Rand Paul's incoherent foreign policy mess

His worldview can't sell in a GOP primary and he knows it -- so here's the hacky sweet spot he's going for instead

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 12, 2014 3:10PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                                    (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
Rand Paul (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

One of the articles of faith among both the libertarian true believers and the mainstream media is the idea that Sen. Rand Paul is a man who does not play the usual partisan political game. The true believers think this comes from a deep well of integrity and intellectual consistency. The mainstream media mostly sees him as a "wacko-bird" to use their favorite maverick John McCain's term. In neither case does it occur to them that Rand Paul is quite serious about becoming president.

Foreign policy is a defining issue for the Republican Party. And although many in the Beltway seem to believe that the ghost of Robert Taft still haunts the halls of Congress, the fact is that GOP isolationism is about as common today as Democratic members of the KKK. Let's just say it's not unprecedented, but we haven't seen it for quite a long time. Now it's true that there's a libertarian streak that runs through the Republican faithful but the tie that binds them is around Big Government, regulation and low taxes. Whatever libertarian isolationists exist are only on the very fringe -- the young white geek contingent. Republicans on the whole are flag-waving, military worshiping, "American Exceptionalism -- Hell Yeah!" types.  The idea of the United States no longer being the world's greatest military empire is unthinkable.

And that puts Rand Paul in a tough position. If he's serious about running for president and not just doing it to make a point as his father did, he has a problem. He can certainly compete on race. He's proven his bona fides to the party on that numerous times and is now so secure that he feels he can tack back to the compassionate conservative message. (If your famous father published white supremacy pamphlets under his name and you employed a known racist called the Southern Avenger for years, your dog-whistle is your résumé.) And no conservative would question his commitment to destroying all government programs (that benefit people other than them), cutting taxes on billionaires or ensuring that if the air we breathe doesn't kill us our lack of decent healthcare will. He is as committed to that worldview as any Republican out there.

But on foreign policy he has a big challenge. He must keep the libertarian base that will provide his greatest financial support. And they are also likely to be the ones who show up in the early primary and caucus states. He needs them to be his foot soldiers. But he will never get enough Republicans to vote for someone they see as a dove. If he were just running for president to advance his libertarian agenda perhaps that would be ok. That's what his father did. But he's made a few moves recently that indicate he's going for the brass ring.

Jamie Kirchik at the Daily Beast points out that he's hired Lorne Craner, a former John McCain staffer and Bush official, which evidently has the Republican establishment all discombobulated:

"Very odd,” is how one board member of the International Republican Institute, which Craner headed until last year, describes the move. IRI is the Republican offshoot of the National Endowment for Democracy, founded by Congress over 30 years ago to promote democracy and good governance overseas. It has long been a target of ire for the isolationist wing of the GOP – like Rand Paul’s father, former congressman and perennial presidential candidate, Ron -- which sees it as a meddlesome, money-wasting plaything of the party’s foreign policy hawks. McCain has been IRI’s chairman for over 20 years.

It's hard to imagine how one person could be an adviser to both the über hawk McCain --- who has literally never seen a foreign crisis he doesn't think could be best solved with massive military intervention --- and the alleged isolationist libertarian Rand Paul. Since there is no reason to believe that McCain isn't utterly sincere in his thirst for war, one can only assume that it's Paul who is trying to figure out a way to become a more genuinely mainstream Republican without losing his fanboy base.

Unfortunately, whatever advice he's getting is only making him incomprehensible. Kirchik recites a list of the dizzying twists and turns he's taken recently on various foreign policy issues. For instance, he has also hired Richard Burt, a former Reagan adviser who describes Paul not as an isolationist, but as a "realist," presumably in the mode of the old hands like Brent Skowcroft and George H. W. Bush, the former of whom famously broke with George W. and Cheney on Iraq. Yet in a speech for the realist Center for the National Interest Paul simultaneously decried "the menace of worldwide jihad" while criticizing neoconservatives as inveterate warmongers. (Not that those two things cannot both be true, but among Republicans one thing inevitably leads to the other.)

Paul's proposal to cut off 1.3 billion in aid to Egypt sounds as if it was actually a nice little piece of political theater that both excited the rubes who hate foreign aid while acting on behalf of the hawks who felt they needed the administration to work harder on the release of some well-connected VIPs who had been arrested by the Egyptian government. Whether Paul was participating in a sophisticated ploy or was being his handler Craner's useful idiot is unknown. And perhaps it doesn't matter -- the end result was that Egypt got the aid and the VIPs were released. Hawks 2, Rand 0. (He did try to strip the aid again the next year, for what it's worth.)

It's on the Russia-Ukraine situation where Paul has been most incoherent. From one week to the other he's alternately been demanding more respect for the Putin government and then turning around and proposing that the U.S. restore the missile shield money pit in Poland to deter the Russian horde. To Time magazine he roughly declares that if he were in charge he wouldn't let Vladimir Putin "get away with it" and on the same day he tells Brietbart.com that now is not the time for chest beating and weirdly seems to call out John McCain as a chicken hawk. It's all very confusing.

But the bottom line is that whether you call it "non-interventionism" or "realism," Rand Paul's isolationism is simply not a mainstream GOP position. Sure, the GOP is often reflexively hostile to a Democratic president's foreign policy even when they would support such actions undertaken by one of their own. (And, yes, the same thing can be said when the shoe is on the other foot.) But Paul's worldview would never sell among the party faithful in a presidential election and he knows it. So he's trying to find a sweet spot between the hardcore hawks and the libertarian doves. One day he's pimping the Benghazi scandal and the next he's calling for the release of the so-called drone memos. Both of those are criticisms of the president's foreign policy but they come from totally opposite ideological directions. It's going to be hard to smooth out that dissonance.

Kirchik's piece is headlined: "Is Rand Paul a closet hawk?" I don't think he answers that question. But one thing is clear. Underneath it all, the great man of principle Rand Paul is a closet hack.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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