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Republicans can’t agree on what to do about ISIS

Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul
Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul
Drew Angerer/Getty

Throughout the Obama administration, the Republican Party hasn't had a clear direction on foreign policy. Its supporters have two impulses that sometimes conflict — one in favor of hawkish interventionism, and another toward skepticism of entanglement in foreign conflicts. In recent weeks, there's been some speculation that the rise of ISIS has given the hawks the upper hand.

But Thursday's Senate vote on President Obama's plan to fund moderate Syrian rebels made clear that the party's divisions remain real. As Gabriel DeBenedetti of Reuters writes, three presidential contenders in the chamber ended up with totally different positions.

1) Marco Rubio

Justin Wong / Getty

Marco Rubio. (Tom Williams - CQ-Roll Call Group/Getty)

Senator Marco Rubio, so far, looks like the most traditional interventionist hawk, having positioned himself alongside the GOP's foreign policy brain trust. In a speech this Wednesday, Rubio criticized leaders "in both parties" who "tried to convince Americans the world would be fine without our leadership." He criticizes Obama's foreign policy for its weakness — but he voted in favor of Obama's plan to arm the Syrian rebels. "If we fail to approve this, the nations of that region will say America is not truly engaged," Rubio said Thursday, adding that the resolution "is in the best interest of our nation."

2) Rand Paul

Rand Paul

Rand Paul. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Rubio's speech on Wednesday was widely viewed as a critique of Rand Paul, who's become the leader of anti-interventionist conservatives. There's been some speculation that, as his potential campaign draws nearer, Paul would try to moderate his positions to better satisfy GOP elites.

But Paul's speech Thursday was a strongly-worded, withering critique of foreign policy hawks in both parties who've been urging greater action in Syria. "Intervention when both choices are bad is a mistake. Intervention when both sides are evil is a mistake. Intervention that destabilizes the region is a mistake. And yet here we are again, wading into another civil war in Syria," Paul said. "What we need is someone to shout, 'War, war, what are we fighting for?'"

Paul emphasized that he considers radical jihadism a serious threat and that he favors striking ISIS, but he argued that the "foolishness of the interventionists" helped lead to the group's rise. He said that if the US had helped take out Assad from power last year, ISIS would likely now be in charge of most of Syria and even more of Iraq, and that "intervention created the chaos." His remarks made clear that he's not seeking any rapprochement with the GOP foreign policy establishment. "When does a track record of being consistently wrong stop you from being a so-called expert when the next crisis comes up?" he asked.

3) Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

On most domestic policy issues, Cruz positions himself as more conservative than his other 2016 rivals. But on foreign policy, he's shown uncharacteristic caution. The Texas senator always has his finger on the pulse of the GOP base, and clearly understands that it's divided on the wisdom of foreign intervention. Additionally, Cruz's likely presidential bid has often been compared — even by his supporters— to that of Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative who won the 1964 nomination, but lost the general election in a landslide after being characterized as a warmonger.

So Cruz has frequently tried to set himself apart from both the hawks and the doves. Back in March, he said: "You can point to two points on the spectrum, where Republicans lie. On one side you have the views of John McCain. The other end of the spectrum, you have the views of Rand Paul. Now, with respect, my views are very much the views of Ronald Reagan, which I would suggest is a third point on the triangle." On Thursday, he voted against arming the rebels — but characterized his objections mainly in terms of criticism of the Obama administration rather than a general opposition to intervention. "I do not support arming the rebels in Syria, because the administration has presented no coherent plan for distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys," Cruz told reporters, according to Joel Gehrke of National Review.

The upshot is that the GOP's foreign policy differences aren't being swept under the rug. If these candidates all run for president — as looks quite likely — the debate over how interventionist the party should be will get even more heated.

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