There are plenty of pundits and activists willing to make excuses for Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Some suggest that he is behaving strategically, knowing that he must lock in support from certain GOP constituencies if he is to have any chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, anticipating the Senate vote on the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense as a test of how far Paul will go to do what is right rather than what is expedient. Finally there are supporters who follow Rand out of reverence for his father, former congressman Ron Paul, who challenged the political orthodoxy in a number of areas where his son is now mending fences.
I am among those who believe that Rand Paul has already revealed what he is made of, at least in terms of foreign policy. To suggest that he says and does things strategically just to make himself more acceptable to certain special interests demeans him, and to determine whether the other accounts offered on his behalf are viable, it is necessary to review the senator’s foreign-policy record over the past two years.
On the plus side of the ledger, while running for the Senate Rand Paul criticized America’s inclination to enter into overseas wars and Washington’s worldwide military footprint, though he supported the war in Afghanistan and urged against too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq. He has since said that he would have voted against the Iraq War if he had been in office at the time. He has advocated strictly controlling the Mexican border against illegal immigration. Shortly after his election in 2010, he called for an end to all foreign aid. And he has opposed any language in sanctions legislation directed against Syria or Iran that might authorize military action. He has rejected any direct U.S. role against the Assad regime in Damascus.
Paul has consistently opposed extension of certain provisions of the Patriot Act expanding police powers, which—though not part of foreign policy per se—have been driven by the so-called War on Terror. But he supports trying all terrorism suspects before military tribunals at Guantanamo, not before civil courts in the United States. At the end of 2012, Paul co-sponsored with senators Dianne Feinstein and Mike Lee an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that appeared to prohibit the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens by the military, though in reality it did precisely the opposite by excluding those cases in which “an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention.” Such acts of Congress already exist in the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and last year’s NDAA, which included the infinitely elastic “material support of terrorism” as a charge that could be dealt with by military detention. The Feinstein-Paul amendment did not make it into the final bill that went to President Obama, leading Paul to slam the entire NDAA as “unconstitutional.”
Last June, Rand Paul endorsed Mitt Romney for president and followed the endorsement by saying he would be “honored” to be Romney’s choice for vice president. Regarding Mitt’s foreign-policy views, Paul told Sean Hannity that “[we] had a very good and I think honest discussion about a lot of these things; and I came away from it feeling he would be a very responsible commander-in-chief, I don’t think he’ll be reckless, I don’t think he’ll be rash, and I think that he realizes and believes as I do that war is a last resort and something we don’t rush willy-nilly into, and I came away feeling that he’ll have a mature attitude and beliefs towards foreign policy.”
But Rand was wrong about Mitt, whose foreign policy would have been a repeat of George W. Bush’s—except it might be even worse. While Senator Paul was endorsing Mitt, a key Romney foreign-policy adviser, Richard Williamson, was in Israel telling an audience that “Iran will see that there’s a new sheriff in town” if Romney is elected. Williamson promised credible military threats against Iran—including using force to stop the Iranian weapons program—recommended arming the rebels in Syria, and reiterated extremely dangerous arguments that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
Romney, who did not accept the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Iran has no weapons program, was the only Republican presidential hopeful proposing an increase in the Pentagon budget. He frequently extolled American Exceptionalism to support his belief that the United States should both dominate militarily and lead the world. Rand’s endorsement of Romney, which explicitly included his foreign-policy positions, sent the signal that working one’s way through the system is everything and that the details don’t much matter. Rand’s father refused to endorse Romney.
Senator Paul has supported sanctions against Iran while contending that such actions should not be construed as a license to go to war. He was the only senator to vote against a resolution last fall maintaining that Iran cannot ever acquire a nuclear weapon; he said: “A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive war.” But his essentially constitutional position on war powers has not stopped him from arguing that “The Iranian regime is engaged in the pursuit of nuclear weapons and supports terrorism across the globe.” That Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon is incorrect according to the CIA.
After the November election, Paul joined 99 other Senators in voting unanimously for increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran designed to cripple the country’s economy. His father Ron had a different view back in August, slamming a similar bill in the house and voting against it, calling the measures an unconstitutional “act of war.”
Since that time Senator Paul has been working particularly hard to dispel the notion that he is anti-Israel because he opposes foreign aid. He recently returned from a week-long visit to the Middle East, most of which was spent in Israel, that was paid for by an evangelical group called the American Family Association.
The Jerusalem Post reported that during the Rand Paul family visit, the senator said that Israel’s settlement policies are “none of our business” before backing away from any suggestion of cutting aid any time soon by noting that a bankrupt America would not be a good ally for Israel and then explaining, “This does mean that we have to reassess who to give aid to, and when we do reassess that, I would begin with countries that are burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America.’ No one is accusing Israel of that.”
Regarding the settlements, Rand seems uninterested in or unaware of the damage being done to U.S. interests due to Washington’s continued substantial funding of Israel’s defense budget, support that frees up money for the illegal settlement expansion. Settlements are very much Washington’s business, as U.S. citizens are paying the tab and taking much of the blame.
The senator also visited Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas during his trip. The meeting was not covered by the U.S. media, but Xinhua news service did describe it as follows: “U.S. Senator Rand Paul informed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of his country’s opposition to the Palestinian intention to join United Nations agencies, a well- informed Palestinian sources said Monday. The source told Xinhua on condition of anonymity the Republican Senator told Abbas after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah that the United States will impose sanctions on the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) if it decided to join UN agencies.” If the account is accurate, Paul has joined the chorus demanding that the Palestinians be punished for seeking statehood.
On January 24 Senator Paul confronted outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the events in Benghazi in September 2012, when four Americans were killed. Paul called Benghazi somewhat hyperbolically “the worst tragedy since 9/11” and insisted that if he had been president he would have relieved Clinton of her post for not personally responding to the incoming cables from Libya as the situation was developing. Paul’s comments might appear to be scoring points in support of his own personal ambitions, projecting himself as a president in shaping his response. But they are also unfortunately reflective of his failure to understand how overseas embassies operate. The secretary of state receives millions of messages every day, many of which are completely contradictory as officers on the ground attempt to describe evolving situations. The secretary is head of a large bureaucracy and has an experienced staff that handles developing crises. The situation in Beghazi was only clearly understood long after it was over.
Rand has stated that the United States government should publicly declare that “any attack on Israel will be treated as if it is an attack on the United States,” a position that would tie Washington’s policy to that of Israel—with the Israelis able to dictate developments. Rand, together with a number of American politicians and pundits, seems to believe that the United States has an alliance with Israel. It does not. Israel has resisted any restraint on its behavior that a formal alliance would entail. It is not possible to imagine how an alliance would even be defined, as Israel has no fixed borders and is constantly expanding its definition of how and where it is threatened. Israel is a Middle Eastern superpower well able to deter any aggression against with responses up to and including its own nuclear arsenal, while the definition of “attack” is itself elusive—does it imply war with another nation-state or rockets fired from Gaza?
That Rand could make such a suggestion, apparently unaware of the problems it could create for the United States, might be due to the advice he is getting. Rand has reportedly received briefings from former Romney foreign-policy adviser Dan Senor and other neoconservatives, including meetings with Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard.
Judging based on how he has voted and what he has said and done, Rand Paul insists on adherence to the Constitution for going to war but is not necessarily against interventionism and does not appear to have well-defined views on what measures are appropriate in counterterrorism. He opposes some infringements on constitutional liberties as part of the War on Terror. He favors cutting foreign aid for “unfriendly” countries first and friends like Israel sometime after that, advocates punishing Muslim countries that do not fully support our policies, and promotes an Israel-centric foreign policy in the Middle East. He relies on neoconservatives for foreign-policy guidance and is willing to support the demonization of countries like Iran in spite of the lack of evidence that they constitute a threat.
Rand hasn’t revealed whether or not he will vote to approve the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. As the Hagel nomination has been strongly opposed by various components of the Israel Lobby, Paul could further burnish his pro-Israel and pro-evangelical credentials by voting “no,” or he might reassure libertarians and traditional conservatives by voting “yes.” The uncertainty about the vote highlights the central enigma of Rand Paul: how will he act if his eye is on 2016?
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.