It’s not exactly the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manilla,” but the ongoing Rand Paul-Dick Cheney pugilism certainly packs a punch.
The libertarian ophthalmologist and the warlord emeritus have been pounding each other for months, and while it’s tempting to just kick back with popcorn and behold the entertainment, we do need to acknowledge the bout’s deeper meaning. Because this is really about something quite serious.
Republicans are profoundly split these days over foreign policy: between the non-interventionists who are increasingly wary of American military involvement abroad; and the neoconservative hawks who blundered us into Iraq and want us to keep flexing military muscle. Senator Paul is a leader of the non-interventionsts, a GOP faction that used to be tiny, but not anymore. The Iraq disaster has swelled their ranks, and Paul hopes to speak for them in the ’16 presidential primaries.
Cheney is freaked out about that; hence his creation of a new group, Alliance for a Stronger America, which is geared to rebut Paul at every turn. (Cheney, ballyhooing the group last week in a Wall Street Journal column: “U.S. withdrawal from the world is disastrous and puts our own security at risk.”) Ostensibly, Cheney was rebuking President Obama, but Obama is a lame duck. In Cheney’s view, Paul is the real threat. Cheney clearly hopes to influence the GOP’s foreign policy debate; his new group is set up to raise money from anonymous donors and steer the bucks to like-minded candidates.
But it was Paul who delivered the latest flurry of punches. Last Thursday, in his own Wall Street Journal column, he was clearly talking about Cheney: “Many of those clamoring for military action now (in Iraq) are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war. They have been wrong for so long, why should we listen to them again?”
And yesterday, he followed up on Meet the Press, questioning the credibility “of those who supported the Iraq war. You know, were they right in their predictions? Were there weapons of mass destruction there? That’s what the war was sold on. Was democracy easily achievable? Was the war won in 2005, when many of these people said it was won? They didn’t really, I think, understand the civil war that would break out. And what’s going on now (in Iraq), I don’t blame on President Obama….But I do blame the Iraq war on the chaos that is in the Middle East.”
But Cheney quickly retaliated on ABC’s This Week: “If we spend our time debating what happened 11 or 12 years ago, we’re going to miss the threat that is growing and that we do face. Rand Paul, with all due respect, is basically an isolationist. He doesn’t believe we ought to be involved in that part of the world. I think it’s absolutely essential….I haven’t picked a (’16) nominee yet. But one of the things that’s right at the top of my list is whether or not the individual we nominate believes in a strong America. (Paul’s view) didn’t work in the 1930s, it sure as heck won’t work in the aftermath of 9/11.”
It’s hard to say who started this spat, but Paul arguably did so in 2009, when he was caught on video suggesting that Cheney dragged us into Iraq to profit his old cronies at Halliburton. In the video, which surfaced this spring, Paul tells an audience of college students: “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy….Dick Cheney (during the ’90s) goes to work for Halliburton, makes hundreds of millions of dollars as their CEO. The next thing you know, he’s back in government, and it’s a good thing to go into Iraq.” Halliburton got lucrative contracts in Iraq.
That was quite an insinuation, to say that Cheney ginned up a war to make money for his pals. When asked about the video this spring, Paul retreated a tad: “I’m not questioning Dick Cheney’s motives,” but nevertheless said: “When people go from high levels of government (Pentagon chief for Bush the elder) to high levels of industry that are dependent on government money, there’s a chance for a conflict of interest.”
Wow. You rarely hear that kind of talk in GOP circles, and Team Cheney didn’t like it. Cheney dispatched his daughter Liz (the daughter who bombed out in the Wyoming Senate race) to assert: “Senator Paul often seems to get his foreign policy talking points from Rachel Maddow.” Dad defended himself on CNN: “I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time that I was vice president. I didn’t even talk to them….So (Paul) is obviously not familiar with the facts.”
Dick Cheney, of all people, claiming that someone else is fact-challenged. Insert joke here.
Who should we root for in this ongoing Republican intramural? Probably Paul (grading on a curve), if only because of Cheney’s serial lies and performance failures. What’s unknowable is whether Paul can actually win the GOP nomination as a non-interventionist. In the latest Real Clear Politics aggregation of polls, Paul is first in a crowded potential field of 11 candidates – but very precariously (he gets 13.8 percent; Jeb Bush is second at 12.8; Chris Christie is fourth, at 11 percent), and the truth is, most GOP primary voters traditionally favor a muscular foreign policy.
Most GOP primary voters probably aren’t bullish about Cheney’s horrific track record, but, broadly speaking, they’re probably more amenable to his hawkishness – “the indispensible role America and American power must play in the world” – than to Paul’s blanket denunciation of “unlimited involvement in foreign wars.”
It’d be nice if the party found a middle ground (is there no such thing as prudent, fact-based interventionism?), but that won’t happen any time soon. As Paul warned the Cheney camp back in April, “sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.”
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