Rand Paul’s Reagan Library barbs about McCain’s photo-op with some jihadis inside the Syrian border may well be the best news for the GOP in years. For quite a long time, since well before the origins of The American Conservative in 2002 there has been an undercurrent of Republican skepticism about neoconservative foreign policy. It took diverse forms: essays and conversations among the realists who contributed to The National Interest, the regular contributions of the somewhat more isolationist scholars at Cato, the energy of Pat Buchanan’s campaigns. Most polls–save perhaps in the two years after 9/11, would have shown large minorities and sometimes majorities of Republicans skeptical about promiscuous foreign intervention. Yet these views were seldom forcefully represented on Capitol Hill, where they count the most. Most of the conservative media, and most Republicans in the House and Senate would speak about about foreign affairs as if they were reading talking points from the Weekly Standard. Ron Paul of course was an exception, but a distinct minority.

Yet now look at this clip of Rand Paul, speaking Saturday night at the Reagan Library. It’s not only the headline making understated jab at McCain, whom he politely leaves unnamed–the senator who meets with “vetted” kidnappers on the Syrian border. It’s the whole set piece, obviously prepared and well-prepared. Paul was asked what he sees as the top priorities for U.S. foreign policy. His reply in full (my unofficial transcript):

I think the top priority for the country, constitutionally, historically and appropriately, is defense of the country. That’s what we’re supposed to do in Washington. That being said Reagan’s motto was Peace Through Strength it wasn’t War Though Strength. There are some in our party who mistake war for defense. If you don’t believe in eternal and perpetual war doesn’t mean you are not for a strong national defense. This is an important distinction. There are some in our party who wanted to give arms to Gadaffi and then a year later wanted to give money to rebels to overturn Gadaffi. There’s a certain inconsistency there. I’m very worried about getting involved in a new war in Syria. People say Assad is such a bad guy. He is.  But on the other side we have Al Qaeda and Al Nusra. They say  there are some pro-Western people and they say we’re going to vet them. Apparently we got a senator over there who got his picture taken with some kidnappers so I don’t know how good a job we’re going to do vetting those who are going get the arms.

There are two ironies you have to overcome, if you want to get involved in the war in Syria. The first irony is you will be allied with Al Qaeda. The second irony is that most of the Christians are on the other side. So you may be arming Islamic rebels who may well be killing Christians. Does that make Assad a good person? No, I don’t think there are any good people in this war. There are some tragically innocent people who are caught in the middle. But but I just don’t know that arming one side is going to make the tragedy any less.

If you view the tape, you will hear substantial laughter (from this very mainstream Republican crowd) at the barb at McCain, and then warm and sustained applause at the end. Rand Paul seems to know his audience and the temperature of today’s GOP pretty well. I can’t improve on the statement itself, which is unerringly precise about why Assad is certainly no worse, and may be considerably better than the jihadi coalition opposing him. (Without even getting into the issue of whether American intervention might escalate unintentionally into a confrontation with Russia, which has a long-standing alliance with Syria and a perception of serious national interests there.) More importantly, there hasn’t been a Republican senator who has stood up publicly against neoconservative belligerency in something like a generation. Readers may recall I’ve made some scathing remarks about Rand Paul in the past. I don’t recant them. But to see the Kentucky senator combine a skillful political touch with some real foreign policy wisdom…it’s hard not to be impressed.