Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy Ideas Present An Opportunity For the GOP
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul continues to challenge Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy, and that's a good thing.
Late last week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who is looking more and more like a guy who is going to run for President in 2016 rather than just a guy who’s flirting with the idea, gave a speech in New York City where he laid out his foreign policy vision, a vision that differs in several important respects from that of most Republicans and from the likely Democratic nominee for President:
Sen. Rand Paul slammed Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for U.S. military action in Libya, saying it helped create a “jihadist wonderland” and had a destabilizing effect that has made America “less safe” in a foreign policy address Thursday night.
The Kentucky Republican’s speech, at a dinner hosted by the Center for the National Interest — a group founded by President Richard Nixon — was an attempt to lay out a broad foreign policy theme that nodded to his libertarian base but also described circumstances in which American military involvement around the globe is necessary. It was an attempt to balance both concepts, after a year of being dinged by foreign policy hawks who see his views as isolationist.Ran012 was expected to be Clinton’s major foreign policy success story — is a reminder that Republicans will frame that as an enduring vulnerability in a 2016 presidential campaign.
While Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy views are problematic with her own party’s base and where polling shows the majority of the country stands right now with regard to intervention elsewhere around the globe, Paul’s past views are problematic with some in his own party — particularly donors.
“The war in Libya was not in our national interest. It had no clear goal and it led to less stability,” Paul said at the Essex House hotel in midtown Manhattan.
“Today, Libya is a jihadist wonderland, a sanctuary and safe haven for terror groups across North Africa. Our ambassador was assassinated and our Embassy forced to flee overland to Tunisia. Jihadists today swim in our Embassy swimming pool. The Obama administration, urged on by Hillary Clinton, wanted to go to war but didn’t anticipate the consequences of war.”
He added, “Libya is now more chaotic and America is less safe.” And he faulted the White House for bypassing congressional authority.
“President Obama missed a chance to galvanize the country. He missed a chance to lead,” he said.
He said he supported the fight against the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but not the arming of some rebels in Syria, which he argued has been misguided.
Elsewhere in the speech, Paul said America is currently drifting “from crisis to crisis” amid weak leadership, but that voters don’t “see war as the only solution.”
“Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: ‘Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will,'” he said.
Here’s the full transcript of the speech as prepared, and here’s the video:
W. James Antle argues that Paul’s foreign policy ideas could change the GOP, while Conor Friedersdorf argues that, if they were consistent, Democrats ought to prefer Paul’s foreign policy to Hillary Clinton’s which is obviously much more in line with the nearly unbroken line that one can trace from George W. Bush to Barack Obama:
If Democrats were earnest in their critiques of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, they ought to prefer Paul’s vision on foreign policy to Hillary Clinton’s platform and record. If Republicans were earnest in their embrace of a humble foreign policy in 2000, they ought to prefer Paul’s positions to what’s on offer from his GOP rivals.
But the partisan mind has led many Republicans to retroactively embrace Bush’s radical foreign policy and many Democrats to forgive Iraq War support and embrace Obama’s drone strikes and wars of choice. Paul is questioning the hawkish, post-9/11 consensus that exists in both parties, but not as radically as Code Pink or supporters of his father would hope. Are moderates open to the change he is urging? If so, he will be a contender in 2016, if only by virtue of offering a position that appeals to many in America but is embraced by few in Washington.
Zach Beauchamp at Vox, meanwhile, calls Paul’s speech one of the most important foreign policy speeches in decades:
In the speech, Paul outlined four basic principles for conducting foreign policy.
First, “war is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war.” But not otherwise.
Second, ”Congress, the people’s representative, must authorize the decision to intervene.” No more war without express authorization.
Third, “peace and security require a commitment to diplomacy and leadership.” That means expanding trade ties and diplomatic links around the world.
Fourth, “we are only as strong as our economy.” For Paul, the national debt and slow growth are national security crises.
In the abstract, this doesn’t tell you a whole lot about what Paul believes. But when he gives specific examples of where he agrees and disagrees with Obama’s policy, the core idea becomes clearer: Paul wants to scale down American commitments to foreign wars.
Paul endorses the original decision to invade Afghanistan, but criticizes Obama’s decision to escalate it. He savaged the Libya intervention, calling Libya today “a jihadist wonderland.” He supports bombing ISIS, but blasted Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels: “the weapons are either indiscriminately given to ‘less than moderate rebels’ or simply taken from moderates by ISIS.”
But Paul also, much more quietly, agrees with major parts of the Obama agenda. In a move that’s bound to infuriate Republican hardliners, he’s calling for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. He tacitly endorsed Obama’s sanction-and-negotiate approach to the Ukraine crisis. And he called for a peaceful, cooperative relationship with China.
In Paul’s ideal world, America only very rarely engages in war.
The real target of Paul’s speech were the neoconservatives: the wing of the GOP that believes that American foreign policy should be about the aggressive use of American force and influence, be it against terrorist groups or Russia. Paul’s unsubtle argument is that this view, dominant in the GOP, is a departure from what a conservative foreign policy ought to be.
His tactic for selling this argument is innovative. He’s reframed arguments with neoconservatives as arguments with Obama, banking on the idea that he can get everyday Republicans to abandon hawkishness altogether if they see Obama as a hawk. “After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war,” Paul said, clearly linking his critique of Obama to an attack on the Bush legacy.
Until this speech, Paul’s 2016 foreign policy position hadn’t been clear. Now it is. Rand “clearly wants a more restrained US foreign policy,” says Dan McCarthy, the editor of The American Conservative magazine. According to McCarthy, who’s talked about these issues with Paul’s staff, Paul has been engaged in a “trial and error” experiment. The idea is to figure out how to make a less aggressive foreign policy politically viable in the Republican Party.
In seeming confirmation that the neoconservatives in the GOP were the real targets of Paul’s speech, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, who is most assuredly part of that crowd, continued with her long standing strategy of dismissing the Kentucky Senator as an “isolationist”:
We are in a world of lone-wolf terrorists, foreign jihadists and terrorist groups too numerous to remember. It is not the time to unilaterally destroy our anti-terror architecture or mislead the American people that the National Security Agency is listening in on their calls. (Data mining is not the same as listening in on the content of calls, senator.) It is not the time to decide that an American jihadist in Syria or Yemen cannot be droned because he isn’t right on the cusp of a terrorist act. These are not even close calls, and yet in every instance Paul’s instincts lead him to the wrong result, the result that increases the risk to Americans.
Unfortunately, we already have had one freshman senator with zero military or foreign policy experience (but a deep-seated preference for inaction) talk himself into the White House. We have learned the hard way that campaign rhetoric is useless in discerning politicians’ true foreign policy inclinations. The best guides are their votes, the statements made before they decided what they were saying was scaring people, their intellectual influences and their basic beliefs about the role of the United States in the world and how (or even if) it should wield influence.
Daniel Drezner is more positive about Paul’s speech while noting, correctly I think, that the principles that Paul outlined are somewhat incomplete. Given that this was a twenty minute speech, that’s not entirely surprising. This isn’t the first time that Paul has spoken out about foreign policy, though. At the Republican National Convention in 2012, for example, he used the platform that his endorsement of Mitt Romney after his father had dropped out to lay out an alternative vision on foreign policy for the GOP and the nation that, while similarly not completely detailed in the manner that Drezner, and I, would prefer certainly sent a message that he was a different kind of Republican when it came to an issue that, previously, had largely united the party. During the course of the campaign itself, Paul took the unusual step of openly criticizing his party’s nominee after Romney had made a major foreign policy address in which he repeated many of the same old Republican talking points that we’ve been hearing for the better part of a decade. In 2013, Paul used the occasion of the vote on John Brennan’s nomination to be CIA direction to stage a filibuster centered on the issue of the use of drone strikes that ended up getting the begrudging support of many of his Republican colleagues due to the public response to it from grass roots Republicans. As I noted at the time, that speech was important because it revealed that the Republican “consensus” on foreign policy wasn’t as much of a consensus as the neoconservatives and former Bush Administration people would have you believe.
Of course, Paul’s rise among many segments of the Republican Party, driven in no small part by his iconoclasm on foreign policy, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the powers that be. Just in the past year or so, he’s become a target for the likes of John Bolton, Chris Christie, Dick Cheney, and Rick Perry. To some extent, these exchanges are likely to be a preview of what we’re likely to see if Paul does indeed run for President and, as Drezner notes, it’s going to require Paul to flesh out his ideas in greater detail. However, it strikes me that this is just the beginning for Paul when it comes to this subject and that it will be a major part of his campaign if he does indeed run for President. This speech and the campaigning that he has been doing around the country for Republican Senate candidates in battleground states, and not just conservative candidates like Thom Tillis and Joni Ernst, but also more “establishment” candidates like Pat Roberts and Mitch McConnell who find themselves in challenging races seem to be the best indicator of that intent.
If that’s the case, it’s likely to set up an battle between Paul and the neoconservative wing of the party over an issue on which Republican candidates for President are typically quite unified. Yes, Paul’s father was an iconoclast when he ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 and 2012, but he was never really a serious contender for the nomination not withstanding the loud support from the small contingent of supporters that had gathered around him. More importantly, Paul has been quite explicit without openly admitting it to distance himself from many of his father’s more controversial views in this area and in others. In some ways, the differences are more in tone than substance, but in politics tone can often make all the difference. In foreign policy, though, Senator Paul has been more willing than his father to allow room in the foreign policy vision that he is shaping for American involvement overseas, and more recognition for the fact that, contrary to much of former Congressman Paul’s more simplistic rhetoric, that the United States cannot simply disengage from the world and hope for the best. At the same time, though, the younger Paul seems to recognize that the “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude that seems to epitomize Republican foreign policy today isn’t the answer either. Assuming he does run, this should be the set up for an interesting foreign policy debate during the 2016 campaign, and one that could have an impact on the GOP going forward even if Paul himself doesn’t manage to win the nomination.
I remember when Republicans offered a humble foreign policy and were adverse to nation building.
Oh….wait….that was Bush 43.
Rand Paul’s foreign policy is such a departure from the Republican norm that this project will take decades and will more than likely hurt the chances of his presidential run, rather than help him.
Some Libertarian issues an isolationist proclamation, and the other Libertarians immediately wet their pants.
Paul is not a serious candidate for the GOP nomination. That some “independents” (you can read that to mean Republicans embarrassed by the party’s recent antics to call themselves as such …) think he might be just illustrates the fundamental cracks within the GOP base.
Dandy Randy Paul…When the going gets tough, the tough get going. (Don’t choke on that sandwich Rand.)
None of the sources quoted in this post entertained the real possibility Rand is pitching to Americans politically left of today’s very conservative Democratic Party. Certainly his primary points on foreign policy are closer to the traditional radical goal of an end to war than anyone the Democrats may run for the White House.
The Aqua Buddha…talkin’ policy…righteous….
Paul’s foreign policy positions are, from the perspective of the average Democrat, a significant improvement over Hillary’s.
On the other hand, that’s a comparison of the most favorably viewed part of Paul’s platform against Hillary’s least favorably viewed part. By the time any Democrat hears about Paul’s positions on entitlements, or abortion, or healthcare, or anti-discrimination laws, he’d be lucky to get more than a rounding error of Democrats to his side.
But then again, as a libertarian, he’s used to supporting positions which only a rounding error of the entire country favors, so only getting a rounding error from one of the major parties is an improvement for him.
Any policy speech given by any Republican is, by definition, irrelevant, since the Republicans are irrelevant. The only people who matter when it comes to foreign policy are Democrats and what they are proposing should by given 10 times the attention as what any Republican says.
Given that the President has MUCH more influence on foreign policy than he does domestic policy (not that most Americans seem to realize they need to pay attention to Congress for most domestic issues), I’d prefer Paul to Hillary at this point.
Though as I said before, if it comes to a choice between Hillary and Jeb, someone just shoot me, please.
So he’s for attacking ISIS because unlike Libya we know how that’s going to work out?
He’s ass-covering because killing ISIS is popular and Libya is not. Did either case involve direct threat to the US? No. Can we say with any certainty how the ISIS fight will come out? No. What exactly is the “principle” here?
Look, isolationism is at least a principle, so stop reassuring us this isn’t isolationism, because the other alternative is that this is pure politics representing nothing but Mr. Paul’s craving for power.
@michael reynolds: Bingo.
Rand’s ideas on foreign policy seem to be close to that of Eisenhower and Nixon. Eisenhower warned against getting involved in brush fire wars all over the world. He also warned against the
“Military industrial complex” ; today we also have the oil/government complex. Nixon inherited the Vietnam War, which was Johnson’s. Nixon was determined to not be a president who lost a war, and resisted pressure to just “bug out”. He was in favor of peace with honor, not peace through capitulation. Nixon also shocked the world with his breakthrough visits to China and Russia. Of course, part of the credit of his foreign policy successes must go to Sec. Of State Kissinger, a giant of American foreign policy . That was a difficult, treacherous time for the free world as the USSR was trying to take over everything. Richard remained firm in holding the line against communist aggression, while opening the doors to diplomacy and trade.
That was a time of US leadership in world affairs, a time of statesmanship.
By the way, Mr. Obama’s policy has thus far cost us very little and has, in the course of just three months, reduced ISIS from 10-foot-tall, world-conquering, unstoppable menace, into just another bunch of desert tribesmen who don’t understand that you can’t beat air power in the desert.
ISIS is now engaged in the reckless pursuit of a goal that, even should they succeed in taking it, would be hollow. The civilians are all out of Kobani, which means that even if ISIS should take it — and that’s looking increasingly unlikely — we can send in the heavies with the big bombs and obliterate the place.
Three months in and ISIS is looking very fallible, very human-sized. I’ll say what I’ve been saying since August: Mr. Obama is right. We have built a large coalition, we have them surrounded by friendlies, we are degrading them, and ISIS is frankly screwed.
Now, will they morph into a conventional terrorist group and play Al Qaeda? No doubt. But dreams of a Caliphate are over, and I suspect the rush of western recruits is down to a very small trickle. It’s great fun to get in on the raping and killing, not so fun to be blown up from the air or shot by a Kurdish woman.
@Tyrell: “Nixon was determined to not be a president who lost a war, and resisted pressure to just “bug out”. He was in favor of peace with honor, not peace through capitulation. ”
Yes, he was so in favor of peace with honor that he sabotaged the peace talks that were going on during his election and then expanded the war for years, sending thousands of Americans and uncountable numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians to their deaths and disfigurements. Oh, and he destabilized Cambodia through an illegal bombing campaign, leading to the victory of the Khmer Rouge and the millions of deaths that ensued.
But hey, it was all about honor, so that’s okay.
I read in the paper yesterday about the hundreds or even thousands of Nazis the US hid and protected after WW2 in hopes they might give us dirt on our former allies, the USSR. Somehow even that is not as shameful as the respect our establishments continue to show Nixon and Kissinger.
Indeed. But memories are short, aren’t they?
Larison points out
And folks, Rand Paul is not a Libertarian unless the word no longer has any meaning.
To follow up about ISIS:
So once again, looks like Obama’s approach is working better than expected.
@Tyrell: Read Nixonland. Nixon knew we were going to lose Vietnam well before he was elected to his first term. Also WIKI Anna Chennault. He did everything he could politically to prevent Johnson from making peace and directly sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords in ’68 in violation of the Logan Act. Then Nixon spent his first term arranging to “bug out”. And your hero, Henry Fwcking Kissinger, while working for Johnson participated in Nixon’s sabotage. Johnson described Nixon’s actions accurately as “treason”.
I would be very, very surprised if Rand Paul could get through the Republican primaries without sounding like any other culture-warrior and severe-conservative. Look what happened to Mitt Romney.
There are lots of opportunities for Republicans, but they have no interest in taking them.
Thanks for that link. All stuff I had intuited, but it’s good to have people with more experience in support of the proposition.
I was particularly interested to see that they are reduced to forced conscription. I’d guessed that would be the case soon, but nice to see it confirmed.
The coda on the end was a good reminder that this ain’t over by a longshot, but barring some collapse on our side (Jordan, KSA, Baghdad, Kurds) they are done as a so-called Caliphate. We can nibble at them from all sides and blow hell out of any concentration of forces. The thing with interior lines is that they’re a great advantage – when you can move within the circle. When you can’t you’re just in a box.
Rand Paul is the GOP’s last chance at survival.
Rand Paul would be a feast of destruction for Democratic strategists, who would gleefully and immediately waste no time in hanging his father around his neck, tying the two together and using his father’s crazy to put him in the position of playing defense for his entire campaign.
Simply put, both he and his father have said far too many things that can be, and would be, used against them, and even that presumes that the attack wouldn’t begin with his fellow Republicans in the primary cycle (a la Herman Cain).
The only difference here is that they had to wait for Cain to say something useable. Rand and his father have already provided them with a ready made war-chest of opposition material.
People who don’t understand that, and why it would happen, have no business being involved with politics. Rand Paul would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for the GOP were he to garner their nomination.
Not to be pedantic, but US involvement in Vietnam began under Eisenhower.
Just saying …
The top tax rate then was something like 90%.
Ah…the good ‘ol days.
This man belongs in chains in a bunker in the tunnels the Vietnamese built under their carpet bombed villages to survive those attacks.
See: “The Political Cause of 20,492 Deaths in Vietnam” by Anthony Lewis
As for tunnels…
Lest We Forget: This Day in History 1964
50 very short years ago. I was a Junior in High School.
As I recall married men with children were eligible for some sort of Selective Service exemption or deferment. I knew some guys that knocked up their girlfriends and got hitched just to qualify.
It wasn’t long before that was all scrapped and some of those guys were drafted anyway.
Some of them came home from the jungle in body bags.
American family values.
Rand Paul isn’t laying out any form of cohesive vision or general policy. He’s or what looks successful and against what appears to have failed. Why? Because he’s Captain Hindsight, bravely leading from the future to tell us what we all have learned.
It is quite sad that Doug does not appear to recognize the obvious here, Paul has no real vision or plan, just the desire to capitalize on past misfortunes to boost his political standing.
@Ben Wolf: Your observation may indicate the real problem element to Rand Paul’s position. Are voters who are to the left of the Democratic mainstream–to whom this policy is being pitched as you would have it–really going to vote for the balance of the package based on this one point? I like the foreign policy position (to the degree that I understand what it is at all), but I can’t see him being able to use this policy to resolve the current trip into the brier patch.
The rest of Paul’s policy, I’m less excited about. I don’t see how he is anything beyond a catalyst for change for the NEXT quagmire opportunity. But we didn’t dodge this one based on our experience as second place finishers in the SE Asian war games, either.
Not really. The deduction structure made that number moot. Fed inc tax receipts/GDP were 8% then, 8% under Reagan, 8.5% under the hated GWB. And fell to 7% under Obama. You probably don’t want to talk about that………..
I think the Republican primary is going to be very interesting. I generally agree with those who don’t think Rand Paul has much chance of getting the Republican nomination, much less making it all the way to the White House. However, it has to be noted that he is a significantly better politician than his father. No matter who the Republicans nominate, if the Hillary Clinton really is the Democratic nominee, I for one (and I expect I will not be alone) will most likely not be terribly enthusiastic about voting for either choice.
Thank you for admitting that there is no way that a conservative party can survive in the U.S. and that the we will soon be living in a one party state. Thanks for recognizing that the Republicans are a minority party but that any move they make will lose more votes than it can possibly gain.
I would hope that more people would recognize the same thing and begin to think about what the U.S. will be like in a one party state. What will foreign policy look like in a one party state. Will the special interest inside the Democratic Party cause the U.S. to have a disjointed foreign policy where one block inside the Democratic Party gets an interventionist policy in one party of the world while some other block gets an isolationist policy in other parts of the world?
But as the U.S. becomes a one party state, what will the “vision” for foreign policy be? What is the vision of the Obama Administration (for of the previous Clinton Administration or of the coming Clinton II Administration? Being visionless seems to have become a job requirement for being president these days.
G-d, will you just STFU already?
@Ben Wolf: “None of the sources quoted in this post entertained the real possibility Rand is pitching to Americans politically left of today’s very conservative Democratic Party. ”
The man’s been a pandering fraud long enough that we don’t take him at his word, on the left.
I don’t really see a train of thought coming from you here. My point is that Rand Paul is making some pretty comical assessments about what he would choose to do (good wars are good, bad wars are bad) from the future claiming some sort of grand principled plan that he’s invented from whole cloth. In any sane reality, he’s just another opportunist, there’s no guiding path for his current stances on Iraq, Syria, and Libya, he’s completely clueless. There’s obviously no “there” there, but Doug is treating it as if Paul has a grand plan, which is frankly embarrassing.
What does this say about one party rule and the future of ___? blah blah blah nonsense…
Many progressives keep posting about how there is no way for the Republicans can win in the future but refuse to think about the policy or governance implications is what they are stating is correct, If you are going to write that there is policy positions that can be separate from the Democrats but different from the current Republican positions which will lead to sustain wins for the Republicans, then there is no other conclusion.
If you are going to claim that all conservatives are visionless when it comes to foreign policy, then please give an example of a current politicain that does have a consistent vision when it comes to foreign policy and what that vision is.
There is no way that anyone can reconcile the foreign policies of the Obama (or previous Clinton Adminstration) with having a singular vision of what to do. However, since the Republicans are not going to be in office in the future, maybe foreign policy analysis should be much less on what irrelevant Republicans are saying and should be much more on what the Democrats in power or those who will be in power in the future will do.
Maybe more people would be more optimistic about the U.S. is wonks, pundits, and the media would just focus on what is relevant and ignore what is irrelevant. Whatever Rand Paul is saying is irrelevant.
the foreign policy Republicans really want…
All right, now I have to question your reading comprehension. I very clearly was NOT referring to “all conservatives”. I was talking very specifically of Rand Paul. Please try to keep up.
Conservatives in general (and neocons in particular) have a very clear foreign policy vision, “bomb anyone who doesn’t do what we want”. I’m not saying it’s good or intelligent, but it is a philosophy that is easy to discern. John “Bomb Iran, bomb-omb Iran” McCain doesn’t leave a lot of doubt as to what he wants to do – I think it’s stupid and short-sighted, but it’s an ethos. Rand Paul is clearly lacking that.