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Rand Paul's Scattershot Foreign Policy Is Starting to Make Sense

He's bringing realism back to the Republican Party

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

When it comes to foreign policy, Rand Paul contains multitudes. He was for ending foreign aid to Israel before he was against it—before he was for it again but only after ending foreign aid to lots of other countries first. He was against building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border before he was for one—and a “double-layered” fence at that. And now, of course, there’s the matter of Paul’s opinion about the most pressing foreign policy question of the moment: How the United States should respond to the Islamic State. Characteristically, he’s been busy contradicting himself.

In June, Paul took to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to express his skepticism toward any plan to launch American air strikes against IS, which had just taken over the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and was seemingly on the march to Baghdad. “What would airstrikes accomplish?” the Kentucky senator asked. “We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran's air force? What's in this for Iran?” That same month, in an appearance on “Meet the Press,” Paul elaborated, “And what’s going on now, I don’t blame on President Obama. Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution.” In August, he told a local Chamber of Commerce lunch in Kentucky that he was no longer opposed to bombing IS but confessed to “mixed feelings about it.” But then earlier this month, Paul, writing in Time, voiced his full-throated support for air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria—and, for good measure, accused the Obama administration of “dereliction of duty” for not having launched them sooner. “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS,” Paul wrote. “I would have called Congress back into session—even during recess.”

Still, rather than strike a Whitman-esque pose about all this—or at least admit that he’s changed his mind—Paul insists that he’s been perfectly consistent. “I still have exactly the same policy,” he told The Weekly Standard last week. “And that is that intervention militarily should be through an act of Congress.” This stubborn refusal to admit the obvious is hardly unusual for Paul. As Yahoo’s Chris Moody and The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold both recently laid out in great detail, Paul denies policy flip-flops not just on IS but on Israel and a border fence, too—as well as on domestic policy issues like civil rights and Medicare. In fact, Moody argues that Paul, who clearly has his eye on the White House, has become such a prolific flip-flopper that he’s in danger “of falling into [John] Kerry territory, launching a [presidential] campaign amid a drumbeat of criticism about his changes of heart.”

Granted, Paul’s changes of heart on foreign policy make sense, since his original views on the subject would have presented the biggest obstacles to his ascent in the national GOP. He began his political career as a surrogate for—and disciple of—his father, U.S. Representative and quixotic presidential candidate Ron Paul, who, of course, was infamous in Republican circles for his heretical, isolationist foreign policy views on everything from Iranian nukes (he dismissed them as a threat) to September 11 (which he considered to be “blowback” for America’s own foreign policy) to Israel (which he frequently criticized). And during his 2010 Senate campaign, Paul frequently found himself on the defensive over those views.

But he’s spent much of the past four years putting distance between himself and his father on foreign policy. Even during his Senate campaign, Paul privately solicited advice from a few of his father’s biggest foreign policy critics, including Bill Kristol and Dan Senor. Since getting to Washington, he’s angered some of his father’s most fervent supporters by voting for sanctions against Iran; seemingly siding with Benjamin Netanyahu over Barack Obama on Israel’s settlement policies; and joining Republican hawks in filibustering Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense.

This hasn’t been an easy transition for Paul. Not only has he left himself open on the aforementioned flip-flopping charges, he’s also, on occasion, appeared almost too eager to appease some of his father’s critics—such as when he proposed halting aid to the Palestinian government unless it recognized Israel’s right to exist. As Jonathan Chait noted at the time, most American pro-Israel groups, like AIPAC, support U.S. aid to the Palestinian government. His recent support for airstrikes against ISIS, meanwhile, was greeted by John McCain with a mocking, “Way to go, Rand, way to go! … He’s saying this because he’s running for president. That’s why he’s saying it.” And it’s true that Paul’s aversion to military interventions has opened him up to attacks not only from potential Republican presidential rivals, like Rick Perry, but from Democrats, too.

Still, whatever his motivations, Paul, through it all, has arrived at something of a coherent foreign policy philosophy. As he explained it in his biggest foreign policy speech to date, at the Heritage Foundation last year, “I am a realist, not a neoconservative nor an isolationist.” If that sounded Obama-esque in its attempt to find a middle way between competing straw men, the fact is that, in GOP foreign policy debates, those straw men are real people like John McCain and Ron Paul. In the same speech, Paul went on in (in unspoken contrast to his father, who worshipped at the feet of the isolationist Senator Robert Taft) to cast himself as an heir to George Kennan, the foreign policy thinker behind America’s “containment” strategy during the Cold War, elaborating:

What the United States needs now is a policy that finds a middle path. A policy that is not rash or reckless. A foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by Constitutional checks and balances but does not appease. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of radical Islam but also the inherent weaknesses of radical Islam. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on what they might someday do. A foreign policy that requires, as Kennan put it, “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of … expansive tendencies.” A policy that understands the “distinction between vital and peripheral interests.”

As for what that view looks like in practice, Paul was unusually expansive—and explicit—in an interview last week with NPR. While he said that supported air strikes against IS—on the grounds that IS poses a threat to the U.S.—he made clear that he didn’t favor arming other Syrian rebels; and, in fact, he opposed the Obama administration’s stated support for the overthrow of Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad:

We've gone too far in thinking we can re-create an American democratic paradise in the Middle East. We have time and time again toppled secular dictators and they've been replaced by chaos. Libya's a perfect example. So what I would say is that Libya, because of President Obama's intervention to topple a secular dictator, is now less safe and actually more of a threat to America. Same with Syria.

I think we do have to be more realistic in our approach worldwide. And we have to look at the question of stability and whether we get more or less. Both Republican and Democrat interventions have led to more chaos and more threats to America. There's a greater threat of radical Islam attacking the U.S. than there was before.

In this, Paul sounds as much like Kennan as Brent Scowcroft, the realist disciple of Henry Kissinger who served as George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor—and later became a critic of George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy.  As Scowcroft told Jeffrey Goldberg in 2005, “I’ve been accused of tolerating autocracies in the Middle East, and there’s some validity in that. It’s easy in the name of stability to be comfortable with the status quo.” He went on to say:

What the realist fears is the consequences of idealism. The reason I part with the neocons is that I don’t think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don’t you think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse.

Five years ago, Paul told a Blue Grass Policy Institute forum that his father’s “blowback” theory was a “message that can be presented and be something that Republicans can agree to.” It’s clear that Paul no longer thinks that’s the case. The question is, will Republicans be any more agreeable to returning to the sort of Scowcroftian realism that once had a home in their party? With Paul’s coming presidential campaign, we’ll likely have an answer.