What Happened on Friday Afternoon That Banished Rand Paul's Doubts About War Against ISIS? [UPDATED]


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Last Friday, Rand Paul told the Associated Press that if he were president, he "would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily." Although that statement was widely interpreted as an endorsement of military action against ISIS, it seemed to me that the libertarian-leaning Kentucky senator might have been merely reiterating his view of what the president should do if he determines that ISIS is a threat to national security. But during an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News last night, Paul made it clear that he is ready to wage war on ISIS:

Hannity: We have ISIS saying, "We'll see you in New York. We're going to raise the flag of Islam in the White House." And now they have beheaded two Americans. Have they declared war on us?

Paul: Yeah, without question, they are a threat. And in the past, you know, Hillary Clinton has said ISIS is not a threat to the United States.

Hannity: Is that a declaration of war? In other words, the 9/11 Commission  report said, after 9/11, they were at war with us; we were at war with them. Has ISIS declared war against us through their actions?

Paul: Absolutely. And I think what we should do is come to the American people….If I had been president, I would have called a joint session of Congress this August, called everybody back from recess, and said, "This is why ISIS is a threat to the country. This is why I want to act, but I want to do it in a constitutional manner, and I want the entire American public to come together." To galvanize support and say, "You know, this is something we can't take. We're not gonna let our enemies behead our journalists. We're not gonna let them become strong enough to attack our embassy."

On Tuesday I asked, "Does Rand Paul think the beheading of American journalists justifies war against ISIS?" The answer, it seems, is yes. Since American journalists, students, businessmen, and diplomats live and work in nearly every country on Earth, this strikes me as a dangerously open-ended rationale for military intervention. Furthermore, the certainty that Paul now expresses about the threat posed by ISIS was not at all apparent at a Q&A session in Dallas last Friday. Here is what he said at that event, which was sponsored by the Republican Liberty Caucus:

I think the strategy has to be that you have an open debate in the country over whether or not ISIS is a threat to our national security. And it's not enough just to say they are. That's usually what you hear—you hear a conclusion. People say, "Well, it's a threat to our national security." That's a conclusion. The debate has to be: Are they a threat to our national security?

Just a few hours later, Paul made his statement to the Associated Press, which in light of his comments on Hannity signaled his support for a war that aims to "destroy ISIS militarily." At that point Paul, who earlier in the day had presented himself as undecided on the question of whether ISIS poses a threat that justifies war, was firmly convinced that it does. The sudden evaporation of Paul's doubts reeks of political desperation. As Hannity noted, Paul is eager to shed the "isolationist" label, and this is his opportunity.

To his credit, Paul insists that any military action against ISIS must be authorized by Congress, and he continues to highlight the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria (as he did on Hannity). Furthermore, his endorsement of war against ISIS may provoke an illuminating debate among libertarians and others who tend to be skeptical of foreign intervention about what counts as a threat to national security. But given his sudden conversion and the weakness of the reasons he has offered, it is hard to take Paul seriously on the subject.

Addendum: In a Time essay posted today, Paul cites, in addition to the safety of the American embassy in Iraq, "the plight of massacred Christians and Muslim minorities" as a justification for war against ISIS, which he describes as "a global threat." Now he is getting even further afield from something that could legitimately be described as a threat to U.S. national security. In Dallas last week, Paul ridiculed President Obama's justification for war in Libya, which hinged on the threat that Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces posed to the residents of Benghazi. Why is "the plight of massacred Christians and Muslim minorities" a more valid argument for attacking ISIS in Iraq? "A more realistic foreign policy," Paul wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, "would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe." Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the U.S. has to solve.