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Rand Paul Should Go on Offense

The front page story in the Wall Street Journal yesterday (“Americans Want to Pull Back from World Stage, Poll Finds” [1]) points to an intriguing contrast between the sentiments of the American people and their elites when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers have been urging in unison that Washington “do something” about Ukraine—the debate only being about the level of American intervention—nearly half of those surveyed in the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll “want the U.S. to be less active in the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for active engagement—an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines,” reports the Journal.

Indeed, reading the editorial and op-ed pages in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and other leading newspapers, one gets the impression that our pundits treat the notion that the United States should increase its role in world affairs—whether it’s regarding the tensions in Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, or the island disputes in the South and East China Seas—as an axiom of sorts, while the attitudes of the American people run exactly in the opposite direction. The new poll findings “portray a public weary of foreign entanglements,” according to the Journal. The 47 percent of respondents who called for a less active role in world affairs “marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997, and 1995.” This anti-interventionist mood of the American people (to the Journal’s credit, it refrained from tagging it as “isolationist”) has been identified in several other opinion polls conducted in recent months.

Last year [2] the Pew Research Center detected a record 53 percent of Americans stating that the United States “should mind its own business internationally” and allow other countries to get along as best as they can (that compared with 41 percent in 1995, and 20 percent in 1964). These views were endorsed by majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Other polls point to a consensus among Americans regarding U.S. policy in Ukraine [3] and Syria [4], with clear majorities rejecting Washington’s conventional wisdom that these crises are central to U.S. national interests, and opposing American military intervention in them.

As Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center points out in Politico [5], “there is little appetite across the American political spectrum to get deeply involved with difficult problems that are not easily seen as critically important to U.S. interests.” So while Republican lawmakers attack President Obama for not getting tough enough with Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, Republican voters are as reluctant as Democrats to get the United States involved in Syria and Ukraine. “There are interesting distinctions when you break down these views by country,” reports Kohut. “With respect to Ukraine, just 45 percent of Republicans said the United States should take a firm stand against Russian actions there compared with 35 percent of Democrats. On Syria, on other hand, more Democrats (43 percent) than Republicans (34 percent) favored airstrikes to force Assad to give up his chemical weapons,” which explains why Republicans lawmakers were ready to vote against authorizing President Obama to use military force against Assad.


The Journal suggests that growing anti-interventionist sentiment around the country may explain the ascent of Sen. Rand Paul as a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. But here is an interesting paradox: Much of the noise on foreign policy coming out of the GOP, including from other potential presidential candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio and Governor Christie, has been taking the form of attacks on Obama for resisting the Washington pressure to intervene, and in particular for the suggestion (raised by an unnamed source in the New Yorker) that the United States should “lead from behind.” In a way, John (“bomb, bomb Iran”) McCain—and not Rand Paul—is seen by the media (and supposedly the public) as the Republican voice on foreign policy.

If anything, Senator Paul, whose foreign policy views are more in line with Republican voters’ sentiments, seems to be playing defense on issues like Ukraine, trying to demonstrate to the neoconservative pundits and hawkish GOP operators that he is not an “isolationist.” He pledged in a recent op-ed in Time magazine [6] that, “If I were President, I wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin get away with it,” even as he insisted that, “Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less” and voted against recent legislation that would send financial assistance to Ukraine.

Senator Paul probably thinks that this kind of “balanced” approach on Ukraine and other foreign policy issues will not antagonize the members of the powerful interventionist of his party while at the same time, helping to market himself to the anti-interventionist Republican voters as a “sensible” guy when it comes to U.S. role in the world. But more likely, if he follows this strategy, Senator Paul will not gain the approval of either side. He will never be able to win the support of those Republican pro-interventionist strategists and pundits who continue to dominate the foreign policy discourse in the party. But he will also fail in outlining a coherent message that stresses the need to reduce the military role that the United States is playing today in world affairs, and fail to clearly establish himself as an alternative to the likes of John McCain, or for that matter, Hillary Clinton.

Instead of continuing to play catch-up on foreign policy with McCain and other Republican adversaries, Paul should take a lesson from President Obama, who during a press conference in the Philippines this week blasted McCain and his other foreign policy critics [7] who he described as operating “in an office in Washington or New York” and who seemed to be “eager to use military force.”

Here is an idea: Paul could convene a series of public forums around the country to discuss the United States’s role in the world, in which he could have a dialogue with “regular” Americans in places like Iowa and New Hampshire on how the U.S. should respond to the crises in Ukraine or Syria. Such forums could bring together Republican and Democratic speakers as well as political scientists and historians from local colleges, and could conclude with the attendees voting for or against proposed resolutions.

My guess is that the anti-interventionist sentiments the polls have been finding nationally would be echoed by participants in these public forums, and could provide Paul with political momentum as he prepares for the 2016 presidential race. It’s worth a try.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East [8].

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Rand Paul Should Go on Offense"

#1 Comment By JohnG On May 1, 2014 @ 2:35 am

Funny how living in a bubble can make you dumb even if you are super-educated while the reality of facing mortgage payments makes you smart even if you never went to college. Regular folks just KNOW that trillions of dollars in debt cannot end well, hence these survey results.

America simply cannot afford to be the word’s policeman in the long run. A couple of decades from now, China and (probably) India will have larger economies than the US and those of Brazil, Indonesia, and maybe even Russia won’t seem that small either. America can of course still be important and powerful, but probably to the extent that it assumes a role of a critical balance and coalition-builder with the primary goal of preventing the rise of a power that will threaten the free world. Maybe something like Britain’s traditional approach to European politics, which, admittedly, wasn’t always done well, so there are some lessons to be learned there as well.

While America’s size, location, natural riches, and most of all legal and economic systems allow it to play such role, and the world indeed badly needs America in it, rants about “indispensable nation” (Clinton’s secretary of state) and “American century” (pretty much entire W’s team) are dangerous idiocies. As is the systemic disregard for international norms and law which got really bad under Clinton and then accelerated under Bush.

If America is to build coalitions to uphold law, promote peace and trade, and prevent the rise of a rogue superpower, it better start leading by example. It may be overlooked in the American media but it’s interesting that the majority of this world, counting by the number of citizens, including countries as diverse as China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Spain, Mexico, and Iraq, still does not recognize the unilaterally declared and NATO supported independence of Kosovo, and it is precisely this same world that has failed to condemn Putin’s annexation of Crimea or impose sanctions on Russia. Maybe they are trying to tell us something?

The era of unilateral actions half way around the globe ended with trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s ironic that the only people in Washington who seem to understand this are Rand Paul and Barack Obama, such polar opposites in so many other ways.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 1, 2014 @ 4:19 am

What’s the point unless he cleans up his act on immigration — it’s moot what he says about intervention, NSA, Patriot Act

He’s not leading on this issues. He’s merely echoing

#3 Comment By No Hope On May 1, 2014 @ 8:22 am

Unfortunately Senator Paul is already moving toward the neocon camp. Referencing the importance of the USA/Israeli alliance, targeting Palestinian aid, etc.

It’s pathetic.

#4 Comment By SDS On May 1, 2014 @ 8:23 am

He’s got MY vote…..

#5 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On May 1, 2014 @ 8:41 am

I like the ideas suggested at the end of the article. I find myself baffled that though there is strong voter support for a non-interventionist stance in politics, we see Rand Paul on the defensive. I hope he takes a look around and is encouraged by what he sees outside of Washington DC, which normally distorts everything inside of it.

The only reason I can see him doing what he has been in that he is being seriously threatened by the party establishment behind closed doors. He doesn’t want to have to create his own party to run, so he is trying not to burn bridges. But if he calls their bluff and rallies voters behind him it is amazing how quickly politicians can be swayed when votes are on the line.

#6 Comment By Michael N Moore On May 1, 2014 @ 9:55 am

That’s the way Obama beat Hilary and it’s probably the only way Ron Paul will do it.

#7 Comment By Johann On May 1, 2014 @ 10:25 am

The two party system is what drives a candidate like Rand Paul to waffle. Its his only hope, slim as it is, of getting the party nomination. I think if the founding fathers knew that the national elections would collapse into a two party system, they would have at a minimum made some changes to the Presidential election but probably many more changes to prevent consolidations of nation-wide political parties. One thing that would help in Presidential elections is if the constitution was amended such that the state electoral college votes had to be proportional, not winner take all.

#8 Comment By Sean Scallon On May 1, 2014 @ 11:40 am

Amen to that.

#9 Comment By Peter Gemma On May 1, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

Why did Rand just introduce the “Stand with Israel Act” – part of a fairness-in-the-Middle-East foreign policy?


#10 Comment By Dan Phillips On May 1, 2014 @ 12:50 pm

I’m sorry, but Rand Paul is too worried about his backside in a Republican primary to be of much real use. What we need is a rhetorical champion, and Rand repeatedly gives away the rhetorical store.

#11 Comment By Myron Hudson On May 1, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

I find it hopeful that the term “anti-interventionist” is gaining traction in lieu of “isolationist”. A small hope, for sure, but hope nevertheless.

As Daniel Larison points out, much of Rand’s message is hopelessly conflicted and as a result he is not ideally positioned to establish himself as the preferable alternative. However, he seems to be the only person close to be so positioned, so yes, he should get to work.

Even if it costs him his political future – and maybe that’s what’s holding him back – he should quit catering to the dingbats inside the Beltway because 1) it will get him nowhere and 2) bringing us to reality-based discussion on foreign policy might be the most important contribution anyone could make at this time.

I don’t know how typical I am as a voter, but I will always vote for whoever appears to have the most distance between themselves and the neocons and liberal interventionists. That beltway cabal needs to be as publicly discredited as it is in reality. And it’s going to be a tough fight due to a jingoistic mainstream press. He might as well give up on finding support from the machine, and start drumming it up from the populace.

#12 Comment By Clint On May 1, 2014 @ 2:20 pm

It appears that most of Rand Paul’s foreign policy comments reflect much of what Americans are saying in the polls.

Since Americans as a whole, are neither full blown isolationists nor full blown interventionists,Rand Paul’s foreign policy statements are fairly in line with most Americans.

#13 Comment By Patrick On May 1, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

I’m not surprised that the anti-intervention poll numbers are so high. I do think such a position would draw a lot of support from Democratic and Republican voters. I think it’s going to be very hard for someone in the GOP to run that kind of campaign, though, if they still want to run “against” Obama.
Obama has already been a low-intervention president. He’s mostly relied on economic sanctions, and expressed strong reluctance to do anything that will result in boots on the ground. I think it’s going to be hard for a Republican to denounce what Obama’s done on foreign policy but still maintain an anti-intervention platform with substantial differences from Obama’s approaches.

#14 Comment By SDS On May 1, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

Yes; he may have to pander to a certain extent within the knucklehead party machine; and he may not be right on some issues; but he’s much closer to sanity than any other well-known pol…(cetainly this early)…If we put up our own “litmus test” on our own favorite issue and judge solely on that; then forget anything getting better.We’ll get the same fanatics on both sides.

#15 Comment By Chris On May 1, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

I agree. I dont think Paul should engage McCain. John McCain and the AIPAC/Israeli Neocons are like Don Quixote chasing windmills in search of an enemy.

The more Paul engages these fictitious windmills the more he lends them legitimacy that even the republican/conservative voters no longer lend them.

There is one caution about non-interventionists…they must be prudent…because they will always be tested with circumstances to see if they are non-interventionist by belief of non-interventionist because of niavety or apathy.

Paul should speak to the voters and to those in his party where he can have a real dialogue…and like Reagan…he should have a good retort to close the dialogue with the neocons.

#16 Comment By Allan On May 1, 2014 @ 10:42 pm

I’m done with Rand after this “Stand With Israel” act.

Did the Palestinians ask for their homes and land to be stolen, and to be banished from their own country? How come no one ever talks about the Palestinians’ “right to exist”.

This bill is even more extreme than any AIPAC bill I have seen, and a classic case of blaming the victims. If, by some chance, Rand gets in the White House, how could he be viewed as even-handed or trustworthy enough to move towards a peaceful solution? Even George W. Bush had a more intelligent perspective on this issue.

This bill is cynical, unstatesmanlike, dangerous, and will only hurt Palestinian civilians…a people who are already facing enormous suffering and oppression.

#17 Comment By Clint On May 2, 2014 @ 11:23 am

Rand Paul’s Bill potentially would cut American taxpayers’ money being used to aid a Palestinian government contingent on recognition of Israel.

The Pro-Israel Lobby, AIPAC is opposing Rand Paul’s bill.

#18 Comment By Roger On May 3, 2014 @ 12:49 am

He should do whatever it takes: talk nice with the neocons, embrace Israel, embrace Lindsey Graham, Sheldon Adelson, etc.

Then when he gets elected, he should disavow all of them and govern like an anti-interventionist. But he has to lie his way there. That’s the only realistic way.

#19 Comment By richard vajs On May 3, 2014 @ 8:36 am

You are right – Rand Paul has destroyed whatever “anti-interventionist” values that, he might have had with that “Stand With Israel” act. It is like seeing your new minister out with a prostitute, dead drunk.

#20 Comment By Bill Rood On May 3, 2014 @ 9:51 am

JohnG’s comment is generally thoughtful. He’s right on target vis a vis the wisdom of the common citizen trying to avoid default, and the justifiable view of the USA around the world.

However, he makes two very questionable statements. First, he espouses “the primary goal of preventing the rise of a power that will threaten the free world.” What is the “free world?” I’m sorry, but my world in the USSA is increasingly unfree. More importantly, this goal is the stated primary goal of both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Wolfowitz. It’s what got us into this mess in the first place.

Later, he implies a US goal should be to “prevent the rise of a rogue superpower.” Well, I’m afraid, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

#21 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On May 3, 2014 @ 9:58 am

I totally agree with Mr. Hadar’s penultimate paragraph. It’s an excellent idea and would serve the public interest enormously. My guess is that Paul won’t have to place his ear too close to the ground before concluding that the majority of us are tired of the “Make The World Safe For Democracy” shtick. At that point either Mr. Paul will have to stand up, step forward and lead, or suffer the charge of being (as the late Paul Tsongas called Bill Clinton)a “pander bear”.

#22 Comment By Jerry On May 3, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

Rand Paul got elected by the Tea Party’s hard work against Sen. McConnell who villified Paul and tried to get his opponent elected. Now when McConnell is running Rand Paul is trying to help him, a RINO backslider, reelected. Paul should be ashamed of himself he is a traitor to the Tea Party conservatives who worked hard to elect him. He won’t get my vote.

#23 Comment By Johnny F. Ive On May 3, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

We haven’t seen where the wind will ultimately blow Rand on Iran. He has supported the meme that Iran is a threat. If the peace talks fail and a war authorization bill/new sanctions bill comes to the floor will Rand stand with Israel? Wall Street has come out against Rand. They like their government bailouts. They would vote for Hillary before Rand. How about likely Republican primary voters? Do they want a sensible foreign policy or do they want to baptize terrorist? Can Rand reach people who have adopted the ethics of a pagan warrior?

#24 Comment By John E_o On May 4, 2014 @ 9:47 am

Why did Rand just introduce the “Stand with Israel Act” – part of a fairness-in-the-Middle-East foreign policy?

Perhaps he does not have a cohesive foreign policy vision for the Middle East but is pandering to the segment of the GOP base that is pro-Israel for Eschatological reasons.

#25 Comment By portia On May 4, 2014 @ 11:54 am

Sadly, Rand Paul continues to disqualify himself in the eyes of conservatives. He is increasingly squishy on immigration issues and increasingly bellicose on foreign policy. Either he’s revealing his true colors or is doing what his political consultants are advising him to do to “move towards the center.” Either way, putting trust in Rand Paul as a national leader is less and less justified with every passing day. Another disappointment.

#26 Comment By ASH On May 5, 2014 @ 12:20 am

I suspect there is also an internal conflict among the voters. That conflict is between ideology, on the one hand, and reality on the other. Many of Rand’s most likely supporters agree with anti-interventionism as an ideological matter; however, the moment that international disputes arise and the neocons begin their squawking about “weak America” and “Reagan’s America,” the same demographic becomes interventionist. If such an ideological confusion exists, Rand will not be able to prevail (or even gain traction) without duplicity–ah, it is Washington.

#27 Comment By Clint On May 5, 2014 @ 7:35 am

Rand Paul learned from his dad’s experiences, running for the presidency, as he lays the groundwork for reducing the use of our American taxpayers’ money to fund foreign aid,including Israel.

Rand Paul appears to be building Big Tent additional interest for his candidacy from millennial, minority and Establishment GOP sources.

#28 Comment By RadicalCenter On May 6, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

I support Rand Paul and he’s a damn sight better than almost any elected federal official in either party.

But his recent inflammatory comments insulting and threatening Russia don’t bespeak good judgment, consistent principles, or a refusal to pander to the lowest common denominator of our electorate. Come on, Rand, stick to principle — foreign policy is a major area where the American majority mostly agrees with you / us.