Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- Once upon a time, Ronald Reagan said, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." Today, it's not only socially acceptable to attack your conservative peers, but it has actually become part of campaign strategy. Identify someone who represents a minority view within the GOP, tear him or her to shreds and hope that it establishes you as a voice of the mainstream.
It's all very survival of the fittest, very Ayn Rand.
But is Gov. Rick Perry of Texas really fitter than Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky?
Certainly not intellectually. On Friday, Perry wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post attacking the "isolationism" of Paul and the libertarian right. He argued it overlooks the specific threat posed by ISIS in Iraq, a group that is "well-trained, technologically sophisticated and adept at recruitment, with thousands of people with European passports fighting on its side, as well as some Americans."
More generally, Perry stated that an isolationist stance is naive about national security and quoted St. Ronald Reagan to prove it. He concluded that not only is Paul no Reagan but, even worse, his approach to foreign policy is reminiscent of President Barack Obama's.
Of course, all of this is nonsense.
As Paul wrote for Politico on Monday in reply, he is not an isolationist. He is an anti-interventionist of a nuanced variety, one who has floated the possibility of using airstrikes against ISIS. The comparison with Obama is inappropriate because Paul is not in favor of constantly setting red lines that he later forgets exist when it becomes potentially painful to enforce them.
Also, Paul's foreign policy is practically defined by opposition to Obama's big government, security-state operation, so drawing similarities between the two is bizarre.
Finally, it is very strange that Perry cites Reagan as an exemplar of interventionism without giving any example of him intervening. At best, there was Grenada in 1983 -- a brief invasion of a Caribbean island where the opposition was a handful of local Marxists ("A lovely little war," one correspondent called it).
At worst, there was the Iran-Contra, arms-for-hostages scandal (illegal in most people's opinion). Or Lebanon, where a deadly terrorist attack on a Marine Corps barracks eventually led to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
On the whole, Reagan was in favor of political confrontation with superpowers or wars by proxy but rarely had the stomach for putting U.S. boots on the ground. His instinctive caution was far closer to Paul's than Perry's "Remember the Alamo!" nationalism.
But Perry's attack on Paul is obviously tactical. He has noticed that a lot of hawkish Republicans are furious with Paul, so he has decided to leverage himself some media attention and political support by going on the offensive.
The strategy is as transparent as the lenses in his new glasses -- presumably a PR guy's bright idea that they might erode memories of him forgetting his lines in the 2012 Republican primaries and convince people that he's smarter than they first thought. Alas, although he now looks like Clark Kent, we've yet to see any evidence that he'll turn into Superman.
The debate between these two men is distracting because one senses that neither will be their party's nominee in 2016. Perry because, whatever his accomplishments as a governor, he comes across on the national stage as shallow. Paul because he is too philosophical and can be too easily labeled a maverick libertarian.
This is a pity because there's actually plenty of evidence that Paul's libertarianism is far more complex than his father's, as demonstrated by his emergence as a cheerleader for Israel. Nevertheless, he faces months to come of responding to attacks like these.
All of which suggests that the Republicans are in danger of forgetting who their real enemy is: the Democratic Party. Fascinating though these intellectual back-and-forths are, they contribute to the impression that the Republicans are cracking up as they obsessively strive for an official conservative ideological purity that they will never actually discover -- because it doesn't exist.
Conservatism is traditionally about a spirit or an approach to governing, not a list of commandments that must be defined every four years in an internal party spat that has all the ferocity and counting of angels on a pinhead of a religious war.
Rick Perry may believe he is helping himself with this assault on Rand Paul, but is he helping the GOP? Someone should remind him of Reagan's advice on how to treat fellow Republicans.