Young Conservatives Wrestle With What It Means to Be a Foreign Policy Hawk

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 8 2014 5:35 PM

Let’s Have a War

At CPAC, a new generation of conservatives wrestles with what it means to be a foreign policy hawk.

(Continued from Page 1)

Paul arrives, talks, and leaves, so he can be guided to a crowded book signing in CPAC’s exhibit hall. Aaron and Elizabeth Littlefield, aged 21 and 18 and newly married, come away with valuable copies of Paul’s Government Bullies. They didn’t follow politics when the war in Iraq began; they have only really paid attention to the Obama foreign policy. And they don’t like it.

“Obama’s foreign policy has shown the United States to be weak—that we don’t want to do anything,” says Elizabeth. “Countries don’t take our red lines seriously. We are starting to lose our standing.”

“Ron Paul was a staunch isolationist,” says Aaron, “whereas Rand Paul does believe we live in an international community. That’s one of the big differences between supporters of Ron and Rand.”

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It truly is. Not far from the book signing, waiting to be interviewed by RT (formerly Russia Today), is Richard Spencer. Years ago he and some fellow paleo-conservative 20-somethings co-founded the Robert Taft Club, a conservative society for talks and debate; it had booked Ron Paul during his 2008 campaign. Since then Spencer had edited one of the magazines that Jack Hunter—Paul’s old co-author—had written for. Hunter resigned from Paul’s staff after the media belatedly discovered his career as the “Southern Avenger.” To Spencer, the new-old hawk feel of CPAC was absolutely pathetic.

“They want to claim Obama’s not doing enough and he’s weak,” he says. “Conservatism is a child of the Cold War. It’s probably hard for some people to imagine not having a Cold War mentality. It’s very hard for someone to come hear and talk about reaching out to Russia, and to say we have so much more in common with Russians as human beings, and as a society.”

It’s hard because the millennials who adore Rand Paul didn’t necessarily sign up for non-intervention. Shortly after 2 p.m., Paul gives his CPAC address. He mentions his 2013 filibuster that asked the Obama administration whether it thought it could legally kill American citizens with drones. The crowd, packed to the walls, erupts with applause. It’s the only thing Paul says about foreign policy.

So he’s off to a McCormick and Schmick’s for a meet and greet with Greg Brannon, Tea Party candidate running for Senate in North Carolina. “Ron Paul is the statesman of our generation,” he tells a supporter. He repeats the line in a short speech, standing beside Paul. When more supporters talk to him about Ukraine, he says he’s been studying up to “understand every rock and blade of grass” in that country, wrestling with how America should respond to Russia.

Dozens of CPAC ticket-holders crowd the room, angling for pictures with Paul or ordering a boozy concoction called “Senator’s Iced Tea.” Travis McCormick, a 24-year-old campaign worker from Texas, says he voted for Ron Paul’s campaign twice. He’s stayed in politics to manage a race for railroad commissioner.

“I was in middle school when the Iraq war started,” he says. “I didn’t think much of it. As I got older, I figured going over there wasn’t the best idea.”

“It’s kind of indicative of this entire administration,” he says. “Foreign policy’s been put on the back burner. When Romney got criticized for bringing up Russia, I think that was a key moment.”

Brannon’s supporters linger, and Paul leaves. He stops by a happy hour for his RANDPAC—in and out, done before 6. Some students and activists migrate from that bar to one hosting a happy hour for the Leadership Institute. That’s where I run into Pete Chamberlain, a liberty activist who’d been selling T-shirts with Edward Snowden’s face (that one thoughtful-looking shot, from the first interview he did) and the word “HERO.” He wore one of the shirts under a blazer and talked about the return of the hawks.

“Putin’s a strongman,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t like any politician that rules in such a way. I would say it’s no different than Obama. So I see the Bill Kristols of the world, the Charles Krauthammers, say we’ve got to stand strong on Russia. But we’ve got no dog in that fight. People say, ‘Oh, we’re for smaller government and less spending,’ and we spend more on defense than, what—the next seven biggest countries, combined, spend on defense?”

The new, young, skeptical branch of the conservative movement would keep puzzling this, into the night, as the Russians dug in.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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