When a number of conservative Republican senators and congressmen began calling for an end to foreign aid to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan, Sen. Lindsey Graham dismissed this push as "the libertarian view," despite the fact that House Republicans Michele Bachmann and Allen West and Republican Sen. James Inhofe shared this same view.
The definition of what is and isn't "conservative" has been in dispute since George W. Bush left office. And on no issue is this fight more evident than when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.
One of the more revealing parts of the 2012 Republican primaries occurred last spring when Newt Gingrich pounced on Obama for not intervening in Libya sooner than he did, only to reverse his position days later, saying the U.S. had no business being in Libya. Under Bush, conservatives were generally supportive of all military interventions, and thus Gingrich spoke in that vein. But in 2012, he found himself running against Tea Party-influenced presidential candidates who believed that bashing the president for his Libya military actions was the true conservative position.
Perhaps the best definition of what constitutes conservatism was laid out by the Right's most popular icon, Ronald Reagan. The Gipper believed that conservatism was a three-legged stool, consisting of religious conservatives, national security conservatives, and economic/libertarian conservatives. For Reagan, each one of these legs was integral.
Throughout most of the last decade, the national security conservatives have been represented well, perhaps too well. These war hawks, or neoconservatives, represented an extreme in American foreign policy that went far beyond anything Reagan ever envisioned. After all, there is a significant difference between national defense and an irrational offense.
Religious conservatives also had a place at the table, thanks to issues like gay marriage, which was front and center during the 2004 election and President Bush's faith-based federal initiatives.
However, there was apparently not enough room at the table for one group: economic/libertarian conservatives. During the Bush presidency, Dubya doubled the size of government and ushered in the greatest expansion of entitlements for a half-century. During World War II, Americans rationed food and bought bonds to help pay for the high cost of war, but President Bush simply added these monstrous war costs to a rapidly mounting debt, all the while urging Americans to "go shopping." Fiscal responsibility and limited government were simply not a priority for Republicans during that time, while Reagan's three-legged stool became a double-barreled shotgun of statism, fired wantonly under a "conservative" brand.
The decision to halt foreign aid to countries that do not represent our best interests is unquestionably a conservative view. By definition, one might expect conservatives to apply a cost-benefit analysis to such situations. It certainly makes no sense that America borrows billions from China in order to arm radical Islamists in the Middle East.
But questioning the wisdom of foreign aid is indeed also a libertarian position, the third leg of the conservative stool. When Republicans are earnestly advocating for a limited government, they are thinking in libertarian terms. Barry Goldwater's statement that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" is a libertarian dictum, as is Reagan's observation in 1976 that libertarian ideas represented the "heart and soul of conservatism." The Goldwater-Reagan legacy is conservatism defined. It is also libertarianism refined.
With the rise of the Tea Party, the Right is once again concerned about curtailing government spending, and today that discussion has naturally focused on U.S. foreign policy issues. These are the new conservative discussions. They are also libertarian discussions. And the only people who will be left out of the conversation are Republicans who continue to insist that Reagan's conservative stool somehow works just fine with only two legs.
Jack Hunter assisted Sen. Jim DeMint with his latest book, Now or Never: Saving America From Economic Collapse. He is also the official campaign blogger for GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, and he co-wrote Rand Paul's The Tea Party Goes to Washington. You can hear Southern Avenger commentaries on The Morning Buzz on 1250 WTMA.