The headline could make a civil libertarian out of the most rock-ribbed Republican. “Rand Paul and Ken Cuccinelli suing Obama on behalf of every phone user in USA,” reported the Daily Caller’s Alex Pappas.
At issue was a lawsuit the junior Republican senator from Kentucky filed against the National Security Agency’s surveillance program in conjunction with Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general and conservative movement favorite, and FreedomWorks, a leading Tea Party group.
Infighting among the legal team soon went public and overwhelmed the story. But the party has been unmistakably moving on Paul’s direction on this issue, culminating in a Republican National Committee resolution condemning the NSA’s domestic data-gathering practices. The senator’s filibuster was an important turning point. This isn’t just an ACLU concern anymore.
Can Paul have a similar effect on Republican foreign policy? He has already helped carve out space to be a conservative Republican, especially a Tea Partier, while holding very different views on the subject than prevailed in the heyday of Bush-Cheney.
Tea Party Republicans helped kill the march to war in Syria. In the House, 87 of them voted with Dennis Kucinich and—against the Wall Street Journal editorial page—on the use of military force in Libya. And they are a crucial part of the bipartisan coalition behind NSA reform.
That’s as far as Paul’s influence will go, predicts Colin Dueck in Foreign Affairs. In a speech to the Council for the National Interest, Dueck notes, “Paul bucked the party establishment by citing U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic resolution to Syria’s chemical weapons program as a possible model for dealing with the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea.”
Echoing early remarks at the Heritage Foundation, now run by old ally Jim DeMint, Paul advocated containment rather than preventive war in confronting jihadist terrorism. He also said “dialogue is almost always preferable to war.”
On Syria, Libya, and the NSA, Paul could be anti-interventionist and anti-Obama. But in standing athwart any march to preventive war with Iran, he must be at least somewhat supportive of the president’s diplomatic efforts. That’s why many think Iran represents the end of the road for his attempt to make Jeffersonian arguments appealing to a Jacksonian party.
Indeed, Paul is one of just two Republican senators who hasn’t signed on to the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill critics fear will undermine nuclear negotiations with Iran. (The other is Arizona’s Jeff Flake.) After an extended public silence that led to speculation his vote was in play, Paul finally said, “I think while they’re negotiating, and if we can see that they’re negotiating in good faith, I don’t think it’s a good idea to pass sanctions while we’re in the midst of negotiations.”
“I think the bottom line is we should give negotiations a chance. My hope is that sanctions will avoid war,” he added. “We’ve been involved in two long wars in the Middle East. And I think it would be best if we can do anything possible to try to avoid another war now.”
Yes, Iran is a tougher case to make to the Republican rank-and-file than the NSA or Syria. But Paul’s view that it would be best to avoid another war now will have at least some purchase in a party where other senators are already promoting resolutions to authorize military force against Tehran. And Paul isn’t going to let anyone make Obama his running mate.
In a letter to Obama, released publicly on Ronald Reagan’s birthday, Paul reiterated, “Like you, I am hopeful a peaceful resolution can be reached.” But he also urged the president to work with Congress before waiving sanctions that have been “passed by Congress, and signed into law by the President of the United States.”
“As you are aware, our existing sanctions on Iran are triggered by both statutory and executive authority,” Paul wrote. “While I respect your authority regarding those sanctions lawfully initiated by Executive Order pursuant to legal authority, I would urge your Administration to use caution as you negotiate over sanctions that have been applied statutorily.”
To conservatives outraged by the president’s unilateral modifications of Obamacare and immigration enforcement, these stipulations matter a great deal. Paul has also made clear he is a skeptic of the Iranian regime, pressing for the release of political prisoners such as American Pastor Saeed Abedini.
Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham have frequently used Jacksonian rhetoric for Wilsonian ends. Whether it is emphasizing foreign-aid cuts for countries where people burn American flags or reminding conservatives that Obama now wields the expansive executive powers the Bush administration once claimed, Paul has been making a Jacksonian pitch for more Jeffersonian ends.
The party may still have a dearth of experienced foreign-policy hands who would help a leader of Paul’s inclinations chart a different course. Those who do agree with him too often degenerate into the familiar circular firing squad.
But Paul’s political instincts shouldn’t be underestimated. At the very least, he’ll give an aspiring foreign-policy realist a Republican to work for.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?