Rand Paul's Strategic Ambiguity

An unusual foreign policy stance has unusual political perils.


Rand Paul is campaigning for president as a different kind of Republican. Since entering the U.S. Senate in 2011, he has staked out unorthodox positions on foreign policy and civil liberties, rejecting what he and many of his fans see as recklessly interventionist militarism. The GOP brand, he wrote in his 2011 book The Tea Party Goes to Washington, has become "tainted by neoconservative ideology."

But in the run-up to the Kentucky senator's April 7 announcement that he was officially running for president, Paul engaged in a series of rhetorical and parliamentary maneuvers that left many anti-interventionists openly worried about a politically inspired foreign policy drift.

On March 9, Paul signed a controversial open letter to Iran's leaders by hawkish Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) that was widely seen as an attempt to undermine the Obama administration's efforts to reach a peaceful settlement on nuclear production and economic sanctions. On March 25, he proposed a budget amendment to increase military spending by $190 billion over just the next two years, a jarring idea from someone who has previously backed significant defense cuts and an audit of the Pentagon.

And in his announcement speech itself, Paul devoted less energy to his critique of nation-building than to a fire-breathing assertion that American prosperity and freedom "can only be achieved if we defend against enemies who are dead set on attacking us…The enemy is radical Islam. You can't get around it…I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind. We need a national defense robust enough to defend against all attack, modern enough to deter all enemies, and nimble enough to defend our vital interests."

Ron and Rand Paul
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Some Paul supporters were alarmed. Daniel Larison of The American Conservative, long an admirer, lamented in March that "it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish him from the rest of his party on the issues that were supposed to set him apart, and so he is bound to receive less support as long as that is the case." The firebrand Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com, who has previously defended Paul against libertarian criticism, complained in an April Los Angeles Times op-ed that "For the life of me, I can't figure out what he really believes-where he really stands, especially when it comes to foreign policy." Even at Rare, a Paul-friendly news and commentary site where former Paul aide Jack Hunter is politics editor, a headline called the Cotton letter signing "a step too far."

The Paul campaign had ready responses to the specific critiques. The Cotton letter, it said, was merely a useful reminder to the president that he can't unilaterally make vital foreign policy decisions due to the constitutional separation of powers Paul has long championed. The $190 billion military spending amendment, explained senior Paul campaign staffer Doug Stafford, was matched to a similarly priced amendment by presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.)—only Paul's, unlike Rubio's, came with matching spending cuts of the same amount. "This amendment is to lay down a marker that if you believe we need more funding for national defense, you should show how you would pay for it," Stafford wrote in a statement to the press about the amendment. "We can't just keep borrowing more money from China to send to Pakistan. And we can't keep paying for even vital things like national defense on a credit card."

Anti-interventionist skeptics might not be mollified by such talk of subtle gamesmanship, especially in the absence (as of press time) of Paul's actual proposed number for next year's military spending. Many remain puzzled by his support, announced last fall, for limited air strikes against ISIS. (The senator says they are necessary to protect U.S. diplomatic missions overseas.)

Once he was in direct competition with other Republicans on the campaign trail, however, candidate Paul again showed signs of anti-interventionist foreign policy gumption. At a New Hampshire GOP meeting later in April, the senator thundered about how "the other Republicans will criticize the president and Hillary Clinton for their foreign policy, but they would just have done the same thing-just 10 times over…There's a group of folks in our party who would have troops in six countries right now, maybe more."

In a late April fundraising letter, Paul tried to rally his own core supporters by complaining that "many in our party—including many announced and rumored Presidential candidates—would double down on the failures of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of reckless engagement. Will you stand with me as I fight back against the irresponsible policy of wild foreign intervention?"

Many of Paul's once and future supporters would like to stand with Rand. But it still seems to be an open question exactly what kind of foreign policy, and what specific interventions, a President Paul might pursue. And that may well be exactly the way he and his campaign want it.

'That's Not Flip-Flopping'

Not all Paul fans are troubled by Rand's perceived changes of heart.

Greg Jent is a veteran Tea Party activist from Bowling Green, Kentucky, who has supported both Rand and his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, over the years. Jent says he wasn't surprised by any of Rand's recent foreign policy positions because he spent some time with the Bowling Green–based ophthalmologist before he formally announced his candidacy for Senate in 2010. "We had lunch together at a local restaurant," Jent recalls. "And I got the opportunity to ask, 'Hey, I'm a Ron Paul guy from way back…Where are you different from your dad?'

"From that conversation, the first thing he said was that [he's] a little more hawkish than his dad is perceived [to be]. From my standpoint none of his current rhetoric is surprising. [Libertarians] call him 'sellout' or what have you. But I expected him to be more hawkish, because he told me he was."

Others in the senator's foreign policy orbit also tell me Rand Paul hasn't changed substantially, at least since he started speaking for himself instead of campaigning for his father. His more-hawkish-than-Ron nature has just gotten more attention as the younger Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became first a national figure and now a man vying to lead the GOP.

Paul's goal, he and his advisers insist, is to lead his party somewhere genuinely new, not to jump on the existing interventionist bandwagon. He wants to reform the GOP's foreign policy inclinations, to walk a path somewhere between the extremes. On one side is the "troops are for the homeland only" mentality, often called "isolationist" by its opponents. On the other is the "the world is full of crazed menaces who need to be taken out with military force" mentality, often called "neoconservative" by its critics. Paul's bet is that he can eschew both in favor of something better.

A presidential candidate with a Ron Paul-esque tendency to stress America's complicity in international crimes—who appears to take our so-called adversaries' point of view—risks alienating voters. It's much easier to sell the public on someone willing to say, as Rand Paul does, that when armed thugs behead Americans overseas, no matter the reason for their rancor, the U.S. needs to respond.

But Sen. Paul's foreign policy advisers and those who know him well deny political expediency is at play. Ryan Hogan, who worked both for Paul's Senate campaign and in the field for his senatorial office in Kentucky until September 2013, says Paul's tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he was privy to classified briefings, means he undoubtedly knows more about the world now than he once did. "When you gain new knowledge, that should change your opinions," Hogan says. "That's not flip-flopping. I do believe Rand still has a fundamental belief that less is better" when it comes to foreign intervention.

Paul's first major effort to define his foreign policy was a February 2013 speech at the Heritage Foundation, during which he attempted to place his foreign policy in the tradition of the Founding Fathers and Ronald Reagan. His ideas were neither neoconservative nor isolationist, Paul insisted. Instead, he was a "conservative realist"—someone who took seriously the distinction between "vital and peripheral interests," seeing only the former as worth going to war over. The vital vs. peripheral dichotomy was borrowed from the famous Cold War diplomat George Kennan, a man best known for advocating the principle that international opponents should be contained rather than merely fought.

Paul put distance between himself and his father by acknowledging that the U.S. is engaged in a "long, irregular confrontation" with radical Islam. He tipped his hat to the idea that our interventions in the Middle East can and do breed more enemies, saying: "Some libertarians argue that Western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam—I agree." Still, he insisted, the fact that past interventions contributed to our current problems doesn't mean we should rule out present interventions aimed at addressing new threats. And in a follow-up call with reporters, he said explicitly that the speech was intended in part to provide "separation" from the foreign policy views of his father.

Paul delivered a second, more polished speech defining "conservative realism" to the Center for the National Interest in October 2014. More than one of his foreign policy advisers has named that organization as the prime institutional and intellectual home for what could be called Rand Paulian foreign policy thinking. Founded in 1994 by Richard Nixon and called the Nixon Center until 2011, the center now publishes the journal National Interest.

In this later speech, Paul again endorsed the notion that our presence in the Middle East exacerbates radical Islam's hatred of the United States. But he stopped short of concluding that it would be healthier for us not to be involved in the region at all.

Paul makes many such on-the-one-hand/on-the-other formulations. These often succeed at making him sound like a nuanced thinker who sees the world in full, but they rarely add up to a comprehensive action agenda. For example, he'll say in one sentence that we "can't be sentimental about neutralizing" radical Islam, and in the next that "we also can't be blind to the fact that drone strikes that inadvertently kill civilians may create more jihadists than we eliminate." So are strikes that kill only confirmed jihadi enemies the goal? If so, it's an objective that our current drone masters haven't yet figured out how to achieve.

The Advisers

The younger Paul seems to have made a clean break from the foreign policy thinkers who influenced his father, including the likes of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, author of Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicidal Terrorism, which blamed that phenomenon more on occupation and less on radical Islam, and former CIA agent Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror. No one from Ron Paul World is part of Rand Paul's current foreign policy team. In early April, I spoke with three of the people he has brought in to advise him instead.

Elise Jordan has worked at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Afghanistan, and she has been a speechwriter for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. (Her late husband was Michael Hastings, a journalist critical of the Pentagon's practice in Afghanistan, whose reporting led to Gen. Stanley McChrystal losing his job running U.S. operations there.) Jordan grants that "from a communication standpoint, if someone is always ready to go to war, that's easy to communicate. But having a nuanced, thoughtful way of looking at the world on a case-by-case basis—using a commonsense conservative realism—it's very important for foreign policy to move in this direction."

That Americans shouldn't fight wars not authorized by Congress is at the core of Paul's foreign policy, Jordan says. "Public debate comes out of getting such authorization that's important to galvanize. War shouldn't be a unilateral executive decision."

Richard Burt, another of Paul's foreign policy advisers, was an ambassador to Germany in the 1980s and a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiator after that. Burt says a scrappy bunch of foreign policy mavens, who feel like outsiders in a neocon age, has existed for a while. He got the sense that Paul could be their political horse to ride after the Heritage speech. So Burt and another future Paul adviser—Lorne Craner, former head of the International Republican Institute—introduced themselves to the senator over a meal. They became part of a small, informal group Paul would call on to hash out foreign policy questions.

Burt learned early on that Paul is "not bashful about providing a point of view and testing it in front of people. He does listen, and he does learn, and he's a voracious reader." Craner says another foreign policy intellectual he brought to a policy confab with Paul said the senator "may have been the smartest person in the room." Craner also notes Paul's rare-for-D.C. willingness to communicate with, be cordial toward, and try to learn from those he disagrees with.

None of these advisers claimed to speak authoritatively on specific Paul policy positions, but they offered a sense of the intellectual pond he has chosen to swim in. (The senator himself did not comment for this story.) Burt is not sanguine about nuclear proliferation, for example: "The problem with [unchecked nuclear proliferation] is it assumes everyone will be reasonable and rational," he says. "If you are a realist, you have to assume some people often do pretty irrational things."

Burt, Craner, and Jordan do not seem like the types to call for closing America's overseas bases and bringing all the troops home. But they all reject the country's current world-straddling mission. Burt recognizes, for instance, that while the U.S. might sometimes want to show the flag of its aircraft carriers in straits near China, it should understand that Chinese leaders are likely not "spending all their time figuring out how to invade the rest of Asia. They are mostly trying to figure out how to keep their population under control" and improve trade with the rest of the world.

Craner, who for years ran one of the do-gooding, democracy-bringing international aid groups Ron Paul types mistrust, says his experience taught him the ignorance and arrogance of the neocon mentality: "I did it for many, many years and I sense how hard it is," he says. "You don't just throw democracy dust onto a country and start stirring and two months later get democracy. People in general underestimate how hard it is and greatly overestimate our capacity in doing that. I would tell all my staff: It's their country, not ours, and they have to do the work.

"We can help on the margins," Craner says, but an obvious lesson of the past 10 years is that "we cannot install democracy into a country."

William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a standard-bearer for American intervention, doesn't think that Rand Paul is "as conspiratorial and cranky" as his father. But Kristol says he worries that the younger Paul's punctiliousness about drones and "really overwrought rhetoric about the [National Security Agency] shows a certain willingness to apply a libertarian suspicion of government to his own government" in a way that "leads to real concern about his foreign policy."

If Paul could imagine that "a military intelligence officer would target a U.S. citizen in a Starbucks," in other words, what other fringe positions is he harboring? Kristol doesn't think Rand represents a serious threat to the dominance of hawkish thought in America, but he admits that "when I speak to younger people, [Paul's] ideas have some resonance."

Burt agrees with the last point. "One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in this campaign is before I even knew Sen. Paul, I wanted to rebalance the debate within the party," he says. Looking back at the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, he continues, "there were neocons in those days, but they lost most of the debates. Under W. Bush, they won, and I wanted to address that issue. I think we are making headway, particularly among millennials. Younger people have seen us at war as long as they've been alive."

The 'Isolationist' Smear

Paul in March went as far as to spitball in a Breitbart News interview about having the U.S. help to form an independent Kurdistan, likely from the principle that we should be more helpful to peoples who are willing to fight bad guys abroad. But one source close to the campaign tells me that was an off-the-cuff remark rather than a carefully considered policy statement, and that we are not likely to hear much more from the senator about map-drawing.

During his time in Washington, Paul has voted for sanctions against Iran. But he's also voted to hold up further Iranian sanctions unless, as he put it in his Heritage speech, then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–Nev.) "allows a vote on my amendment that states, 'Nothing in this bill is to be interpreted as a declaration of war or a use of authorization of force.'" As he underlined, "The debate over war is the most important debate that occurs in our country and should not be glossed over."

As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Paul has argued for specific authorizations from Congress for new military actions, and he has argued against using the original post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force for Afghanistan as a catchall for eternity. He has tried to shore up his reputation as a friend to Israel—important in Republican politics—by regularly pushing a "Stand with Israel" Act to deny U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority until it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel's right to exist, among other demands. And in an attempt to appeal to evangelicals, he has also promoted a bill to prohibit aid to nations that persecute Christians by law.

The financially ruinous problem of debt, much of it driven by vast spending for wars, was a common theme from both Ron and early Rand Paul; it remains to be seen how central it will be to the 2016 campaign. "The looming debt crisis will force us to reassess our role in the world," Rand told Heritage in 2013. That same year, the senator told me he wanted to make "Audit the Pentagon" as popular a slogan as his dad made "Audit the Fed."

Both Burt and Craner are open to the idea that the Department of Defense could run more intelligently on a lot less money. But Kentuckians Greg Jent and Ryan Hogan, both of whom are savvy about appealing to Tea Party voters, think Rand Paul has an even bigger foreign policy selling point than a desire to cut spending: the perception that he will be more careful, and more conscientious toward congressional prerogatives, when it comes to starting new wars.

Hogan, who did field work for Paul in Kentucky, says this may be especially important to veterans, military families, and soldiers themselves. He's found that Kentuckians connected to the military are quickest to wonder, "What are we fighting for? What are we doing?" The same mission-skepticism that made active-duty military a perhaps surprising source of campaign support for Ron Paul may also benefit his son in a GOP field crowded with hawks.

Paul is careful to distance himself from an isolationism he says was never his. In the October 2014 speech, he declared that "war is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war." Yet his political enemies still hope to hang the isolationist albatross around his neck.

In the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Nevada, a mysteriously funded group calling itself the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America ran a TV ad in the week after Paul announced for president. Among other things, it featured old quotes from Paul questioning whether a nuclear Iran is really a dire threat to our national security. Although Paul says he now definitely sees Iran as a menace, as recently as his February 2013 Heritage speech he was delighting libertarians with quotes from various Israeli officials saying Iranian nuclear weapons were not particularly imminent, not necessarily an existential threat to Israel, or something a preemptive attack could speed up rather than delay.

The Paul campaign sent a cease-and-desist letter to the TV stations running the commercials, with his lawyers insisting they misrepresent Paul's current position on Iran. The Sunlight Foundation, in a report on the controversy, found no evidence that any station actually nixed the ads.

As they ran, Paul gave a stump speech in South Carolina in front of the World War II-era aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown. He used the opportunity to touch on military matters, calling out anyone who "frivolously or cavalierly calls for war."

Slippery 'Realism'

Realism doesn't define itself. Nor are vital and peripheral interests always easily differentiated. Our beliefs about which things are worth going to war over will be colored, if not totally determined, by our ideological and emotional preconceptions. No two people's perspectives on the way the world works will ever be entirely the same.

Built into the conflict between foreign policy visions is the question of whether it's vital or just peripheral that the U.S. government gets its way outside our borders. Is it enough for Americans to be safe from attack and unmolested in our domestic life? Or do we have a vital interest in ensuring that everything our foreign policy elites would like to happen overseas becomes reality?

Neocons tend to imagine that the alternative to doing something is another Hitler, who will invade nation after nation until forcibly put back. Other people think aggressive military force should be reserved for responses to direct attacks on American territory. To us, it seems highly unrealistic to think the military can be used to eliminate nonstate enemies, save unstable foreign nations, or achieve a lasting peace. We look at the history of U.S. martial efforts, from Vietnam through Libya, and see little evidence that war making is good for America.

Paul's call for "realism" doesn't give either side enough information to confidently predict what actions he would take under what circumstances as commander in chief. For his part, adviser Burt says he detects in Paul "an aversion to this open-ended, values-driven idea that the U.S. has a mission to refashion or remake the world and engage in unlimited regime change and nation building. I think he recognizes that rational people would know that policy has failed."

Paul has also explicitly declared that strategic ambiguity is a virtue in diplomacy. Regarding Iran in particular, during his Heritage speech he said that "while I think it unwise to declare that we will contain a nuclear Iran, I think it equally unwise to say we will never contain a nuclear Iran." It doesn't pay, in other words, to let your diplomatic partners and opponents know exactly what you'll do.

The Rand Paul campaign seems to think that ambiguity might also be a virtue in politics—that to tell everyone what you intend to do in a given situation is to risk giving voters a reason to reject you. The problem is, when it comes to those voters who do identify with one of the extremes that Paul and his foreign policy advisers hope to move the country away from, ambiguity gives them insufficient reason to be for you, either.