In an interview with Reason.com yesterday, libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and a vocal critic of Barack Obama's and George W. Bush's foreign policy, clarified his support of limited American military intervention in Iraq.
While the beheadings of U.S. citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff are a factor, he says, Paul is especially insistent that protecting the U.S. consulate in Erbil, Iraq is a major cause for ongoing concern. Erbil is near Mosul, a city overrun by ISIS with relative ease, he says, and it's of paramount importance that the United States protect its diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
"If it was wrong not to protect the consulate in Benghazi, then it's wrong not to protect the consulate in Erbil," he says.
Paul has been an outspoken critic of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama adminstration for failing to provide effective defense of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In 2012, militants overran the consulate there and killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to the newly liberated country. In the past, Paul has gone so far as to say that Clinton's failure to take Benghazi's security situaton more seriously and her dismissive response to the investigation of the deaths of Amb. Chris Stevens and others should prevent her from holding office again.
"Being a non-interventionist doesn't mean that you never intervene" militarily, Paul tells Reason.com, explaining his support for military action against ISIS fighters in Iraq. Paul has been called an "isolationist" by members of his own party and Democrats while facing criticism from libertarians after calling for action against ISIS in the wake of the jihadist group's beheading of two American journalists.
In a widely read September 4, 2014 column for Time, Paul wrote, "I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily."
Paul repeatedly drew comparisons between the Libya and Iraq situations, saying that it would be "hypocritical" not to insist on effective defense of U.S. personnel in Iraq. "There's an argument to be made that they [diplomatic personnel] shouldn't be there," he says.
Paul has been widely accused of changing his positions on foreign policy and other issues. In the conversation with Reason.com, he emphasized that there are two key components to foreign policy discussions that he has always articulated and stands by.
First, he stresses that interventions must follow constitutional rules about warmaking, including explicit votes on authorization of the use of military force. "That rule is absolute," he says and must be followed in all situations (with exemptions for immediate response to direct or imminent attacks as discussed under the War Powers Resolution). He reiterated his opposition to unilateral decisions made by President Obama to deploy military power without securing congressional authorization.
Second, he says that defense policy should protect America's vital interests. But, he says, there are legitimate questions over what constitute vital interests.
"People will draw different lines," he says, which is "precisely why these things need to be discussed and voted on publicly in Congress." Some people might say that military action is only called for when the homeland is directly threatened or attacked, he notes, while others would make cases for the need to protect American ships, properties, embassies, and legitimate presences in foreign countries.
If the continuining resolution to fund the government past the midterm elections contains new funding for American military action in the Middle East, he says he will call for any supplemental funding to be broken out in a separate vote.
He remains adamant that the United States should not be militarily involved in Syria.
Last year, Sen. Paul was widely viewed as leading the successful opposition to President Obama's plan to intervene on behalf of opponents of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. He remains highly skeptical of the Syrian rebels and says he will give a "signifcant speech" against arming so-called moderates who are fighting the Assad regime.
"Basically, everything we give to the rebels ends up with ISIS," he says, and has the effect of propping up the Assad regime. Recent news reports of a truce between Syrian rebels and ISIS have been challenged, as have reports that moderates gave journalist Sotloff over to ISIS shortly before he was killed.
Paul stood by the comments he made in "Containment and Radical Islam," a February 2013 speech at the Heritage Foundation. That speech argues that a realist foreign policy is neither "imperliastic not isolationist" and seeks to engage the world through a variety of measures, including trade, cultural exchange, political pressure, and military action. In it, Paul called for a fuller understanding of Cold War theorist George F. Kennan's "containment" theory, which has often been reduced to simply confronting enemies via miltary action.
In yesterday's interview, he stressed that beyond forcing congressional action on any future actions in Iraq, it is imperative to understand that the fight in Iraq and the broader Middle East has to be conducted—and paid for—by the people in the region, including Iraqis, Turks, Qataris, Kuwaitis, and Saudis.