Timothy D. Easley, Associated Press
FILE - In this Nov. 21, 214 file photo, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. speaks in Highland Heights, Ky. The presidential contest that's starting to take shape is exposing divisions among likely Republican candidates on the nation's role in global affairs. Among those outlining foreign policy this week: Bush, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal, as well as the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain.

WASHINGTON — Even as they attack President Barack Obama's foreign policy, and with politics turning to the 2016 race for president, the GOP's most ambitious leaders have begun to clash with each other over the nation's role in global affairs.

Several high-profile Republicans offered differing visions this week for U.S. leadership abroad, pitting the party's national security hawks against libertarian-minded conservatives whose influence is growing in GOP politics. Largely an afterthought in the last presidential contest, foreign policy has become a place where prospective 2016 contenders can jockey for position before officially declaring plans to seek the White House.

"I will admit to being different from other Republicans and Democrats," Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul told a gathering of business executives in Washington on Tuesday, when he advocated for a smaller American footprint in the world and described Iraq as "a huge mess."

"To those Republicans who love a Republican intervention, Iraq's worse off now," he said. "Do you think we're better or worse off with Hussein gone?"

Addressing the same crowd the night before, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose brother George W. Bush ordered the invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, cited "a growing awareness that we can't withdraw from the world."

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 foreign policy 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. In addition to meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other officials, Christie is expected to focus heavily on North American energy production, including the Keystone XL pipeline project, building on a policy platform he began to articulate during his recent trip to Mexico.

In Washington this week, the foreign policy debate is taking place amid Obama's search for a new defense secretary and during the final days of the current Congress. Paul charged Tuesday that his GOP colleague in the Senate, and the party's 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona's John McCain, favors "15 more wars."

"There are conservatives who (say), 'I'll spend anything and I don't care if it bankrupts the world.' ... That's wrong," Paul said. "I truly believe that the No. 1 threat to our national security is our debt."

McCain will be among the featured speakers at a foreign policy forum on Wednesday titled, "A World in Crisis: The Need for American Leadership." He will be joined by at least two prospective presidential candidates, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a freshman senator who, like Paul, is trying to tap into frustrations voters may have about America's lingering conflicts overseas.

"It's almost as if the whole world is on fire right now," Cruz said Tuesday, suggesting 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. We should go in with overwhelming force. And then we should get the heck out."

Cruz continued, "It is not the job of our military to produce democratic utopias across the world."

Polling suggests that the views of Paul and Cruz may be popular with voters. 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.

It's an idea that Bush, the son and brother of presidents who took the nation to war in Iraq, rejects.

"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."

Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New Jersey and Michael Mishak in Florida contributed to this report.