After 10 weeks of taking flak from the supporters of his own father for endorsing Mitt Romney, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) received his reward last night: The ability to say these four paragraphs to an arena filled with the nation's most powerful Republicans:
Republicans and Democrats alike must slay their sacred cows. Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent, and Democrats must admit that domestic welfare and entitlements must be reformed.
Republicans and Democrats must replace fear with confidence, confidence that no terrorist, and no country, will ever conquer us if we remain steadfast to the principles of our Founding documents.
We have nothing to fear except our own unwillingness to defend what is naturally ours, our God-given rights. We have nothing to fear that should cause us to forget or relinquish our rights as free men and women.
To thrive we must believe in ourselves again, and we must never—never—trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security.
These sentiments are new and alien to the modern Republican Party, and would have been driven out of the RNC by a pitchfork-wielding mob as recently as 2004. They are shared by a small but growing portion of the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill. Rand Paul, who three days earlier gave a barnburning speech 11 miles away advocating an audit of the Pentagon and praising his father for popularizing the notion of foreign policy blowback, was now earning unabashed praise from quarters that never could stomach his dad.
So is Paul's political balancing act worth it? Do four carefully worded wind-spitting paragraphs indicate that the Republican Party is inching toward a less interventionist and less costly foreign policy?
Last night answered the second of those two questions, anyway: Oh hell no.
A few minutes after Rand Paul wrapped, the GOP's 2008 nominee, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), delivered a stern warning to not even think about cutting military spending.
"We can't afford another $500 billion in cuts in our defense budget on top of the nearly $500 billion in cuts that the president is already making," McCain said, inaccurately, before insisting that "the leader of the free world must stand with" revolutionaries in Iran and Syria, among other interventionist duties. "The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater. People don't want less of America, they want more," he said. "If America doesn't lead, our adversaries will and the world will go darker, poorer and much more dangerous."
It's hard to imagine a vision of foreign policy more antithetical to that of Rand Paul's father Ron, who was not given a speaking slot (he has not and probably will not endorse Romney), but was feted last night in a (politically) star-studded four-minute tribute video that — remarkably — did not once mention Dr. No's foundational critique of U.S. foreign policy.
Two hours later the respectful foreign policy admonitions of Rand Paul were all but washed away by the ovations greeting former George W. Bush national security adviser and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who made the case for renewing Bush-era American exceptionalism.
"I know […] there is a wariness," Rice said. "I know that it feels as if we have carried these burdens long enough. But we can only know that there is no choice, because one of two things will happen if we don't lead: Either no one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead and you cannot lead from behind."
The latter line, sourced from an anonymous Obama administration functionary in a May 2011 New Yorker article about U.S. diplomacy and the Arab Spring, has become the Republican anti-Obama foreign policy snark of choice. It also neatly encapsulates the empty-calorie chest-thumping that passes for mainstream GOP international theorizing.
America must lead from the front! OK, swell, but what's the limiting principle here? Is that checkbook bottomless? Are there potentially unpleasant consequences to pushing the scales on poor-country revolutions with the world's mightiest military? If other countries always look to Washington to take responsibility, will they ever begin to behave responsibly on their own? Does this unlimited vision of American power ever stop for a moment and reflect that power inevitably corrupts?
These questions remained as unaddressed last night as the two biggest legacies of Bush-era front-leading, America's never-ending and continuously deadly military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. As many fans of Rice's well-received speech last night noted, a talent for public speaking does not automatically translate into an aptitude for effective or even coherent management of foreign policy.
"We stand for free peoples and free markets. We will defend and support them," Rice said. Does that include those who seek freedom in dictatorships that America actively supports, like Saudi Arabia?
Lest there be any doubt where even the fiscal conservative wing of the mainstream GOP stands on foreign policy hawkery, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan sealed the evening's Rand Paul rout with yet another shout-out for American exceptionalism:
"In our dealings with other nations, a Romney-Ryan administration will speak with confidence and clarity," Ryan said. "Wherever men and women rise up for their own freedom, they will know that the American president is on their side. Instead of managing American decline, leaving allies to doubt us and adversaries to test us, we will act in the conviction that the United States is still the greatest force for peace and liberty that this world has ever known."
Two hours before Rand Paul's speech, a gathering of 100 or so people a few blocks away gave a more accurate indicator of where a Romney/Ryan administration might go with foreign policy. In it, Weekly Standard Editor and prominent neoconservative William Kristol conversed with senior Romney adviser and potential secretary of state Tim Pawlenty about how a Republican restoration might play out in the world. It took about 20 seconds after I entered the room before the conversation turned to making sure that "all options are on the table" with Iran.
"I believe it would be in our best interests to do everything that we can to make sure the Iranians believe that we are not bluffing," Pawlenty said, pointing to the freeing of U.S. hostages on the day of Ronald Reagan's inauguration as an example of changing Tehran's behavior through the demonstrated firmness of resolve. ("I don't think that was a coincidence," he said.)
At the end of the conversation, Kristol expressed gratitude that, even with the economy ailing and the country tired of war, Republicans have rejected the "Buchananite" and "Ron Paulite" temptation of "isolationist" and "protectionist" policies. "We've done our part to prevent that," he said, also giving nod to the anti-Tehran resolve of the GOP presidential field. "Ron Paul was the outlier."
There is no doubt that Kristol is right in the short term, as last night's proceedings attested. Republican foreign policy will be Bush/McCain foreign policy, campaigning on being more robustly interventionist than the war-starting/extending Barack Obama. So does that mean Rand Paul took a sucker's bet?
Not necessarily. Last night's speeches may have contained paeans to America's global policework, but the lines only really drew enthusiastic response when they praised troops or dinged Obama, not when they articulated more Bushism. The speakers avoided talking about the real-world applications of their philosophy, perhaps because those results are wildly (and deservedly) unpopular.
Like a minority Supreme Court opinion, Rand Paul is injecting a long-overdue counter-framework into the conversation, in the hopes that he can eventually rally a majority around his ideas. There is no doubt (in my mind, anyway) that Ron Paul intends his son to be his more-palatable political heir, and that Rand will be running for president in 2016, either as a radical course-change from Obama or as a dissident uprising against Romney. They are still playing the long game.
It's a thin consolation prize considering the wars and spending and surveillance and assassination to come over the next four years. But if and when America has its day of reckoning, when fiscal and imperial and monetary overstretch necessitate a sharp break from past policy, we'll be grateful that someone within shouting distance of power was laying out a radically different path.