Since his election to the Senate in 2010 it’s barely been an exaggeration to say that the Republican foreign-policy debate has been Rand Paul versus everyone else. While he has some likeminded colleagues, especially in the House, he is the single figure most associated with a break from the GOP’s Bush-Cheney national-security legacy.
The debate was kicked off by his father, former Texas congressman and two-time GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. Many hoped that the son would expand the electoral base for what his father started.
In the early stages of his own 2016 presidential campaign, however, Rand Paul has edged closer to the Republican foreign-policy consensus. He has become more hawkish against the Islamic State—even while pushing what is substantively the least hawkish authorization of military force against the jihadists. Although still tentatively supportive of nuclear negotiations with Iran, he preferred signing Sen. Tom Cotton’s undiplomatic letter to Tehran to seeming joined at the hip with Barack Obama. While other Republican White House aspirants in the Senate voted to increase defense spending even if it meant also increasing the deficit, Paul proposed offsetting extra Pentagon money with cuts elsewhere in the budget. Some of his supporters were nevertheless dismayed that the Kentucky lawmaker’s amendment increased defense spending at all—by $190 billion over the next two years, to be precise.
But if Paul is eager to avoid a 2016 foreign-policy debate that pits him against everyone else in the Republican Party, his hawkish detractors are not. No fewer than three prominent Republicans—Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Peter King and former UN ambassador John Bolton—appear to be entertaining presidential bids mainly for the opportunity to argue with Paul in the primary debates.
The most prominent conservative moderator of those upcoming debates, commentator and law professor Hugh Hewitt, has announced that voting for higher defense spending should be a litmus test for Republicans. Hewitt writes that any Republican incumbent who opposes breaking the sequestration spending caps on defense—caps that contribute to short-term deficit reduction and a key part of the only major spending concession Republicans have won from the Obama administration—“should be fired.”
On the day Paul declared his candidacy, the man behind the anti-John Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth television ads in 2004 launched a new seven-figure ad campaign attacking Paul’s foreign policy. The spots are set to run in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, three states Paul visited during his launch and the first three contests of the GOP nomination fight.
“Paul supports more negotiations with Iran while standing against more sanctions that would hold the Iranian regime accountable. That’s not a conservative position, that’s Obama’s position,” Rick Reed told Bloomberg News. “His longstanding position on Iran and his agreement with Obama on Iran calls into question his judgment.”
Why is Paul soft-pedaling foreign policy and diluting his brand? It doesn’t seem to be winning him any ground with his critics.
For a while Paul seemed to be gaining converts rather than becoming one. Certifiably establishment Republicans joined the “stand with Rand” filibuster. Drones and CIA director John Brennan’s nomination were Paul’s immediate targets; the deeper issues were extrajudicial killings and the civil-liberties implications of making the homeland a battlefield in the war on terror.
A large number of Republicans also allied with Paul against the ill-fated military adventure in Libya, which the Kentucky senator likes to call “Hillary’s war.” And a left-right coalition including Paul actually blocked the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 bombing of Syria. Two years earlier Paul even persuaded Jim DeMint—the conservative kingmaker who would soon leave the Senate to run the Heritage Foundation—to vote in favor of repealing the authorization for the Iraq War.
But the ground has shifted underneath Paul’s feet. As recently as when Obama was re-elected three years ago, the country was looking inward. To the extent there was a foreign-policy message that resonated, it was that Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive. Mitt Romney had to fight, not terribly convincingly, against charges he wanted to lead us into reckless wars.
Bin Laden may be dead, but today ISIS is very much alive. Conditions have deteriorated in Iraq. Russia is on the move. The Republican primary electorate is very receptive to the message that the world is on fire and a feckless, lead-from-behind liberal president lit the match.
Paul’s relative anti-interventionism has always worked best politically when it was also anti-Obama. On Syria, Libya, drones, indefinite detention, surveillance, and foreign aid, Paul took stands against the Democratic president. On Cuba, however, Paul defended Obama, as he will be locked into doing if he is going to continue supporting negotiations rather than preventive war with Iran.
The GOP field has evolved in a way that complicates Paul’s pitch to primary voters. Establishment Republicans typically run for president touting their ability to reach beyond the party and appeal to the center in a general election. Conservative Republicans run on a variant of Barry Goldwater’s old slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right.” Paul is trying to do both—offering to reach beyond the party by recasting rather than abandoning true-believer conservatism.
The bridge is libertarianism. The most successful example of this strategy to date is actually not Paul himself but the Michigan congressman Justin Amash. His congressional district, once represented by Gerald Ford, leans Republican by just five points, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Yet Amash won re-election in 2014 by a bigger margin than that, despite having Heritage Action and Club for Growth ratings in excess of 90 percent. He has used libertarianism to smooth the Tea Party’s sharp edges.
In the 2016 presidential contest, however, Scott Walker is polling competitively with Jeb Bush while remaining a credible general-election candidate. Ted Cruz is also rising, appealing to the true believers. Unlike Paul, neither of them tells Republican primary voters anything they don’t want to hear. That increases the pressure on Paul to fall in line.
The conventional wisdom is that Paul must differentiate himself from his father on foreign policy in order to have a chance. There’s an element of truth to this. Paul must do a better job of convincing primary voters that he would defend America than his father ever did, and he must frame even his anti-interventionist arguments in terms understandable to Republicans at large, not just his own libertarian base.
But the real key is to differentiate his foreign policy from Obama’s without becoming a generic Republican. There are better ways to do this than for Paul to sound like a hawk who is unsure of himself—there isn’t much of a demand for a more measured John Bolton. Where can Rand Paul look for an example of a Republican who appealed to the base while still offering a libertarian approach to foreign policy? His father’s Cold War record is a good starting point.
Ron Paul was much more dovish than your average Republican even during his early years in Congress. But unlike the radical libertarian thinker Murray Rothbard and some other fellow travelers, he did not reject the Cold War entirely. Paul the elder opposed the SALT II arms treaty, arguing in 1979 that “this would probably lead to permanent U.S. weakness and the make the Soviet Union the undisputed military superpower in the world.”
“It would be profoundly destabilizing; and far from promoting peace, it would endanger it,” the Texas congressman wrote, adding, “the Soviet Union has outspent us on military offense and defense by 35% to 40%.”
When the Democratic majority in the House passed a nuclear-freeze resolution, Ron Paul voted against it. “My primary objection to a nuclear freeze treaty with the Soviet Union is that I am unwilling to trust the freedom and independence of the United States to the promises of the Soviet ruling elite,” he wrote at the time. “The Soviets have broken almost every treaty they have ever signed, once it was no longer to their advantage to abide by its terms.”
Ron Paul balked at the invasion of Grenada in 1983, but he argued against it in primarily procedural terms. He favorably contrasted that intervention with the one in Lebanon that culminated in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. “It now appears that there were troops and advisers in Grenada from Libya, Cuba, Bulgaria, the Soviet Union, East Germany and North Korea,” he said during a congressional speech in 1983. “If that is the case, I fail to see how anyone can believe that Grenada posed no threat to our well-being.”
Finally, Ron Paul supported the Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as “Star Wars.” “Despite the barrage of propaganda from the Kremlin—propaganda that has been scandalously effective at influencing public opinion in the West—space has already been ‘militarized,’” he complained. “And it is the Soviets that have been the ‘militarizers.’”
From Robert A. Taft to Pat Buchanan, the conservative alternative to neoconservatism has not usually been noninterventionism in its strictest form. (Buchanan could win more conservative votes than hawkish rivals despite opposing the popular and seemingly successful first Iraq War precisely because nobody believed a Cold Warrior could truly be an appeaser.) That is true even in the case of the least interventionist of those alternatives, Ron Paul.
The younger Paul has been trying to rebrand himself as a conservative realist. He has delivered speeches at venues ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for the National Interest laying out this vision, effectively triangulating between his father and more hawkish Republicans. Paul does not reject the idea of a war on terror outright—“The enemy is Radical Islam and not only will I name the enemy, I will do what ever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind”—even if he opposes many of the wars fought in its name. Paul supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan—for which his father voted—and intervening against ISIS, but he opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya, as well as arming Syrian rebels and bombing the Syrian government.
“The consistency here is that Mr. Paul always opposed military actions aimed at countries and forces in the Middle East that weren’t aligned with the true enemy, which is Islamist radicalism,” writes Robert Merry, political editor of The National Interest. “Not only are such policies errant and wasteful, but they unnecessarily arouse anti-Western passions in an unstable region, thus increasing the instability. This is the story of American foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Merry adds that Paul “does support military actions aimed at curbing the spread and power of Islamist radicals positioned to establish a territorial base in the heart of Islam from which they can threaten the rest of the Middle East and eventually the West.”
Politically, Paul has preferred to channel Ronald Reagan’s line about “peace through strength,” while placing more emphasis on the “peace” part of the equation than other Republicans do. At the theoretical level, this works well enough. “We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies, and nimble enough to defend our vital interests,” he said in his announcement speech. “But we also need a foreign policy that protects American interests and encourages stability—not chaos.”
As he launched his campaign, Paul emphasized that a government that is incompetent at home is not going to be capable of building democracies in the Middle East. He chastised Obama for cutting Congress out of a deal with Iran while reminding Republicans that negotiations with unfriendly governments can be good.
“The difference between President Obama and myself—he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness,” Paul thundered. “Yet everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad, that trust but verify is required in any negotiation but that our goal always should be and always is peace not war!”
“The notion that Rand Paul is running as a dove I think was refuted by this speech,” said former John McCain man Steve Schmidt in a rave review on MSNBC, adding that Paul has “a conservative national defense vision very consistent with Eisenhower and Reagan.”
In a Republican primary, it’s better to be Eisenhower and Reagan than Obama or an “isolationist.” Eisenhower and Reagan were more prudent in the use of military force than many who today speak in their names. The risk for Paul, however, lies in trying to be all things to all people, especially in cases where his current rhetoric contradicts past claims. Supporting an Iran deal while retaining the right to oppose the one actually on the table may be smart politics. Will it result in good policy? Accepting the Republican base’s foreign-policy premises opens the door to persuasion—unless it concedes too much rhetorically to premises that are faulty and excessively interventionist.
If you are an establishment candidate, you can get away with a reputation for flip-flopping or even insincerity. The relationship between a candidate like Mitt Romney and the conservative base is purely transactional: if you give me the nomination, I’ll give you at least a marginally better chance of beating the Democratic nominee. A candidate like Rand Paul is offering voters something to believe in, just like Ted Cruz. He cannot be a Romney-like flip-flopper and prosper politically.
It’s a difficult balance. The libertarian following he inherited from his father must believe he is genuinely committed to a less interventionist foreign policy that will avoid future wars of choice. The kind of Republicans who voted for John McCain in the 2008 primaries must believe Paul is sincerely committed to defending the United States.
“If we nominate a candidate who is simply ‘Democrat-lite,’ what’s the point? Why bother?” Paul asked. “We need to boldly proclaim our vision for America!”
Can Paul boldly proclaim his vision for American foreign policy without seeming like neoconservative lite? The answer may have implications beyond his primary campaign—implications not only for the Republican Party’s national-security debate but for America’s peace and security.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller.