His trip to Israel and other Mid-East destinations could have been, as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) painted it to me in an interview last week, simply some due diligence fact finding on one of America's thorniest areas of foreign policy concerns for this newly minted member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
W. James Antle, who profiled Senate candidate Paul for us here at Reason back in 2010, provided what I think is the most perspicacious overall take on the meaning of the trip for American Conservative. Highlights:
"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…..
"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."
But to some in the old Ron Paul base, there are more important things than being a friend to Israel:
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.
Antle thinks such Pauliacs should check Rand's record:
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 Sen. Paul has to convince a GOP base that he's OK–something his dad largely failed to do–on foreign policy if he's to get national traction for these (mostly good) attitudes of his:
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.
By trying to walk the line between the Ron Paul hardcore and the GOP base, Antle notes in closing, Rand runs the risk of being lukewarm and spewed from all mouths.
Some random observations from hither and yon on Sen. Paul's trip:
*Business Insider's Grace Wyler tagged along, and notes how Paul can sell his Israel positions as both totally pro-America and totally pro-Israel:
On the question of settlements, for example, Paul's non-interventionist positions put him firmly in line with Israel hawks.
"If somebody asked me where to build in Israel, I would say it's none of my business," Paul told reporters in Israel. "What I think is wrong is for American politicians to come to Jerusalem and say 'You shouldn't be building in this neighborhood'…or for American politicians to come over and tell you that you need to give the Golan Heights back."
Extrapolating this argument to his position on foreign aid, Paul told his audiences in Israel that gradually cutting back assistance would reduce the pressure to fall in line with U.S. policy preferences.
"I don't think Israel should be dictated to," he said in Jerusalem. "But I also think that if [Israel] were less dependent on our aid, it would be less beholden. I don't think Israel needs to come on bended knee to ask if she can defend herself."
Paul avoided calling for an outright end to foreign aid to Israel, however, saying that the U.S. should first cut off funding for countries who "burn the American flag," including Egypt and Palestine.
*Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com is appalled by Sen. Paul's "none of my business" attitude toward the settlement issue:
Pretending not to grasp the significance of the settlements issue, or of the larger issue of Palestine and the two-state solution, simply will not do – not for an alleged "leader"of the libertarian wing of the GOP, and certainly not for a somewhat over-eager presidential candidate who flaunts his ambitions. Since Israel could not exist – let alone bomb, invade and subjugate its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors – without extensive US military and economic aid, it is viewed as America's regional proxy. This is what "the people in the region" know and Sen. Paul appears not to want to know.
*The always very, very pro-Israel Commentary is not mollified:
Paul's visit to the Jewish state was part of an effort to reposition himself as a friend of Israel, and there are some pro-Israel voices that seem inclined to take him at his word. There's a lot to like about his criticism of President Obama's attempts to dictate security policy to the Netanyahu government as well as the fact that he seems to be moving in the right direction on ties between the two countries. Yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone inclined to buy into the idea that he should be thought of as a reliable friend of Israel is acting like a very cheap date for the presidential wannabe. Rand Paul may not exactly be a chip off the old block when it comes to the expressions of hostility and willingness to demonize Israel. But his positions on aid and, even more importantly, on broader foreign policy concepts are still far away from anything that the pro-Israel community would recognize as acceptable.
Because he isn't calling for pre-emptive war with Iran, perhaps?
*Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post liked the Israel trip, but insists Paul also needs to be anti-Chuck Hagel.
*Paul also spent time in Jordan and met with King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
He's still trying to be to-the-right of his Party on spending and debt, and still anti-foreign aid, though now ready to openly prioritize cutting off aid to countries he perceives as hostile to America before Israel. And he's still undoubtedly running for president, and still seems like the best likely guy doing so.