Election 2016

Rand Paul and the GOP's Foreign Policy Civil War

If the freshly minted presidential candidate tries to stay on both sides too long, he could end up on neither.


Rand Paul

Sen. Rand Paul's entry today into the 2016 Republican presidential race signals a new front in the ongoing foreign policy civil war in the Republican Party. "Unlike the rest of the likely GOP presidential field, Paul is a die-hard true believer in scaling down America's involvement in conflicts around the world," writes Vox.com's Zack Beauchamp. "That pits him against the mainstream, hawks in the Republican party whose ideas are sure to dominate the campaign." Indeed, Paul has opposed U.S. intervention in the civil war in Libya, the surge in Afghanistan, and arming Syrian rebels to fight either Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or ISIS.

But Paul did propose a resolution last year to declare war on ISIS and send ground troops into Iraq, and supports arming Kurdish fighters against ISIS, even suggesting to Breitbart News that the U.S. literally redraw the map of the Middle East to create an independent Kurdistan. Neither positions were mentioned by Beauchamp in framing Paul as the non-interventionist in the foreign policy debate unfolding in the presidential race. Paul's "softened" stance on non-interventionism seems to be an effort to reach out to base Republican voters. Paul's engagement of radical Islamist violence is more complex than the rest of the field's "kill em all"-ish strategy, and acknowledges how interventions can "exacerbate" the problem.

In his announcement, Paul rejected the idea of nation-building as foreign policy, a position last espoused by a presidential nominee in 2000 when George W. Bush first ran for president. It's a post 9/11 version. Paul insists the enemy be "named" as radical Islam, but rejects the warrantless spying and other measures taken in the name of defense against it, saying he wouldn't "compromise your liberty for a false sense of security."

And some of Paul's positioning, as Beauchamp notes, is a fakeout, or nuanced. Paul's recent proposal to increase defense spending, for example, matched Sen. Marco Rubio's proposal except, unlike Rubio's, included spending cuts elsewhere to compensate, forcing the budgetary issue. Rubio is one of any number of Republican presidential aspirants not named Paul who will stake their foreign policy positions not to the right of where Paul's are, but to the right of where they perceive them to be.

Last month Paul was one of 47 Republican senators to sign an "open letter" to Iran, a "bullshit process story" for which he was excoriated by some antiwar libertarians.  He also became a co-sponsor of Sen. Bob Corker's Iran review legislation, along with nine Democrats and 11 other Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey Graham. Is the shift paying off? In an interview this weekend, Graham, another one of the legion of interventionist Republicans positioning themselves to run for president, said Obama was doing such a poor job negotiating with Iran that any Republican, except Rand Paul, and even Hillary Clinton would do a better job. When Paul buys into the narrative that Obama is "weak" for negotiating with Iran, like he did in his announcement even as he reaffirmed support for negotiating the issue, he's hurting the chances of negotiations and the clarity of his message.

Paul's shifts toward Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy seem to be driving away the kind of supporters probably no other mainstream candidate could attract while at the same time being ignored by the Republican establishment, which continues to try to frame him not just as a non-interventionist but as a dangerous isolationist who would continue Obama's "weak" foreign policy. It's a spin masterpiece. Those who'd want to continue the Bush-Obama foreign policy, on steroids, are trying to hoist the Obama mantle on the one candidate who might not. And insofar as Paul appears to keep lurching to the right and distancing himself from previous positions, he's letting them.