Rand Paul

Toward a Libertarian Foreign Policy

Rand Paul moves the ball on a long-overdue project


In October 2010, one month before a historic wave of Tea Party Republicans swept into power, Washington's conservative establishment banded together to spread an urgent message to any would-be budget cutters on or near Capitol Hill: Hands off the military, kids.

The $80 million Heritage Foundation, the $30 million American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and the $2 million Foreign Policy Initiative—neoconservative titan William Kristol's latest outfit (partial motto: "strategic overreach is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution")—combined forces that month to produce a document titled "Defending Defense: Setting the Record Straight on U.S. Military Spending Requirements." In it, the establishmentarians lamented "two decades of underfunding the military," celebrated the "bipartisan consensus" about "America's global leadership role," and cautioned deficit hawks that "defense is not the source of the federal government's fiscal woes."

Kristol, AEI President Arthur Brooks, and Heritage President Ed Feulner underlined their message in a Wall Street Journal essay, arguing that "anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform." The lead editorial in the next issue of Kristol's Weekly Standard warned incoming House Republicans to avoid a "myopic focus on government spending." James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at Heritage, predicted in The Daily Caller that the Tea Party's hawkish faction would win out over its foreign policy "libertarians." Referring to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a two-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), a longtime critic of bloated military budgets, Carafano explained that "the Barney Frank–Ron Paul project that calls for slashing Pentagon spending is close to a Looney-Tune alliance."

You can see why the old guard was getting defensive about defense. Many of the new breed—including Sens. Mike Lee (Utah), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), and Rand Paul (Ky.), Ron Paul's son—came to prominence only after vanquishing establishment-favored Republican moderates in primary elections, often in campaigns that focused explicitly on cutting, as opposed to limiting the growth of, government spending. And some—especially Paul and Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.)—bucked recent conservative orthodoxy by talking openly of cutting military spending, restraining the executive branch's ability to prosecute war, restoring the civil liberties lost since 9/11, and rethinking America's vast commitments abroad. "The Tea Party," Rand Paul claimed in his post-election book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, "is now a threat to the old Republican guard precisely because its stated principles prevent it from being brought into the neoconservative fold."

Neocons initially treated Rand Paul like a double agent. "On foreign policy, GWOT [Global War on Terror], Gitmo, Afghanistan, Rand Paul is NOT one of us," former Dick Cheney aide Cesar Conda wrote in a March 2010 email message to many people affiliated with the Foreign Policy Initiative, including directors William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Dan Senor. "It is our hope that you can help us get the word out about Rand Paul's troubling and dangerous views on foreign policy."

But since then Paul has engaged in a remarkably successful campaign to woo Republican hawks just enough to earn his comparatively radical foreign policy a respectful hearing from people who wouldn't give his father the time of day. As a result, libertarian ideas about reducing America's vast global footprint are no longer on the margins of the GOP debate: they're being championed by a respected senator who is considered a credible candidate for the party's next presidential nominee.

At the 2012 Republican National Convention, where his father was not invited to speak, Paul was offered a prime-time podium slot, during which he insisted that "not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent," and that "we must never—never—trade our liberty for any fleeting promise of security." Such words would have been unthinkable at a Republican convention as recently as 2008.

An old foe, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), became one of Paul's best Senate pals, hiring former Ron Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton to run his re-election campaign. Paul partnered with uber-hawk Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on entitlement reform and has even joined old warhorse John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Even though Paul endorsed Mitt Romney for president in June 2012 (thus earning a fair amount of enmity from his father's supporters), he did not hesitate to criticize the GOP standard bearer over military affairs. "Defense and war spending has grown 137 percent since 2001," he wrote at CNN.com in October, responding to Romney's biggest foreign policy speech of the campaign. "That kind of growth is not sustainable."

Since Romney lost and Ron Paul retired from Congress, Sen. Paul has been running for president in all but name. When Breitbart News asked him a hypothetical question in January about what "President Paul" might do, he interrupted and said, "I like the ring of that." When I participated in a phone conference with him in February, he declared: "I do want to be part of the national debate and the international debate." 

That last project may be the most intriguing. Ron Paul vaulted to prominence and jump-started a political movement by lobbing rhetorical bombs against war from the foreign policy margins, then watching as the bipartisan consensus recoiled in horror and a new coalition of fed-up anti-war voters came out of the woodwork. The single most frequent question longtime Republicans would ask about Dr. No was one that showed they fundamentally did not understand either him or his appeal: Couldn't he, you know, just tone down the blowback rhetoric a bit?

That's where Rand Paul comes in, to the occasional chagrin of Ron Paul's fan base. While Sen. Paul has fought to de-authorize the War on Terror and explicitly delink sanctions from war as a response to Iran's nuclear ambitions, he also voted yes on the sanctions. While he repeated Ron Paul's position about ending foreign aid to Israel, he has prioritized ending foreign aid and military sales to Israel's enemies first and even declared in January that an attack on the Jewish state should be treated as an attack on the United States. In a major foreign policy address in February, he made clear he was not a carbon copy of his father. "There are definite differences," he declared.

Paul's speech, in which he advocated a George Kennan?style "containment" to cope with "radical Islam" and stressed the constitutional separation of war powers between Congress and the president, was not the kind of anti-imperialist critique that audiences have come to expect from Ron Paul. He framed it as an attempt to seek a third way between "isolationism" and constant intervention. But his vision of a smaller overseas commitment and greater skepticism about American omniscience, however vague, represents one of the most radical foreign policy rethinks the Senate has seen in decades.

Just as significant as Paul's words was where they were spoken: the very Heritage Foundation that was firing warning shots across the Tea Party's bow 27 months before, now headed by Paul's good friend and former Senate ally, Jim DeMint. Even the Foreign Policy Initiative's Robert Kagan, while critical of Paul's speech, declared that "people who care about U.S. foreign policy should be grateful for Rand Paul."

As this issue was going to the printer, House Republicans surprised many observers by vowing to let automatic spending cuts, including an estimated $55 billion hit to the military budget, take place as scheduled on March 1. The establishment foreign policy consensus may be changing at long last, thanks in part to the most anti-establishment member of the 2010 congressional class.

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  1. “The establishment foreign policy consensus may be changing at long last, thanks in part to the most anti-establishment member of the 2010 congressional class.”

    I am going to see a whole lot of proof of that (the change, that is) before I get my hopes up.

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      1. I may be a newcomer to this internet thingy, but last I checked, one doesn’t “read” websites like YouTube…

  2. It’s heartening, the reaction to Paul’s filibuster. Would be even nicer if it has legs. We’ll see.

    1. Even NPR noticed it… grudgingly…

      1. See, that’s what limited government promoters have to do–overwhelm the status quo. And, for a moment, Paul did that.

        It’s telling how much he lit a fire under the various political commentators–the radio guys are still talking about it.

        1. the radio guys are still talking about it.

          You had to light the Shrike beacon, didn’t you?

          1. I find it interesting, because I think they sense the political opportunity here. Pretty rare that a libertarian message gets this kind of treatment.

      2. Everything I saw in the uber-liberal media after the ‘buster was completely grudging, if not overtly envious (that a *gasp*Republican*gasp* said all the things they have been wanting to say but never had the balls to actual stand up for something).

        It has been pretty high-larious watching all the twisting & contorting going on around this thing.

        1. Don’t worry, they’ll go right back to their TEAM narrative without thinking about it at all.

          1. Epi…our little ray of sunshine.

              1. *Coffee coming out nose*

    2. Going over to the The Daily Beast is always a learning experience.

      Did you know that Obama and Holder are really champions of transperency – but the nasty bureaucrats are tying down our heroes.

      “It’s clear that the president and the attorney general both want more transparency,” says Matthew Miller, a former senior Justice Department official. “But the bureaucracy has once again thrown sand in the gears and slowed that down.”


      1. Jeebus – this…erp. Speechless.

    3. The conservative support for Rand Paul’s filibuster has more to do with embarrassing Obama than with defending our human rights, methinks.

      1. Thanks for that blinding flash of the obvious.

      2. Embarrassing Obama was a tasty bit of frosting on top of the cake but it wasn’t the cake itself. Many of us really do want to see government reined in, regardless of the party in power.

        (That McCain and Graham are absolutely verklempt is the cherry on top of the whip cream on top of the fudge on top of the frosting on top of the cake)

        1. I’m so hungry now.

    4. It won’t if O-bomb-ya has anything to say about it.

      1. “O-bomb-ya”

        -love it!

  3. Limbaugh and Hannity both called him a legitimate potential candidate.

    Yes, I occasionally listen and I am ashamed.

    1. This is the good thing that happens when a candidate like Romney loses. It makes Republicans reorient their priorities. Imagine someone like Limbaugh or Hannity becoming a standard-bearer for civil liberties and a less aggressive and intrusive foreign policy.

    2. “a legitimate potential candidate”

      Don’t know about Limbaugh, but I’d bet that Hannity would drop him in a New York minute for the first establishment TEAM RED figure that threw their hat in the ring. Isn’t he really a pure TEAM guy?

      1. Isn’t he really a pure TEAM guy?

        Yeah, they both are, but I think they may be starting to read the writing on the wall.

      2. I think they’ve dug their heels in so much with their hawkish stance, it’s hard for them to admit their mistake and walk back from that. It really surprised me that they didn’t take McCain’s side on this and backed Rand. Maybe they’re starting to realize that they’ve been backing a losing stance.

        Rush has his good days and bad days. He’ll at least attack the Republican establishment during the primary, but once it becomes Team Red vs. Team Blue, all bets are off. All of the sudden, everything that Romney advocates is holy and righteous.

        1. OTOH, let’s say Rand Paul gets the nomination. You can bet talk radio will get behind him vs. whatever sleazebag the Democrats nominate.

          1. Yeah. The problem is that historically, they’ve done everything in their power to prevent someone like Rand Paul from getting the nomination. Hopefully Francisco’s right and they’re starting to read the writing on the wall. Usually, they end up missing the boat though.

      3. Re: LTC(ret) John,

        Isn’t he [Hannity] really a pure TEAM guy?

        No, no, no! You have it all wrong, LTC John! No, he’s a registered conservative, so he can’t be a Team Red shill! He said it so himself, many times! Many times!

    3. Frankly, I cannot stand to listen to Hannity – his voice comes on, I shut off the radio/TV or change the channel. He’s a fucking talking point gone mad, and a bad one at that.

      Rush Limbaugh? I still find him funny as hell. No guilt from me – I take if for what it is. I listen most days. Somebody else doesn’t like it? Don’t listen. Suck it, MSNBC’ers!

      1. I really don’t like how Hannity treats his callers. He browbeats them, talks over them, never gives them opportunity to explain their positions. Generally an asshole.

        1. I also think Hannity displays very little understanding of most issues, and thus has to cover up his lack of depth with the aforementioned bombast.

          1. Bingo.

            Rush is smart, but prone to cheerleading. Hannity is the voice of the McCain wing of the Republican party. Levin is just angry, always so angry!

            1. and Savage is just engaged in one of the most brilliant displays of performance art in the history of the medium.

              1. I like Michael Garibaldi er Jerry Doyle.

  4. 1) In a major foreign policy address in February

    Please, can we stop with the “major” talking point? It was an address to clarify Rand’s positions on specific foreign policy positions versus his father’s, as you note. An “address”. “Major” comes…later.

    2) “The establishment foreign policy consensus may be changing at long last”….KEEP HOPE ALIVE!

    1. “The establishment foreign policy consensus may be changing at long last”

      I guess there hasn’t been a major crisis lately.

      This seems a lot like when we thought gun control was no longer an issue–it seemed like that right up until the last time somebody went postal. Give us another foreign policy crisis, and the libertarian solution will quickly seem like “doing nothing” again–to everybody in the establishment (everyone except libertarians).

      1. Although, passing more gun control in response to Sandy Hook has been failing all over the place. A few hardcore anti-gun areas (I think New York and New Jersey) are passing more restrictions but an even greater number of places went in the opposite direction of loosening rules.

        In Chicago, the gun grabbers are as deranged as ever. All the same, t-minus 3 months to concealed carry in IL.

        1. passing more gun control in response to Sandy Hook has been failing all over the place

          You’d like to think that. And to think, CO used to be such a nice place before the cancer that is the People’s Republic of Boulder spread.

            1. But remember: there’s no double standard for LEOs accused of a crime. Nosiree, none at all. Why, anyone who plead guilty to trading meth for sex, and who may have had sex with underage boys would 30 days in jail, 2 years probation, and an $1100 fine. Right?

          1. Correction/ update: This article makes it sound like the liability law discussed in the previous article didn’t get out of the Senate. Also the magazine limitation may not have enough Dems willing to tank their re-election chances to pass either. Plus this article provides a slightly better summary of the various measures under consideration. So maybe we haven’t gone full retard quite yet.

            1. Yup.

              They’re proposing absolutely preposterous shit all over the place. IL proposed to ban all weapons made after 1860 effectively. But none of that shit is gonna pass, they know it won’t, and it there is a good chance it would be ruled unconstitutional if it did pass.

              Really goofy shit getting proposed and put out in committee and whatnot. Outside of New England and California though none of it looks likely to actually pass.

              Like I said – Chicago is as deranged as ever in wanting to ban all guns. But just the same, they got until June 10th to get their heads out of their asses and compromise on shall issue, before we default to Constitutional Carry. And we will be state #50 to issue.

              And already the ball is moving toward suing may-issue states, some suits happening now in MA.

              Plus all the gun-grabbing talk just creates more terrorists gun owners.

    2. The consensus isn’t changing. They’re just giving Rand Paul a little more respect than they gave his father, because:

      A) he’s a Senator
      B) he takes pains not to offend their sensibilities
      C) they realize offending the Paulites was a bad strategy

      They’re still not changing their foreign policy, or their military budget, and they won’t back Rand Paul in the primaries. They’ll say they like his economic policies, but his foreign policy is “dangerous”.

  5. “libertarian ideas about reducing America’s vast global footprint are no longer on the margins of the GOP debate: they’re being championed by a respected senator who is considered a credible candidate for the party’s next presidential nominee.”

    I’ll believe the GOP is willing to embrace Paul’s foreign policy ideas when I see it actually happen.

    1. Yeah, me, too. Exactly this.

    2. I don’t think it would have happened without Rand Paul. Guys like Rubio wouldn’t have cared about due process rights on his own. But somehow they figured it was a popular position and went that way.

      1. It was an amazing move in a number of ways. From a pure strategic perspective, he was leading by example. So, GOP, you want to reinvent yourself without abandoning some core principles?

        This is how you do it.

        Brilliant! If you want to lead, what amounts to a leaderless movement right now, into the libertarian promised land? That’s the way to start herding all those cats in the right direction.

    3. I’ll admit to sharing your skepticism. But I’ll say this much: Rand Paul knew he would be able to galvanize GOP support merely because he was sticking it to Obama. I think he’s playing the long game here and hoping to build a sizable constituency within the GOP for a more sane foreign policy. He started early in Obama’s second term, thus giving it four years for that constituency to build and become a force that may force the GOP to change its policy four years hence.

      1. I think he’s setting himself up for a presidential run.

        I think he has a chance of winning the nomination if the GOP establishment becomes convinced that they can’t win with an establishment candidate.

        The Democrats, it should be said, came to that conclusion when Obama was running the first time. They backed Obama over Hillary because he had come out against the Iraq War at the time, but Hillary supported it. When the Democrats needed someone who’d gone against the establishment to win, they backed a candidate that had gone against the Democrat establishment.

        The Republicans could do likewise. They should do likewise. I don’t think swing voters are about to break for an establishment Republican candidate any time soon. It may take another drubbing for the Republican establishment to get that through their thick skulls, but if they can figure it out soon enough, then Rand Paul has a chance.

        He’s making a really good case for himself as being a viable leader on the issues–and he’s positioned himself well vis-a-vis Christian conservatives, et. al. in the GOP that make the donations and vote in the primaries, too.

        1. I think the Republican establishment would be much more satisfied for a Hillary presidency than a Paul one. The defense sector would likely still grow under her leadership, but with Paul, it will get a haircut.

          They’ll put a loser up there for Hillary and will secure a bigger budget for defense out of it.

          1. +1 – The Establishment cares not which TEAM is in charge, as long as money is continually shoveled in their direction.

    4. The Israel move–calling for an end to its enemies’ aid before shutting off the pro-Israel fount– is pretty smooth for this, though. If he shows that he can play some kind of ball that would hurt the dictators in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, etc., using a definite non-military plan instead of the usual McCain blather, I bet a few of the aimless Cold Warriors would give him a nod.

  6. PS Another excellent visit on the #RedEye a few days back, Matt. You bring a good vibe to that show. Always enjoy your appearances.

  7. Small Quibble:

    Pat Toomey didn’t win his seat by beating an “establishment candidate” in the primary.

    Arlen Specter had already switched parties and lost his Democrat Primary to Joe Sestak, who Toomey later defeated in the general election.

  8. I must admit I am suppressing the urge to get excited. For so many years now I have been frustrated because what I think is important, namely our core founding principles, is avoided or ignored. If what Paul did has been done before in my lifetime I am unaware of it.

    I am going to watch cautiously. If he turns out to be the real thing I will definitely put my back into supporting him. I suspect that will mean opposing the GOP establishment, and that is fine. No one deserves a stick in the eye more.

    1. It’s gonna be Christie for team blue lite in 2016. Vote for FatBoy in 16!, he’s fatter than Hillary, but not as FUGLY! And did you see the love fest between him and dear leader, after Sandy? Why it’s proof positive that we’re moving to the center, we’re all about bi-partisan, we’re almost exactly like them! So vote for us!

      1. I don’t think I can stand an entire campaign season of media hacks not directly attacking Christie’s weight, but “just asking the question” if his weight is going to impair his health and therefor his ability to govern.

        Also best estimates put him necks and necks with Taft for BMI

      2. Even the readership at National Review Online isn’t looking for a CC nomination. Of the 15,000 people who took their on-site poll about “whether Chris Christie is a conservative,” 85% said no dice. Unfortunately, they still got 23% of the gang to say Jeb Bush should run. Yikes.

  9. Let me just say it’s a shame the Viet Cong didn’t rid us of John McCain when they had the chance, and I look forward to the inevitable gay scandal that brings down Linsdey Graham

    OT: Just curious – how does Reason choose what foreign policy articles to run/post? There have been serious allegations of CIA/Special Ops death squads in Afghanistan in the past few weeks, and Karzai has recently accused the U.S. and Taliban of cooperating (less plausible, but still newsworthy). Why no mention?

    1. Let me just say it’s a shame the Viet Cong didn’t rid us of John McCain when they had the chance

      I am somewhat ashamed to admit I have had the same thoughts recently…

      Ah well. It’s only thoughts…

      1. You should say it loud and proud, no shame. The man is a monstrous piece of shit – a borderline traitor.

  10. The GOP is behind Rand Paul because it is convenient to be so at the moment. If he decides to run, all it will take is one attack during the primary for SoCon TEAM RED candidates to blame the attack on Rand Paul’s “head-in-the-sand” foreign policy, nevermind the fact that the policy in effect is about as far from Paulish as you can get.

    And with a compliant media*, they’ll use it to marginalize his campaign.

    *The media have got to be shit-scared of a Rand Paul candidacy. Barring a true scandal, he’ll wipe the floor with and hawkish Team Blue moron and their dream of a socialist/cronyist paradise will be put back at least 4 years. And since they care more about Team than actual policy, you can bet they’ll be a lot harder on him than his primary opponents. These people know how to play the long game.

  11. …just enough to earn his comparatively radical foreign policy a respectful hearing from people who wouldn’t give his father the time of day.

    Except, strictly speaking, there’s nothing particularly radical about this foreign policy framework. Really, foreign policy realism (which is pretty clearly what Paul is advocating) is about as opposite as you can get from radical. The alternatives of neoconservatism or strict non-interventionism do a lot more to define the policy extremes.

  12. War is good for business. The GOP establishment is not going to give that up.

    1. Exactly. The politicians are only one aspect of this, and arguably not the most important one. Arms manufacturers, the Israeli lobby, military contractors, etc. don’t want any substantive change in policy, and they have cash at their disposal. Money talks

  13. There seems to be this prevailing idea that the Republican establishment and voter base are as synonymous as the Democrat establishment and base. I think Rand Paul has tremendous potential among Republican VOTERS. If the establishment can get their heads out of their asses, they’ll see that Paul has a much better chance than the usual bland offerings that conservatives vote for due to them being the perceived lesser evil.

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  15. What do the Pauls have to do with it? Rand Paul denies he’s a Libertarian.

    Looks like the actual Libertarians are way ahead these guys spreading Libertarianism and democracy around the world and making ‘government foreign policy’ irrelevant: http://www.libertarianinternational.org and http://www.isil.org

    1. LOL. You can claim to be spreading libertarianism…but that doesn’t mean you actually are.

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  18. Yeah the idea that the Republican’ts will pull their heads out by 2016 is pretty far-fetched. Last election, to try to beat a statist who implemented universal healthcare with an individual mandate, they decided to field a statist who implemented universal healthcare with an individual mandate.
    They threw away their biggest advantage, and then were shocked, shocked!, when they lost. I hope the Paulster and his buddies can reshape the party, but if it happens I think it will take a lot longer than the 3 yrs left until the next presidential election. They have to take control of the party first, and the old guard has to die off.
    And that still doesn’t address the Cult of Mars. The military-industrial complex may just be in it for the money/power, but a very sizable majority of the Republican’t base are true believers, willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of nationalism supporting the troops.

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  22. James Jay Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy

  23. is not the problem and retrenchment is not the solution

  24. Record Straight on U.S. Military Spending Requirements

  25. was getting defensive about defense. Many of the new breed

  26. and Heritage President Ed Feulner underlined thei

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