Why Rand Matters

Georgia Senate Candidate David Perdue Campaigns With Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

The foreign policy speech Rand Paul gave late last week is well worth a read. I was having a conversation with an international relations scholar the other day, and when I asked her what her position now was, she said “realism, which these days usually means non-interventionism.” That’s exactly where I am and it seems to be where Paul now is:

After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war. America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate.  America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory. America shouldn’t fight wars that aren’t authorized by the American people, by Congress. America should and will fight wars when the consequences …intended and unintended … are worth the sacrifice.

Amen. I’m particularly glad he mentioned Libya: an almost textbook example of a well-intended, impulsive liberal internationalist intervention – we must prevent a massacre right now! – that led to far more deaths over the following months and years than it allegedly prevented. The critique also applies to the current, quixotic, and counterproductive attempt to control the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. But he also rightly maintains that “the Use of Force is and always has been an indispensable part of defending our country”:

The war in Afghanistan is an example of a just, necessary war. I supported the decision to go into Afghanistan after 9/11. I still do today. America was attacked by Al Qaeda, and there was a clear initial objective: dismantle the Taliban, and deny Al Qaeda safe haven. The invasion showcased the best of modern American military strength and ingenuity: we went in with Special Forces and heavy air power, and formed critical alliances. The Taliban were ousted from power, and Al Qaeda fled. We kept a limited force in Afghanistan to wage counterterrorism and we understood, at first, the limits of nation building in a country decimated by over 30 years of constant war.

​Only after our initial success did the lack of a clear objective give rise to mission creep.  Today Afghanistan is more violent than when President Obama came into office.

If I had to pick a president on foreign policy, this vision is far closer to my own beliefs about where we need to go than Clinton’s very twentieth-century interventionism and embrace of ra-ra American exceptionalism (i.e. we get to break all the rules we enforce on others).

Dougherty favorably contrasts Rand’s foreign policy vision with Ron Paul’s:

Ultimately, the senior Paul did not have a foreign policy. Instead, he had a series of protests against the federal government. They were often richly deserved, but rarely did they constitute a genuine alternative to the status quo.

Rand could have gone in this direction. And he has shown that he’s willing to take a protest to great lengths. Recall his popular filibuster against the use of drones in the United States, into which he folded criticisms of the Patriot Act and the presidential “kill list” that includes American citizens. But the younger Paul has decided that if he wants to be president, he better have a substantive foreign policy.

Antle III continues to dream big about Rand Paul’s potential to change the GOP on foreign policy. The needle Rand needs to thread:

[T]his foreign policy must command enough assent from governing elites that qualified professionals would exist to implement it in the event sympathetic politicians were elected. And it must be a foreign policy that could actually work, not one that waves away genuine national-security threats or pretends that United States could become Switzerland.

That means politically this foreign policy must be able to galvanize the biggest constituency for peace within the Republican Party—the libertarians, constitutional conservatives, and other noninterventionists who backed Senator Paul’s father in the last two presidential campaigns. At the same time, it must be accessible to a larger swathe of the Republican rank-and-file.

Part of that means joining the still-young Ron Paul movement with older Republican foreign-policy traditions that remained well within the party’s mainstream as recently as George H.W. Bush’s presidency.

Beauchamp rightly calls Paul’s speech “one of the most important speeches on foreign policy since George W. Bush declared war on Iraq”

Paul’s agenda has a lot more in common with Barack Obama’s view of the world than it does with, say, John McCain’s. But his speech very cleverly played up the criticisms of Obama, and minimized the points of agreement. That’s because the basic goal of the speech was to teach conservatives that they can oppose foreign wars and Democrats at the same time.

The real target of Paul’s speech were the neoconservatives: the wing of the GOP that believes that American foreign policy should be about the aggressive use of American force and influence, be it against terrorist groups or Russia. Paul’s unsubtle argument is that this view, dominant in the GOP, is a departure from what a conservative foreign policy ought to be.

His tactic for selling this argument is innovative. He’s reframed arguments with neoconservatives as arguments with Obama, banking on the idea that he can get everyday Republicans to abandon hawkishness altogether if they see Obama as a hawk.

Smart smart smart smart smart.

(Photo: Senator Rand Paul speaks on October 24, 2014. By Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)