Rand Paul's flip-flop nightmare: "Non-interventionist" now backs war in the Middle East

Last week Rand Paul chastised the "hawkish members of my own party." Now he wants to go to war against ISIS

Published September 3, 2014 5:07PM (EDT)

Rand Paul                                     (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)
Rand Paul (AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

Remember last month when the New York Times Magazine wondered if the “libertarian moment” had finally arrived? “Today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side,” Robert Draper wrote, focusing much of his attention on the 2016 ambitions of Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican whose libertarian-ish leanings were going to win over millennials. “On issues including same-sex marriage, surveillance and military intervention, his positions more closely mirror those of young voters than those of the GOP establishment.” Look out, Democrats! Anti-war Rand Paul is coming to snatch up all your young’uns.

Well, for all the talk of Rand Paul’s adherence to principle, we’re learning that he’s actually highly malleable when it comes to his policy positions. And as for his willingness to buck the Republican establishment, we’re seeing that whenever he does bend on policy, it’s usually in the direction of the Republican consensus. He did it on immigration, portraying himself as both a hard-line border security proponent and an advocate for comprehensive reform, depending on which viewpoint dominated Republican thinking at the time. And now that Republicans are pressuring President Obama to take unspecified military action against ISIS, he’s abandoning his much-derided (in Republican circles) anti-interventionist foreign policy rhetoric in favor of the bellicose posturing of the rest of the hawkish GOP.

“If I were President,” Paul wrote in an email to the Associated Press, “I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” That’s an overly simplified version of what the U.S. is looking at when it comes to confronting the terrorist group. Any U.S. effort to “destroy ISIS militarily” will require a huge commitment of men and materiel, along with political commitments from regional actors, and will take years.

And as Steve Benen points out, this is a complete flip from what Rand Paul was saying just last week about America’s role and responsibility in confronting ISIS:

A week ago today, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal condemning “interventionists,” who are quick to use military force abroad “with little thought to the consequences.” Over the course of his 900-word piece, the Republican senator was dismissive of the “hawkish members of my own party.”

“A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe,” Paul wrote. “Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best interest of the U.S.”

In less than a week he went from “let’s be realistic about what we can do militarily” to “destroy ISIS militarily.” The Weekly Standard happily clipped Paul's remarks under the headline “Rand Paul Supports U.S. War in Middle East to Destroy ISIS.” Neocon pundit Jennifer Rubin -- whose Washington Post blog is basically a free-form screed against Rand Paul's foreign policy -- writes today: "Well, welcome aboard, Sen. Paul."

To be fair, Paul’s position on ISIS has never been terribly clear. On “Meet the Press” in June, Paul was asked whether the U.S. had any interest in taking on ISIS, and he was circumspect:

I look at it on a personal basis. I ask, “Do I want to send one of my sons, or your son, to fight to regain Mosul?” And I think, “Well ya, these are nasty terrorists, we should want to kill them.” But I think, “Who should want to stop them more? Maybe the people who live there.” Should not the Shiites, the Maliki government, should they not stand up? And, if they’re ripping their uniforms off and fleeing, if they don’t think Mosul is worth saving, how am I going to convince my son or your son to die for Mosul – another bad terrorist? And yes, we should prevent them from exporting terror; but, I’m not so sure where the clear-cut, American interest is.

A few days later, talking to Sean Hannity, Paul seemed to confuse ISIS with the Free Syrian Army, and said that they’ve been our allies in Syria. “One of the reasons they’re stronger is that we have been allied with them in Syria,” Paul said. “We’ve been funding Islamic rebels … to fight against Iranian proxies in Syria.”

In August, after President Obama ordered airstrikes against ISIS, Paul opened the door a crack to intervention. “I have mixed feelings about it. I'm not saying I'm completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” he said at a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce meeting.

But then he seemed to slam the door shut again with his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last week, arguing against the hawks who argue for “something” to be done:

Our so-called foreign policy experts are failing us miserably. The Obama administration's feckless veering is making it worse. It seems the only thing both sides of this flawed debate agree on is that "something" must be done. It is the only thing they ever agree on.

But the problem is, we did do something. We aided those who've contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. The CIA delivered arms and other equipment to Syrian rebels, strengthening the side of the ISIS jihadists. Some even traveled to Syria from America to give moral and material support to these rebels even though there had been multiple reports some were allied with al Qaeda.

And now he’s endorsed an ill-defined military campaign in the Middle East to “destroy ISIS,” without explaining what, exactly, that would entail.

If I were to guess, based on past experience, Paul will likely come out with yet another position on ISIS at some point in the coming days, and he’ll deny up and down that he’s changed his thinking at any point.

By Simon Maloy

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