WASHINGTON (AP) — An intensifying foreign policy debate is exposing new divisions among the Republican Party's most ambitious leaders, with high stakes for the 2016 presidential contest and, potentially, the nation's role in global affairs.
The intra-party clash pits the GOP's national security hawks against libertarian-minded conservatives whose influence is growing in Republican politics. Largely an afterthought in the last presidential contest, the foreign policy debate is playing out across the country this week as likely contenders jockey for position before officially launching White House bids.
"It's very tempting to want to think America can hide behind our oceans and pretend that the world is going to become magically a safer place," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Wednesday. "America must be willing to lead. We are the indispensable nation."
Jindal was one of the featured speakers at a Wednesday foreign policy forum that was among several events and speeches this week highlighting GOP fissures in the early stages of the 2016 presidential primary season.
The GOP's 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, earlier in the day offered a more positive review of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton's foreign policy than that of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a likely Republican presidential contender who favors a smaller American footprint in the world.
"I don't think he has any credibility," McCain said of Paul, who the day before charged that McCain favors "15 more wars." Asked about the foreign policy of Clinton, the former secretary of state, McCain responded, "I think she's OK."
While no one has yet to announce a bid, the 2016 presidential contest is expected to feature a new generation of conservative leaders who favor a limited role for America abroad — Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz among them — and establishment-minded Republicans like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother launched military conflicts in the Middle East.
"It seems the whole world is on fire right now," Cruz said Wednesday in his second foreign policy address in as many days. In his first, he suggested he would favor U.S. military action only as a last resort.
"If and when we have to, it should be with a clear, stated objective up front," Cruz said. "We should go in with overwhelming force. And then we should get the heck out."
Paul on Wednesday formally introduced a "declaration of war" against the Islamic State — a move designed to paint himself as a strict constitutionalist as he explores a White House bid. The largely symbolic resolution would expire after one year, allowing ground combat forces only to shield Americans from imminent danger and to gather intelligence or pursue high-level targets.
Paul, one of the leaders in what critics call the GOP's "isolationist wing," lashed out at Republicans who favor a dramatic increase in military spending with little regard for the national deficit.
"There are conservatives who (say), 'I'll spend anything and I don't care if it bankrupts the world.' ... That's wrong," Paul said this week. "I truly believe that the No. 1 threat to our national security is our debt."
The foreign policy focus comes as violence rages across the Middle East and tensions intensify across Eastern Europe. As would-be presidential candidates seek a leadership role in the debate, others are scrambling to strengthen their international credentials.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to visit Israel for the first time early next year, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie heads to Canada on an official trade mission later in the week — his second foreign trip in recent months.
Polling suggests that war-weary voters may welcome candidates like Paul and Cruz.
A CNN/ORC poll in September found that nearly 6 in 10 Americans think the United States should not play a leading role among other countries in trying to solve the world's problems.
But Bush, a favorite of establishment-minded Republicans, this week cited "a growing awareness that we can't withdraw from the world."
"The United States needs to lead. Lead with humility, lead with respect — but lead," Bush told a group of prominent Cuban-American leaders in Miami on Tuesday. "We are not an equal partner in a so-called community of nations. We are a leader among equals."