The Daily Beast reported earlier today that Sen. Rand Paul has flipflopped on his opposition to "boots on the ground" in the conflict against ISIS. The shock headline, from Olivia Nuzzi: "Rand Paul Declares War on ISIS—And Allows Boots on the Ground." Egads! Has the libertarian-leaning senator finally been unmasked as a secret neocon?
In a word, no. But it does seem like Paul's approach to the ISIS conflict has grown less restrained over time—and his latest plan deserves at least some of the criticism it has received.
Paul plans to introduce a resolution in the Senate next month that would declare war on ISIS. Nuzzi obtained a draft of the resolution, which states that ISIS has already declared war on the U.S. and is a threat to American embassies and consulates in the region.
It also authorizes the president to commit small numbers of American ground forces "as necessary for the protection or rescue of members of the United States Armed Forces or United States citizens from imminent danger [posed by ISIS]… for limited operations against high value targets," and "as necessary for advisory and intelligence gathering operations."
Nuzzi bills this as a contradiction of Paul's previous statements on the subject. In September, he said he didn't want American ground forces involved in the conflict, although he would be willing to provide logistical and intelligence support to U.S. allies in the region: "The people on the ground fighting these battles, going hand-to-hand with ISIS, need to be their fellow Arabs and those who, I think and hopefully do, represent civilized Islam," Paul said back then, according to The Daily Beast.
Paul's office told Nuzzi that there isn't really any substantive difference between the two positions:
Doug Stafford, a senior aide to Paul, said the senator has not flip-flopped: "He doesn't believe we should send a bunch of troops in to start a ground war. But he has always said we have an obligation to defend people in the region. The declaration is tailored to allow for this."
Stafford later added: "It has always been a given that American troops could be required to secure the people and property of our embassy and consulate. Senator Paul believes that boots on the ground beyond those limited number as outlined in the declaration should come from allies in the region, as he has previously stated."
Nuzzi, on the other hand, maintains that this is a big flip-flop. Via Twitter, she wrote: "Rand Paul in September: no boots on the ground. Rand Paul today: sure, boots on the ground!"
Let's look at the proposal again. It authorizes ground forces for three reasons:
1. "as necessary for the protection or rescue of members of the United States Armed Forces or United States citizens from imminent danger [posed by ISIS]"
2. "for limited operations against high value targets"
3. "as necessary for advisory and intelligence gathering operations"
Paul has always been clear on the fact that he thinks ISIS poses an evolving threat to the American embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil. And he was previously in support of advising regional allies. So to my mind, 1 and 3 aren't anything new. Paul might have had a reputation for opposing ground troops, but in reality, if you count defending the consulate and advising allies as "boots on the ground," then he was actually already in favor of that. That stance might be wrong, but it isn't a contradiction.
Situation 2, however, does strike me as quite different—and more problematic—than his initial stance. It's nice that it has the word "limited" in it, I suppose, but there is really nothing limiting about authorizing the use of ground troops for offensive military operations. And it's easy to see this rationale being used to justify all sorts of pro-active skirmishes with ISIS.
It's worth keeping in mind that this is just a draft of Paul's resolution. But if this version were approved by Congress, it would be difficult to say that it places any kind of meaningful restraint on the use of ground forces. I would have expected Paul to realize that this wasn't going to cut it, given the slippery-slope nature of American military adventurism.
Reason's Matt Welch interviewed Paul recently about his case for a limited war against ISIS. Read that article here.