Rand Paul, Foreign Policy, and Republican Delusions of Interventionist Grandeur

The GOP operative behind Swiftboat Veterans for Truth is gunning for the senator's scalp.


Over at Bloomberg View, Josh Rogin reports that even as Rand Paul was rolling out his presidential campaign (to mostly strong reviews, even by those who don't particularly like the guy), a GOP group dedicated to bigger and bigger defense budgets is trying to kneecap him:

The Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a 501(c)(4) group led by veteran Republican operative Rick Reed, will go live with its campaign against Paul on Tuesday, while the senator is in Louisville, Kentucky, announcing his presidential candidacy. The group will begin airing ads on broadcast TV, cable and the Web in several early primary states accusing Paul of being weak on Iran and tying him to the Barack Obama administration's Iran policy, which polls show is deeply unpopular among Republican voters.

"Paul supports more negotiations with Iran while standing against more sanctions that would hold the Iranian regime accountable. That's not a conservative position, that's Obama's position," Reed told me in an interview Monday. "His longstanding position on Iran and his agreement with Obama on Iran calls into question his judgment."

Reed is no piker when it comes to such attack campaigns—he was, writes Rogin, "the architect of the 2004 'Swiftboat Veterans for Truth' campaign that attacked John Kerry's national-security record and credentials." Whatever else you can say about it (and there's plenty), the Swiftboat stuff worked like a charm. The decorated war vet, Kerry, became the weak sister while the guy who managed to steer clear of fighting via the old National Guard dodge, Bush, became the embodiment of martial value.

Paul's changing posture toward national security and call for massively increased Defense spending is troubling to me and other libertarians. Here's hoping that attacks by Reed's group and other Republicans such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have castigated Paul for lacking sufficient bellicosity, will force the Kentucky senator to embrace his earlier, thoughtful foreign policy. His 2013 speech, "Islam and Containment," updated George Kennan's Cold War classic to modern times, when non-state actors are a major cause of regional and global destabilization. What that speech made clear is that it's a false choice to pick between massive, ongoing, and ill-executed interventions (see: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Iraq again, etc.) and total isolationism. What Paul was actually doing was proposing a foreign policy that included military options but also stressed economic and cultural engagment and diplomacy. That such a level-headed and eminently sensible plan was immediately attacked by hawks is a sign of their problems with reality, not Paul's. McCain might have called Paul a "wacko bird" for his stance on militarism and state surveillance, but it's clear that Paul is more tethered to the present and the future that Arizona's senior senator.

As David Catanese of US News notes,

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul cloaked himself in the same "peace through strength" concept 15 months before that, during an outline of his worldview before cadets at The Citadel.

It was a canny pre-emptive embrace of popular Republican rhetoric meant to mitigate concerns about his commitment to national defense and security. But at the same time, Paul likened some of the country's modern foreign forays to "an irrational offense," lamenting entanglements he sees as counterproductive to the national interest.

While there's no question that Paul has lately been more amenable to military intervention, his aides tell Catanese that he's calling neither for isolationism (indeed, he never was) nor a full-court neocon offense but rather "selective interventionism."

His task in the coming weeks will be to champion the revival of the "realist" position and convince Republicans to return to a humbler, more prudent approach to the world's hot spots. But his advisers are under no illusions about the complexity of the argument….

"He'll talk about the need to maintain a strong defense, the threat of Islamic extremism," [former U.S. Ambassador and Paul adviser Richard] Burt says. "But it's about smart intervention, not knee-jerk or mindless intervention. He wants the U.S. to be selective and to think through its intervention and make sure our vital interests are at stake."

Read more here.

As I've noted, I'm concerned about Paul's turns in foreign policy, but he hit most of the right notes today in announcing his run. I'm less interested in whether he gets far in the presidential sweepstakes than in whether he jumpstarts an urgently needed discussion about how the U.S. conducts itself abroad. The GOP is virtually completely in the grip of a strategy that has failed spectacularly in all of its major undertakings so far in the 21st century (and let's be clear: Obama, who has pursued many of the same general policies and betrayed a willingness to drone more and disclose less, is no genius at any of this either). The Democratic Party hasn't had any meaningful discussion either and certainly won't if Hillary Clinton is its nominee.

I'm not convinced that the GOP nomination, much less the general election in 2016, will turn on foreign policy matters. But win or lose, to the extent that Rand Paul alone is actually bringing something new and different to the table, all of us should be grateful.