Usually Republicans are suspected of harboring presidential aspirations when they speak at a Lincoln Day Dinner near Des Moines or sample the corned beef hash at a Manchester diner. Rand Paul got the political press’s attention by taking a dip in the Dead Sea.
“This trip to meet with Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians is absolutely the first step in his 2016 White House campaign,” evangelical leader David Lane, who organized the visit, obliged in an interview with the Washington Times.
Paul held a conference call with intrigued reporters upon his return from Israel. He defended Israeli national sovereignty, ripped the “arrogance” of American policymakers who presume to know more about local conditions than the people who lived there, praised the country as a strong democratic ally.
“There is this perception out there that because I’m in favor of cutting foreign aid I’m not a friend to Israel,” the freshman senator from Kentucky said. “But there is more than one way to be a friend to Israel.”
Business Insider called it Paul’s “overnight transformation into a pro-Israel defense hawk.” Pat Buchanan biographer Tim Stanley asked in the Telegraph if Paul was a “born again Zionist.” Some longtime supporters of Paul’s father were dismayed by his Israel rhetoric and his reported meetings with national security hawks before joining the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
We’ve heard some of this before. After winning the Republican senatorial nomination in 2010, Paul huddled with Bill Kristol, Tom Donnelly, and Dan Senor, described by GQ as “three prominent neocons who’d been part of an effort to defeat him during the primary.” Was the younger Paul already selling out?
After being sworn into the Senate, Paul introduced a budget that zeroed out all foreign aid, including for Israel. He sought to de-authorize the Iraq War. He opposed the Patriot Act. He proposed amendments to sanctions bills for Iran and Syria emphasizing that these bills did not constitute an authorization of force.
Just in the last three months, Paul sought to expand Fourth Amendment protections under the Bush-era warrantless surveillance program and Sixth Amendment guarantees under the National Defense Authorization Act’s terror-detention provisions. When he failed, he protested loudly and voted against both bills.
Speaking to reporters last week, Paul made clear that he was still ultimately opposed to all foreign aid and skeptical of foreign military adventurism. And he has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, even when it has left him in the minority.
Recent polling suggests a majority of Republicans is at least open to retrenchment. According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of GOP voters want America less involved in Middle Eastern political change—not as noninterventionist as Democrats or particularly independents, but still nearly 20 points more than the percentage of Republicans who picked “more involved.”
Arguments for foreign-policy restraint have failed to gain traction in the Republican Party because of three perceptions of the conservatives making them: namely, that they are hostile to Israel, indifferent to American national security, and naïve about brutal foreign regimes. Paul is aiming to correct these perceptions while emphasizing his common ground with the GOP and the broader conservative movement.
That’s why Paul has focused on cutting foreign aid to Middle Eastern despots, who also happen to be virulently anti-Israel. It’s why he talks about missile defense to protect American cities from attack. And it’s why he observes that Israelis aren’t burning American flags.
More hawkish conservatives may be noticing Paul’s comments, but they are aimed at the Republican rank-and-file: evangelical well-wishers of Israel, primary voters who could be convinced that our overseas interventions are bad policy but not that the Muslim Brotherhood bodes well for secular democracy.
Paul may in the process repel those who are genuinely hostile to Israel or who dabble in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But will Don Black’s financial contribution really be missed? There will also be Ron Paul voters and donors without such noxious motives who will nevertheless be troubled by these overtures. They will be harder to replace.
This strategy carries a risk of failure, as both sides of the burgeoning conservative foreign policy debate could cool to Paul. But the old approaches have already failed, or at least reached the end of where they can take the antiwar right.
There is indeed more than one way to be a friend to Israel—and perhaps more than one way to be the spokesman of a less bellicose conservative foreign policy, too.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a contributing editor to The American Conservative.