Sen. Rand Paul will deliver a major address on Wednesday morning at the Heritage Foundation to outline his views on foreign policy and specifically his vision of what a constitutional conservative foreign policy should look like. He recently spoke with The American Conservative and gave some hints of the arguments we can expect to hear in the speech. The conversation touched on a few different subjects, including the conflicts in Mali and Syria, as well as the need for wealthy U.S. allies to stop their free-riding on the U.S. taxpayer.

One theme that recurred throughout was Senator Paul’s emphasis an increased role for Congress to check the actions of the executive. I asked the senator what America’s role in the world should be. He framed his first answer in terms of the respective roles of the executive and Congress and Congress’ greatly reduced role, at present, in determining how and when the U.S. goes to war. Senator Paul said:

“I think that anytime that we discuss what our foreign policy is or what our defense policy is, we should start with either defending the country and doing it in a constitutional fashion—which means that foreign policy or involvement in more military activities is a divided responsibility with Congress having part of the authority and the president having part of it.

“The checks and balances are very important between the two. My general perception is that over the last hundred years or so we have evolved towards a stronger and stronger presidency and a weaker and weaker Congress, and that I find objectionable. Really I think the balance of power needs to swing back towards Congress asserting more authority.”

He returned to this theme later in the interview, while explaining what he wants to do as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “I think the idea of a constitutional foreign policy, one that involves a separation of powers and the checks and balances of Congress retaining power, I think those are things that will keep coming up [on the committee].”

Senator Paul noted changing public attitudes on the war in Afghanistan and added that even among Republicans opposition to continuing the war has become much more common. (Recent surveys indicate that a plurality of Republicans now believe the U.S. should leave before the Obama administration’s planned withdrawal date in 2014.)

“Well, I’ve been one of the few Republicans who have supported coming home from Afghanistan, and it’s actually been remarkable how opinions have changed not only in the country, but in the Republican Party. Four years ago or three years ago even, you had Republicans talking about staying forever. You still have some, but you had many talking about staying forever and many saying that if you believed in any timeline for coming home you were a cut-and-run coward, according to many Republicans. That went on for years and years, and so I think it’s remarkable that even many of those Republicans have given up on that.”

He addressed other U.S. commitments that he wanted to see reduced or ended:

“With regard to other places, I think we still have more of a presence in Iraq than we need to have. I introduced legislation last year to de-authorize the war in Iraq and lost, which is kind of amazing. They say the war’s over, but they won’t de-authorize it. I consider that to be more than a technical detail because under the use of authorization of force, particularly the one in Afghanistan, we’re doing a broad range of things that really I think have very little to do with the original use of authorization of force. I think that’s why we need to de-authorize, because as long as the authorization of force for Iraq is out there there’s nothing to stop the next president from putting a hundred thousand troops back in Iraq if they have problems.

“The same goes for Afghanistan, but in Afghanistan it’s even worse because that use of force authorization is interpreted to sanction the drones anywhere in the world, and that use of authorization of force says that we can go after the people who attacked us on 9/11 or were associated with those people. It’s a real stretch to say that any Islamic radical terrorist in the entire world was associated with 9/11. We’re getting to the point where there are people involved who may not have even been born. Not quite there, but we’re getting close to … people [who] were not even born, so it’s a little hard to say that they’re associated, and I think that’s why we go to great lengths to call everything al-Qaeda, because they’re trying to relate it back to 9/11 when in reality, probably, there’s not a real close-knit al-Qaeda movement around the world.”

Did he see that happening in response to events in North and West Africa?

“It’s uncertain,” the senator says. “Like so many other things, we are gradually getting our feet wet over there without Congressional authority.

“That’s the question I had for Kerry the other day: do you agree with the candidate Obama or the President Obama? Candidate Obama said that we shouldn’t unilaterally go to war without the authority of Congress, but President Obama took us there in Libya. Kerry’s response was, ‘I agree with the Constitution, except when I don’t agree with the Constitution, or when it’s difficult.’

“A more accurate description of his answer would be, ‘I agree that we should have congressional authority, a U.N. resolution is not enough, except for when it’s difficult.’… The whole idea of checks and balances was to make it more difficult to go to war, and when you can’t get your resolution passed then you just mess with presidential authority. I think that’s a really terrible standard for the country to have.”

Senator Paul explained his position on the U.S. supporting role in Mali: “I don’t think we should be involved without congressional authority.”

He elaborated on whether or not there is an American interest in Mali:

“The problem we have here is there’s process, how the process works, and we’re not doing the correct constitutional process, and there are the facts. So we shouldn’t be involved unless our national interests or our vital interests are involved. However, that’s what everybody always says. ‘Well, yes, our vital interests or national interests are involved.’ And so debate over what’s in your vital or national interest has to involve facts…it’s a more difficult debate to have without having the facts…

“So I’m not sure I can tell you absolutely whether it is or it isn’t in our interest. I’d be quite suspicious that the country of Mali is somehow in our national interest. Now people have broadened this. You know Kerry is a big proponent of [the view that] ‘Not only is the Constitution only applicable when it’s convenient,’ but he’s also expanded the definition of what’s in our vital interests to humanitarian efforts. So that would be an endless role for our government and our soldiers.

“I don’t accept that. The bottom line is that I go back to the process argument, and that is that it has to be authorized by Congress. If you get to that, then you’ll get to the facts ultimately. It’s hard to always comment on every set of facts in the world, particularly if we’re not engaged in the debate.”

On U.S. interests in Syria and administration policy there:

“I am opposed to arming the Syrian rebels, and I think the definition of the lines of good and bad is often murky in these wars. Who’s wearing the white hats and who’s wearing the black hats is not always apparent. There are a million Christians in Syria, 250,000 of them fled Iraq because they didn’t like the government we installed in Iraq.Those Christians, their sympathies have tended to be more with Assad because he was a minority and he tended to protect other minorities… . They aren’t too excited about the rebels. There’s a significant portion of the rebels who are al-Nusra or extreme allies of radical Islam, and I think there is some question of who the good guys are. Our side seems to think when the rebels win we’ll filter them out and install the moderates. These are the same people who thought they knew the mujahideen.”

Paul agreed that the original collective defensive purpose of NATO made sense and served as a valuable deterrent, but he went on to reject the possibility of NATO expansion: “There are a lot of things that should change. I don’t think we should keep expanding that to old satellites of the Soviet Union and getting NATO bigger and bigger and getting involved in every skirmish in the world.”

He agreed that European governments should be expected to increase their military spending and provide more for their own security, and he described changes he would like to see in the U.S. military presence in Europe: “I think the old Cold War mentality of having tens of thousands of troops waiting for a land invasion from Eastern Europe—you know, that no longer exists, and I think we do need to reassess our presence around the world.”

Paul expanded on this last point:

“I’ve told people that my general viewpoint on this is that there are two polar extremes: one when we’re everywhere all the time, and one when we’re nowhere any of the time. I would say that there is a more moderate approach that looks at every situation individually. It doesn’t say that we’re going to have no military bases around the world, but maybe says 900 bases is too many, that doesn’t say we’re not going to have any troops anywhere around the world, but says that what we have currently is too many. There is a possibility of a nuanced position of ‘not everywhere all the time, not nowhere any of the time’.”

Daniel Larison is a senior contributor to TAC and blogs here.