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.