Rand Paul's Strategic Slipperiness on Foreign Policy


As Senior Editor Jacob Sullum notes below, there has been a lot of chatter this week about the apparent flip-floppery, or at least slipperiness, of Sen. Rand Paul's ideas about what the United States should do to the Islamic State. (In addition to Sullum's strong critique, see Leon H. Wolf, Steve Benen, and the indefatigable Jennifer Rubin, as well as the senator himself.) 

To provide possible context to the current controversy, I wanted to underscore and detail a main takeaway I had when profiling the Kentucky senator for Newsmax last November (if any of you can find the article online, I'll post the link here). As I see it, the three key tactics in Paul's project of mainstreaming intervention-skepticism are: 1) remaining almost maddeningly slippery on specific defense/intervention questions; 2) seeking what I (though not he) would describe as cheap populist rhetoric aimed at making non-interventionism go down better among more hawkish conservatives; and 3) being sensitively attuned to popular opinion. Many of the periodic controversies over Paul's foreign policy stances, I think, derive from these three competing factors, mixed with his famously incautious tongue (particularly in the first hours after a big news event).

A main chunk of my assignment was to nail down the senator on foreign policy to the satisfaction of the more-belligerent-than-both-of-us Newsmax readership. As luck would have it, these conversations took place the week that the Obama administration was on the verge of bombing Syria, a foreign policy debate that Paul would soon widely be seen as winning. I figured an interesting litmus test of his interventionist principles would be whether he retroactively supported or opposed the first Gulf War. Watch him wiggle off that hook:

Q: Can you think of an intervention in your lifetime that if you were asked to vote on you would have voted yes? Like the Gulf War….

A: Well, I think the most recent would have been, you know, going into Afghanistan: I think we should have gone into Afghanistan. And I think if our country is attacked, I think that's definitely a red line, you know, that we shouldn't let anybody attack us and there should be significant repercussions. And the only thing I would have done differently with Afghanistan is I would have called a joint session of Congress, laid out, and I would have asked for a declaration of war.

And people say, "Oh, that's just semantics, use of Authorization of Force was still [valid]." And in some ways it is much better than the way we've been doing it. You know, under Obama we've gone into Libya, and I think he will go into Syria without any use of authorization of force, which is I think sort of the minimum that we should do. But I like the idea, and I think when you call it a declaration of war, you're using words—you know, "war," anyway—that comes from the Constitution.

Q: What about a Gulf War-type situation, where you had an aggressor on a state, and you were able to rally around international opinion [that] this is a principle that you don't want to see repeated in the world….

A: Right. I think that, you know, the sovereignty of national lines is potentially, you know, a red line. I think you should be reticent, and not real um—I mean, if you are president, you set different red lines. But I think there needs to be some discussion and forethought before you just start announcing what all your different red lines are. I think that's sort of the problem with use of chemical weapons [in Syria]. You know, the thing is, is they say whoever did this broke the Geneva Accords—yeah, killing civilians does too, and we see that all around the world all the time. Does that mean we intervene any time civilians are killed? So I think you have to be careful in how you set red lines.

I think that sovereignty of nations and national boundaries might be one, but then again, in the middle of Central Africa, whether or not the lines are blurred between Congo and Zaire, I don't know if that's necessarily a red line. So I don't think it's easy just to say, "OK, national boundaries should always be respected, anybody who ever crosses a national boundary has to be stopped." There have been times when people are crossing over national boundaries and taking over an entire continent, like Hitler, and I think Hitler deserved to be stopped, you know?

More slipperiness after the jump.

So, the least you'd expect from a politician named "Paul" is that he would be willing to cut military spending, right? Well, think again:

Q: What's your ideal military budget?

A: Yeah, I think that it's a mistake [to say], "Oh it should be X percentage of GDP," or "It should be X dollars." I don't know what it should be. I do know that we should have the strongest defense possible, that we should be able to deter attacks, we should have the most advanced weaponry, and that we shouldn't have weapons based on jobs programs. We shouldn't build a weapon just because it's built in one particular state or another. And so I think that it's unknown what it should be.

In a time of World War II, your percentage of GDP's going to be a lot higher. In a time of peace it should be less. But you still should maintain active and very significantly advanced technology. And maybe you can save some monies by having some smaller ground troops and things over time. But you have to pick and choose, you have to pick and choose which weapons systems. And so it's hard to tell you in one sentence exactly which ones I would choose. But I can tell you that we're forming a Defense Modernization Task Force to look at how you can do it within certain parameters. And even in defense there are parameters, there are limits on what you can spend.

But when you look at what is constitutionally authorized, defense is constitutionally authorized; it is a priority for federal government. It's one of the things that unless you're a minarchist or anarchist or whatever, and believe that we can have private armies, we're going to have national defense that is funded by all the different states together and all the people. And so I would see it always as a priority, and see that we have to save money by not doing things that weren't authorized by the Constitution in order to have enough money to do things for national defense.

It's also a disagreement that I've had with some other Republicans, is that they think sort of constitutional conservatives or libertarian Republicans are a danger to national defense. And I think it's the opposite. I think big-government Republicans are a danger to national defense, because they want to spend money on everything and defense. But you can't have enough money to defend the country if you spend it on everything else. If you're part of this gimme gimme culture, that you want to just, "Here, give me the federal money, I want it all now, I don't want any strings attached, I don't want any limits, gimme my money"—if you're part of that group of Republicans then there won't be enough left for national defense, and that's what will bankrupt us. And I do agree with Admiral Mullen and others who've said, our biggest threat to our national security now is our debt.

And as I wrote in my profile, the senator is constantly on the hunt for 80-20 issues, a strategy that has led to both pandering and political effectiveness:

Part of what differentiates Rand Paul from some of the anti-interventionists clustered around his father is that he observes a distinction between questioning administration claims and expressing belief in fanciful explanation of events. He may oppose U.S. attacks on nasty regimes, but he won't cheer  when rogues stand up to an imperious Uncle Sam.

Whether borne of a different temperament or forged from the necessity of having to win and defend statewide office rather than a gerrymandered red-state congressional district, Rand Paul, in sharp contrast to his father, seems always to be calculating how far he can safely push intervention-skepticism.

He also studies how best to sell his views in terms designed to persuade or at least neutralize his critics, particularly on the right.

By the day after our interview, Sen. Paul, [who had originally expressed heavy skepticism that Syria was gassing its own people], was writing at CNN.com that "In all likelihood the Assad regime has used chemical weapons to kill civilians," and concentrating his focus on an issue that enjoyed 79 percent support from the public: pressuring Obama to ask Congress for an authorization of force.

As political pundit George Will told me [and Nick Gillespie] in an interview for Reason.tv that day, "80-20 issues don't come along that often, and you want to be on the right side of those."

At least since fixing his eye on a 2016 run for president, Rand Paul has been on a quest for 80-20 issues, whether they involve mattters of life and death, or mere symbolism. […]

Paul regales reporters and potential donors alike with tales about the untapped political support for term limits ("when you see that Congress has a 10 percent approval rating, that means term limits has a 90 percent approval rating"), repatriating American capital investment abroad through incentives and then spending the proceeds on infrastructure and tax rebates and the national debt ("wildly popular"), and cutting foreign aid to "countries who burn our flag" ("75 to 80 percent if not more, depending on how you word the question").

So convinced is Paul on the foreign-aid issue that he's submitted a half-dozen targeted cuts on the Senate floor, much to the irritation of his colleagues. "It's the first time they've ever had to vote for foreign aid," he says, "and I make them vote for it as many times as I can."

When you point out that some of these issues are more popular than passable, he shoots back: "Popular's how you win elections. You want to run on popular issues."

Rand Paul also has a talent for finding the narrow 80-20 issue within a broader controversy that skews more like 50-50.

His surprisingly popular filibuster on drones this past March focused not on the president's actual usage of unmanned aerial weaponry against suspected foreign terrorists in countries like Yemen, but rather on the far more limited question of whether the executive branch asserts the right to drone citizens on American soil without warrant or probable cause.

Such micro-targeting attracts temporary allies to the tailored argument without forcing Paul's hand to declare where he truly stands on global drone policy. […]

All of which is to say Rand Paul may be calculating as well as compelling. But in three short years in Washington, his political instincts and maneuvering have helped him evolve from tea party upstart fighting a primary campaign against the hand-picked home-state senatorial selection of Senate Minority Mitch McConnell, to the man whose endorsement is critical [to McConnell's re-election].

Reason on Rand Paul here.