Why every major 2016 candidate will embrace America's perpetual war machine

U.S. voters briefly flirted with receding from the global stage after the disasters of the Bush years. That didn't last long.

Hawk face
(Image credit: (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy iStock, Getty Images))

If the 2016 general election campaign were truly underway today, the debate about foreign policy among the mainstream presidential candidates would extend only from support for President Obama's war on ISIS to criticism of the plan for not being aggressive enough. You wouldn't hear a word of criticism charging Obama with being overly aggressive.

Of course, the president's plan will look very different after 24 months of bombing (and possible counter-attacks) than it does today. But will the range of policy options be wider than it is now? I wouldn't bet on it. The American people briefly flirted with embracing a foreign policy of restraint over the past few years, but all it took to send them running back into the arms of the hawks were a few examples of horrifying (but also impotent) displays of ISIS's flamboyant barbarism. Now we're back to what appears to be America's post-9/11 default of perpetual war. And nearly every major would-be 2016 candidate is racing to outhawk the others.

Six years ago, things looked like they were headed in a different direction. After years of grinding war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American people were exhausted and seemed willing to pull back just a bit from the forward-leaning stance that prevailed under George W. Bush. Barack Obama ran for office as a Niebuhrian realist, believing that while the U.S. has an important role to play in the world, it wasn't chosen by "the Author of Liberty" to spread democracy around the globe at the point of a gun (which is how Bush had portrayed it in his God-intoxicated second inaugural address).

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This attitude of restraint and humility marked Obama's approach to international affairs well into his second term in office. But to judge by his new military policy against ISIS and recent combative speech at the UN, the president himself has now abandoned it. Indeed, Obama's UN speech sounded like something Bush might have delivered in winter of 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq.

All of this poses a considerable challenge to Hillary Clinton. With Democrats now likely to lose the Senate in November and Obama facing a final two years of domestic-policy deadlock in Washington (and subsequent bargain-basement approval ratings), one of her biggest concerns has to be distancing herself from the president when she inevitably runs for the White House in 2016.

One easy and potentially potent way to do that would be for Clinton to portray herself as tougher than the president himself. She tested this approach over the summer when she ribbed Obama for failing to go to war in Syria a year ago and for lacking a broader geopolitical strategy. ("'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle," she told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg.) She would be a more hawkish Democrat — the kind of Democrat who might appoint neocon Robert Kagan her National Security Advisor and seriously tempt Bill Kristol into reversing his father's rush into the open arms of the Republican Party.

Obama's shift on ISIS has made this Clinton campaign strategy impossible. Where Clinton once hoped to put some daylight between herself and the president, she now looks likely to be left with coming up with variations on "me, too" as Obama fires countless cruise missiles at the "Network of Death" in the Mesopotamian desert.

But that's nothing compared to the dilemma facing poor Rand Paul. Until recently, he seemed poised to offer a slightly more moderate version of the position that propelled his father Ron Paul through a series of renegade presidential campaigns: a strict form of realism that defines American interests quite narrowly. It's not quite the "isolationism" his critics are always accusing him of, but the younger Paul nonetheless seemed far less committed to the U.S. projecting its military power around the globe than any other politician of national stature. Having someone intelligently defending such views in the presidential race would have been good for democratic debate.

Now, though, it's much less likely to happen. With the GOP overwhelmingly in favor of striking ISIS, Paul has squirmed his way into grudging support for a policy he would be unlikely to support under different circumstances. If events conspire to keep Paul from running for president on the basis of his distinctive position on foreign policy, it's far from clear what he'll be bringing to the contest that sets him apart from his likely competition for the Republican nomination.

Like Ted Cruz, for example, who is reportedly fixing to run a campaign oriented around a severe critique of "Obama-Clinton foreign policy." Think of George W. Bush without the democratizing ambitions. "It is not the job of our military to occupy countries across the globe and try to turn them into democratic utopias," Cruz tells National Journal. Though it certainly is the job of our military, in Cruz's view, "to hunt down and kill those who would threaten to murder Americans." I doubt anyone running for president would disagree with that statement — or at least dare to express that disagreement publicly.

And therein lies our problem. From the president and Hillary Clinton on through a long line of possible Republican candidates, no one likely to be involved in the 2016 race for the White House seems inclined to diverge from the militaristic consensus that dominates official Washington and plays so well in the American heartland.

It's war-lovers everywhere you look. Very much including when the American people look at themselves in the mirror.

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