The journalist Peter Beinart, who ought to know something about the hazards of shifting foreign-policy views, had a message for Rand Paul: the senator can “destroy an olive grove with [his] bare hands” without gaining the trust of Republican hawks exemplified by Sheldon Adelson.
This tartly worded tweet was in response to Paul’s call to end aid to the Palestinian Authority following the brutal murder of three kidnapped Israeli teenagers. Previously, Paul had introduced the Stand with Israel Act, which makes future aid to the Palestinian government conditional upon a ceasefire and, according to a statement from his office, “recognizing the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”
Other observers have also chalked this up to an effort to win what has been called the “Adelson primary.” “At heart [Paul’s] a deficit hawk,” writes National Journal’s Emma Roller. “But to win over conservative voters he must masquerade as a defense hawk.”
That last part worries conservatives and libertarians—as well as a few liberal well-wishers—drawn to Paul precisely because he represents a break from Bush-Cheney rhetoric on national security.
At present, those worries don’t seem particularly well founded. Since “beefing up his Israel bona fides,” Paul has been one of the few Republicans to blame Bush-Cheney rather than President Obama for the violence engulfing Iraq. He has ruled out ground troops in the country and made the point that it is ill-conceived regime change rather than inaction that has made a “jihadist wonderland” out of Iraq and Libya.
Paul is one of a handful of Republicans who would repeal the authorization of force for Iraq. He remains one of just two GOP senators who haven’t signed on to Iran sanctions that could derail nuclear diplomacy, making military confrontation—or an Iranian bomb—more likely.
As Beinart predicted, neoconservatives don’t seem to think Paul is moving in their direction on foreign policy. Jacob Heilbrunn notes in the New York Times that at least some such thinkers may gravitate toward Hillary Clinton in the event of a Paul nomination.
Paul has himself mused about a presidential contest in which the Republican is less hawkish than the Democrat. So have Republican commentators like Joe Scarborough, saying “Hillary is a neocon’s neocon” as former Mitt Romney foreign-policy adviser Dan Senor muttered, “God help us” in response to a hypothetical Paul nomination.
Cutting foreign aid has always been a non-interventionist position. It also happens to be one that resonates with the Republican rank-and-file, if not GOP elected officials. Paul, who initially proposed zeroing out all foreign aid (including to Israel), is building further support by putting money for allies like Israel on the chopping block last.
There are several things worth considering here. The first is that Paul is vying to lead the entire Republican Party, not just one particular faction. His intended audience isn’t Adelson (though perhaps he can get some other hawkish donors to hold their fire) but evangelicals who want their party’s nominee to be pro-Israel but are open-minded about what the actual foreign-policy implications of that might be.
Paul is trying to demonstrate to such Republicans that you can pursue a less interventionist foreign policy without neglecting legitimate national-security concerns or abandoning allies. Where possible, he is using anti-interventionist means to pro-American and pro-Israel ends.
Paul’s outreach is occurring at a time of divisions among American friends of Israel. His proposals to block the sale of tanks and planes to the Egyptian military while the Muslim Brotherhood was running the country and to cut aid to the Palestinians were popular with grassroots Israel supporters. AIPAC opposed both.
It was the Bush administration that pressed for the Palestinian Authority to hold elections including Hamas over Israeli objections (though the White House was none too happy with the result). Bill Kristol cheered the Arab Spring, which ended up empowering anti-Israel political actors.
In Iraq, Lindsey Graham wants the U.S. to ally with Iran against ISIS. The Weekly Standard wants us to fight both Iran and ISIS. John Bolton, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, suggests letting them fight each other.
Iran hawks are stymied both by the failures of the Iraq war, which left the U.S. and its allies more reluctant to intervene in the Middle East in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and its success in deposing Saddam Hussein, which removed a regional counterweight to Tehran.
This volatile climate makes clear that support for intervention abroad is not always conterminous with support for Israel. It is similarly an opportunity to demonstrate that skepticism about such interventions isn’t synonymous indifference or hostility to Israel—quite the opposite.
Seizing that opportunity might discomfit those who see greater distance from Israel as a prerequisite for changing foreign policy. Paul’s National Review op-ed on curtailing aid to the Palestinian Authority, for instance, isn’t very nuanced. It doesn’t couple its justly passionate denunciation of anti-Israel terror with even the faintest recognition of Palestinian suffering.
Yet the campaign to keep the United States out of war in Syria—and to keep a renewed Iraq presence “unbelievably small”—is looking more successful than recent attempts to jumpstart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Paul’s rhetoric is neither right in every particular nor risk-free. But it might be the best way to reach a conservative Republican electorate with a message that is pro-American, pro-Israel, and Lord willing pro-peace.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?