The writing is on the wall: The GOP will be an interventionist party in 2016

The lively Republican presidential primary is only getting livelier. A fascinating development on the donor front could indicate which way the winds of fortune will blow for the prospective GOP candidates ahead of the early primary debates later this year.

Politico reporters Ken Vogel and Tarini Parti were recently privy to the results of a straw poll conducted among donors linked to the Koch network – a group that recently revealed plans to spend a mammoth $889 million sum on behalf of their favored Republican candidate in the coming election. As Politico noted, it is unclear if that hefty sum will benefit their candidate in the primaries, but having the backing of this powerful group of donors would only elevate the stature of the ultimate beneficiary even if every wallet remains closed until the nominating convention concludes.

Having the support of the famously libertarian Koch brothers and their donor network is a nonpareil asset. So far, the informal winner of the Koch donor primary is not, as many would have expected, fellow libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) but another freshman senator: Marco Rubio (R-FL).

In an informal straw poll of some conference donors, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came out ahead of four other would-be GOP presidential candidates who had been invited, according to an attendee familiar with the results. The poll was conducted by Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster, during a break-out session of the conference, which wrapped up Tuesday after a long weekend of presentations and discussions at the Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – who received the least enthusiastic response from donors during a Sunday night forum of prospective candidates that also featured Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz – finished last in Luntz’s poll, the source told POLITICO.

The poll is by no means a definitive assessment of the feelings of the hundreds of wealthy business leaders who comprise the vaunted network created by billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch. But it does provide an early glimpse into the leanings of a pool of mega-donors who are being hotly courted by the field of would-be candidates, and whose checkbooks could go a long way towards determining who emerges with the GOP nomination – regardless of whether the Koch network decides to formally back a candidate.

If Rubio is emerging as a favorite of the GOP donor class, it’s not hard to see why. Surely not every member of the Koch donor network shares the brothers’ libertarian views on drug legalization, American retrenchment, entitlement and tax reform, and same-sex marriage rights. They are, nevertheless, representative of what the GOP’s non-establishment donor class is thinking. If this influential set of political contributors are already giving up on Paul, the prospective candidate who most closely mirrors the Koch brothers’ views on a variety of traditionally libertarian issues, it is due solely to the viability of his approach to foreign affairs.

Traditional libertarians would like nothing more than to see America review its military commitments abroad with an eye toward reform. A less engaged America, many on the libertarian right contend, would inspire less “backlash” from the state and non-state actors that threaten its interests overseas. They will say that proper American retrenchment has never been engaged in much the same way that true communism has never been implemented to its advocates’ satisfaction. What these individuals refuse to concede is that this White House has been more committed to non-interventionism than any administration in the last 40 years. They might not see its like in their lifetimes.

Non-interventionist libertarians would contend that Barack Obama’s embrace of an expanded theater of operations for drone warfare and the prosecution of humanitarian conflicts in regions ranging from Mexico to Uganda have actually expanded America’s footprint abroad. They will add that the president has not been shy about committing to arguably more traditional interventionist missions like the toppling of the Libyan regime. That’s not inaccurate, but the fruits of those efforts are difficult to identify. In Libya’s case, the West’s hands-off approach to the post-conflict environment virtually ceded that decapitated nation to Islamist insurgents.

Efficacy in the administration of America’s interests abroad was not Barack Obama’s primary aim when he came into office. On the international stage, the president had no higher aspiration than being different from his predecessors, and that doctrine has been a disaster.

When he came into office, the president sought to “pivot” the nation toward the Pacific where military analysts and international relations theorists predict the center of geopolitical gravity would soon shift. The president took the oath and soon got to work creating great power vacuums in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Europe as he rushed to extricate America from the entanglements of the past. Obama would surrender the fates of these regions to local actors and let them sort out their mess. He prematurely withdrew all American forces from Iraq, and canceled missile interceptor deals with America’s Central European allies. By the spring of 2013, for the first time since the invasion of Normandy, there were no American armored units on European soil.

Not much more than a year later, Eastern Europe was again in flames, and American troops were returning to Iraqi battlefields. A reluctance to “interfere” in the geopolitics of these regions yielded distinctly worse circumstances that necessitated Western involvement. American retrenchment, it has been revealed, is an unfeasible fantasy. Not only will America “pivot” to Asia in this century, but it will also “pivot” back to the Middle East and Europe. Such is the fate of the world’s only power with the capacity to project sustained military force anywhere in the globe. A fatal conceit of libertarianism and liberalism, two wildly divergent ideologies that nevertheless share a goal of crafting a less invasive American foreign policy doctrine, is that they so often fail to accept that enemy and ally alike get a vote as to whether America can successfully abstain from intervening in crises abroad. A successful non-interventionist model would look a lot more like isolationism than any of this policy’s advocates are willing to concede.

That is essentially Marco Rubio’s pitch. He is a freshman senator, a career legislator, and not especially friendly to libertarian priorities like reforming the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices. He is positioning himself as the aggressive foreign policy candidate. The donor class is betting that, by 2016, Americans will have soured on Obama’s laissez-faire approach to great power politics and his incessant meddling in minor, low-stakes conflicts around the world. They seem to think voters will be attracted to a candidate who will not allow conflicts like the Syrian civil war to metastasize and conflagrate into a global crisis. At least, they don’t want to cede that ground entirely to Hillary Clinton who will also run as an interventionist improving on the Obama model.

For libertarian purists, the lamentable verdict on American retrenchment is in: It has been attempted, and it has failed. It’s time to go back to basics.

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