best be understood as an outgrowth of this shift. Baker is genuinely one of the top Republican foreign policy minds of his generation: a man who has served the last four GOP presidents. Yet he stood without defenders, a serious embarrassment to the campaign he was advising. Baker has a history of impolitic statements about Israel, but the reaction to his speech shows how unacceptable criticism of the Netanyahu government has become within the GOP.
Support for Israel has long been bipartisan in the United States. But a new gap has appeared over the past fifteen years, driven almost entirely by an increase in Republicans’ support for Israel (support among Democrats and independents has remains largely the same. However, there is some evidence that younger and minority Democrats are more skeptical about Israel.
Currently, we are in an era that encourages maximum polarization. A liberal Democratic president has a poisonous relationship with a Likud prime minister given to apocalyptic rhetoric, while congressional Republicans and the Israeli government openly criticize a controversial Obama administration agreement with Iran. Because they don’t control the White House, Republicans enjoy the freedom to criticize existing policy without having to offer coherent alternatives of their own.
With the economy strengthening and memories of the Iraq War waning, Republicans’ eagerness to highlight foreign policy in the upcoming presidential elections may be born largely out of political necessity. Different circumstances might produce different politics. But given the deep commitment to Israel among both elites and voters in the GOP, one wonders if future Republican presidents will be especially wary of any confrontation with the Jewish state.