Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) certainly has a knack for boldness. On Sunday's Meet the Press, he dubbed U.S. military engagement in Libya “Hillary’s war” and stated the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) is not a result of President Obama's inaction in the Middle East but the unintended consequence of the U.S. military engagement in Libya.
The comments predictably caused heads in the GOP's foreign policy establishment to explode. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin called the rhetorical gambit “ludicrous” and said Paul holds the same views as his father, the libertarian former-Rep. Ron Paul. In an email to me, John Yoo, the former top Justice Department official in the Bush administration, said Paul is the Republicans' “own version of George McGovern.”
In a phone interview, Paul expanded on his remarks and offered a detailed rendering of his views on foreign policy that, regardless of their merits, are undoubtedly innovative for a man likely to seek the GOP's presidential nomination in 2016. Paul told Breitbart News:
I would say the objective evidence shows that Libya is a less safe place and less secure place, a more chaotic place with more jihadist groups—and really, we’ve had two really bad things happen because of Hillary’s push for this war. One is that our ambassador was killed as a consequence of not having adequate security and really as a consequence of having a really unstable situation there because of the Libyan war, and then most recently our embassy having to flee by land because they couldn’t leave via the airport because of such a disaster in Libya. So I think it’s hard to argue that the Libyan war was a success in any way. From my perspective, the first mistake they made was not asking the American people and Congress for authority to go to war.
While Muammar Gaddafi, or Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, or Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—deposed during the George W. Bush administration—were certainly bad actors, Paul wants to know: who takes their place?
Sometimes people are trying to say I don’t have enough concern for this. Well, actually, I have a great deal of concern—and not thinking through the consequences of intervention has caused Islamism and radical jihadist groups to proliferate. So I think Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein were both secular dictators who were awful, and did terrible things to their people, but at the same time were also enemies of the jihadists. Assad is the same way. What we’ve done in Libya, and now what we’re doing in Syria, is we have armed groups that are commingled with jihadists.
For instance, in Syria, Paul says, by arming the “rebels” against Assad, America “degraded Assad’s capacity to wipe out the rebel groups in his country.”
A year ago, Obama sought approval from Congress to engage militarily in Syria, as Paul urges, but Congress balked. Facing stiff resistance from lawmakers of both parties, the matter never even came up for a vote.
According to Paul, that's how the system is supposed to work.
“Think what would have happened had we seriously degraded Assad to the point where he was overrun, think who would be in charge of Syria right now?” Paul asked before answering his own rhetorical question: ”ISIS.” In conclusion, Paul said:
So we are very lucky that the American people are much wiser than Hillary Clinton, and much wiser than the president. We got the president and Hillary Clinton to slow down, but Hillary Clinton was widely reported to be the chief person proposing that we get involved in Syria. But really the only person directly involved in bombing ISIS’s bases right now is the Syrian government—so for all their wrongs, we’re actually quite lucky we didn’t have regime change, because I think it is a very realistic prediction that, had we had that happen, that ISIS would be in charge of Syria. Really, Syria, with Assad and all this war, is somewhat of a counter to the power of ISIS.
Paul's critics in the GOP are increasingly agitated by his stances, especially what they see as him positioning himself to the left of Clinton on foreign policy, even while the Middle East is becoming ever more volatile.
“The last thing the Republican Party needs is its own version of George McGovern,” Yoo told me. “More than 50 percent of the American people now disapprove of Obama's isolationist foreign policy, whose disastrous effects we now see in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Asia. Paul's views will have the same bad consequences, both for the Republican Party, the United States, and the world.”
On a panel on Meet The Press that followed Paul's interview, Michael Gerson, the former Geroge W. Bush speechwriter and one of the architects of “compassionate conservatism,” criticized Paul for opposing foreign aid.
“He’s called for the gradual elimination of all foreign aid,” Gerson said. “I’ve seen its effect in sub-Saharan Africa and other places. This would cause misery for millions of people on AIDS treatment. It would betray hundreds of thousands of children receiving malaria treatment. These are things you can’t ignore in a presidential candidate. This is a perfect case of how a person can have good intentions, but how an ideology can cause terrible misery. He will need to explain that.”
However, James Carafano, a generally hawkish foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, said Paul is tapping into real currents of discontent with the American public.
Paul is “onto something,” in that “in a sense that people are looking for something other than reflexively send in the bombs or reflexively do nothing,” Carafano told this reporter.
“It’s not just Sen. Paul, but I’ve heard several of the people who might be Republican candidates offer different versions of the same thing,” Carafano said. “Rick Perry was here the other day and was a little more aggressive on Iraq than Paul, but in their own way, what everybody is trying to say is we need to be prudent as opposed to somebody who just says we’re going to go do this.”
Paul describes himself as “a foreign policy realist like the first George Bush, like Reagan, like Eisenhower.” He elaborates:
They did intervene on occasion. It was not their first choice—but they did intervene when there were American interests involved, and I think really it’s not one extreme or the other. I often tell people in speeches one extreme goes nowhere all the time and that’s isolationism. The other extreme goes everywhere all the time. Many of the foreign policy sort of establishment in Washington, they're so used to being everywhere all of the time, that anyone who backs away from everywhere all of the time is considered to be an isolationist.
Paul said that in many cases, “there is no good alternative”—and that much of the time, each foreign policy choice by a president has negative consequences and positive ones. But the best decision, he said, is the one that acts in the best interest of America and her allies like Israel—even if that means a bad dictator remains in power.
“I think one of the biggest threats to our country is radical Islam and these radical Islamist groups—they are a threat,” Paul said.
Paul is currently leading the GOP field in 2016 GOP primary polls a few months out from the 2014 midterm elections. He said Americans are looking for someone they can trust to do the right thing when a foreign policy crisis arises. Paul went on:
When people are looking at choosing someone to be commander-in-chief, I think first and foremost they’re looking at whether that person has the wisdom and judgment to defend the country and make those decisions—when that 3 a.m. phone call came for Hillary, she didn’t bother to pick up the phone. In Libya, they were calling—they needed reinforcements for six months. It wasn’t just the night of the attack; for six months leading up to the attack there were repeated calls for reinforcements, for security teams, for a DC-3 to fly people on a plane to be able to leave the country. So I think the compilation of mistakes leading up to Benghazi really do preclude her from consideration to become commander-in-chief.
Regarding ISIS, the Islamic State terrorist organization that has grown a foothold in Syria and Iraq, Paul said he supports airstrikes. But if he were the president in this situation, unlike Obama, he would have called Congress back from recess to sell both chambers on action—and seek authorization before using America’s armed forces there. Paul said of ISIS:
We need to do what it takes to make sure they’re not strong enough to attack us. That means sometimes perhaps continuing the alliance with the new Iraqi government. Perhaps it means armaments, or perhaps it means air support, but frankly if I were in President Obama’s shoes at this time, I would have called Congress back, I would have had a joint session of Congress, and I would have said ‘this is why ISIS is a threat to the United States, to the stability of the region, to our embassy, to our diplomats, and this is why I’m asking you today to authorize air attacks.’ I’m betting if he would have done that to a joint session of Congress, he would have gotten approval. When you don’t do it through Congress, and you do it yourself, then you really have not galvanized the will of the nation. As a true leader, what I think we need to do is galvanize the nation when we go to war.
But since Clinton and Obama have “a disregard for the rule of law,” which generally requires congressional authorization for such military action while giving the president considerable latitude for short-term action, the administration did not seek congressional authorization for action in Libya—and probably won’t for action against ISIS, if it’s taken. Paul concluded:
Americans do want strong leadership from the president. They do think that President Obama is not being a strong leader. They do want a strong leader, something more akin to the public persona of Reagan. But they also don’t want somebody who is reckless in engaging in war; they don’t want somebody to put troops back in the Middle East. That was my point with Hillary Clinton—her eagerness to be involved in Libya and to be involved in Syria, in Libya led to very bad, probably unintended consequences and in Syria unintended consequences also. But I think you have less unintended consequences if you come to the American people through Congress and have a full-throated debate. It’s frankly difficult to convince Congress to do things—and that way, if you do it that way, you’re unlikely to go to war unless there is a consensus among the American people.