WASHINGTON -- Two Republican presidential favorites painted starkly different visions on Thursday of American foreign policy, offering the first glimpse of what could be a debate between non-interventionism and a more forceful international approach should they enter the race in 2016.
Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) were the clear stars among a group of four tea party senators who addressed a crowd of about 300 social conservatives on the first day of the annual Faith & Freedom Coalition conference.
Each made an emphatic appeal for upholding America's liberties, similar to the grounds on which they were elected to the Senate in 2010. Paul and Rubio, who are widely presumed to seek the next GOP nomination for president, have been known to keep a united front on broader conservative principles. But as was evident in their remarks on Thursday, both senators disagree on how the United States should sustain its position as the most powerful country in the world.
Paul, a rising hero to libertarian Republicans, railed against foreign aid and preemptive war. Taxpayer dollars should not be allocated to countries that are "hostile" to Christians, such as Pakistan and Egypt, he argued.
"I believe individuals and countries can and should defend themselves, but I simply can’t imagine Jesus at the head of any army of soldiers, and I think as Christians we need to be wary of the doctrine of preemptive war," Paul said. "We must and should stand with our fellow Christians in the Middle East and around the world, but that does not necessarily mean war and it certainly does not mean arming sides in every conflict."
Although Rubio conceded that Americans should not engage in every conflict, he posed an entirely different question: If the United States did not lead the world -- then who would?
"There is nothing to replace us," he said. "I promise you it's not the United Nations. I promise you it's not China. I promise you it's not the European Union."
The contrast in approaches shows that the GOP has yet to coalesce around a unified foreign policy vision following the invasion of Iraq under former President George W. Bush. Libertarian-leaning Republicans like Paul, who after the event had plans to go to a press conference to announce legal action against surveillance by the National Security Agency, prefer a scaled-back U.S. role in other countries. Rubio, on the other hand, touts the military prowess of the United States and has supported arming members of the Syrian opposition in their fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Both senators, mindful of their audience, laced their speeches with references to Jesus Christ.
Paul quoted the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God," he said.
Rubio said the United States should be the "light of the world," a reference to the book of Matthew.
"If America’s light is extinguished, there is no other light," he said. "We are called not to hide our light but to shine it."
Attendees seemed equally receptive to both senators' views. Every round of applause Paul received when he spoke about cutting off foreign aid to Middle Eastern countries was matched by a similar response when Rubio argued that the United States, as the leader of the free world, should not tolerate authoritarian governments.