Now, a new generation of Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is turning inward, questioning the approach that reached its fullest expression after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and signaling a willingness to pare back the military budgets that made it all possible.
That holds the potential to threaten two wings of a Republican national security establishment that have been warring for decades: the internationalists who held sway under the elder President George Bush and the neoconservatives who led the country to long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.
Members of both camps said this week that they fear returning to a minimalist foreign policy, as articulated in different ways by Mr. Paul, Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Representative Justin Amash of Michigan. The foreign policy hawks fear it would lead to a diminished role for America in an increasingly unstable world. And they worry about their party losing its firm grasp of what has traditionally been a winning issue.
“A real challenge for the Republicans as they approach 2016 is what will be their brand?” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former aide to the first President Bush. “The reason Rand Paul is gaining traction is overreaching in Iraq. What he is articulating represents an alternative to both.”
The split in the party was on display in muted terms here on Thursday at the opening session of the Conservative Political Action Conference when Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a possible presidential candidate in 2016, expressed concern about a return to isolationism. Without mentioning Mr. Paul directly, Mr. Rubio said that the United States “can’t solve every war” but added that “we also can’t be retreating from the world.”
Moments later, Mr. Paul told the conference that the filibuster he conducted last week over the Obama administration’s drone policy was aimed at the limits on presidential power and American power abroad. “No one person gets to decide the law,” he said.
Some Republicans are so nervous about the positions championed by Mr. Paul and his supporters that they have begun talking about organizing to beat back primary challenges from what Dan Senor, a veteran of the younger Mr. Bush’s team of foreign policy advisers, described as a push to reorient the party toward a “neo-isolationist” foreign policy. That policy, Mr. Senor said, “is sparking discussions among conservative donors, activists and policy wonks about creating a political network to support internationalist Republicans.”
But in Mr. Paul and the Tea Party, Republicans face a philosophical disagreement from within their ranks. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who is his party’s most prominent spokesman for an aggressive foreign policy, recently dismissed Mr. Paul and those who agree with him as “wacko birds.”
But other party leaders are rushing to embrace Mr. Paul and Tea Party Republicans as they build coalitions of young voters who dislike the foreign wars and the cost of fighting them. Those voters may be a key to winning back the White House in 2016.
After Mr. Paul’s 13-hour filibuster last week, leading Republican figures heaped praise on the freshman senator. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Mr. Lee joined the filibuster, offering their ideological support for his cause. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican Party, said Mr. Paul “was able to capture some national attention in standing up to the president. My view is that he is an important voice in our party.”
Mr. Haass said Republican leaders are beginning to recognize the electoral power appeal among some voters to Mr. Paul’s foreign policy views.
“Some of what Rand Paul says resonates,” he said. “Either party that ignores it does so at its peril. On the other hand, one does not simply want to embrace it because it goes too far.”
GOP Divided on Proper Role for US Abroad – New York Times