Unluckily for Rand Paul, The GOP Has No Room for Mainstream Foreign Policy
Apparently, segments of the GOP political apparatus are trying to put the kibosh on Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential run before it is even officially announced. Paul’s 2016 Republican contenders and their wealthy backers hate his foreign policy so much that they are willing to spend time and resources to destroy his electoral chances.
Reason‘s Matt Feeney has posted a round up of right-wing loathing for Rand Paul’s foreign policy (or, rather, what they think his foreign policy views are) and of recent reporting on GOP plans to shoot Paul’s embryonic presidential campaign dead in its tracks.
“According to several donors at the Republican Jewish Coalition conference held in Las Vegas last weekend,” Feeney writes, “the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is prepared to fund a campaign against Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) if he picks up increased support during his widely anticipated presidential run in 2016.”
Among DC politicos, it is a near-consensus that Rand Paul’s alleged foreign policy views will handicap him in the GOP primaries. Republicans, they say, just aren’t going to go for anything less than demagogic diatribes disparaging peaceful diplomacy as weak and naive. Right-wing primary voters need the comforting reassurance that their GOP presidential candidates will issue hard-line sermons about the need to bomb Iran, to intervene in Syria, to meddle in Ukraine, and to maintain global primacy through the use of force, coercion, and an ever-expanding military budget that is beyond reproach.
That might be true, but then why does Adelson et al. feel the need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cripple the Paul campaign? I wonder.
There are two issues at play here. The first is what Rand Paul’s foreign policy views actually are, and the extent to which perception and reality differ. The second issue is the fact that the mainstream foreign policy spectrum has become so belligerent and fringe that the basically establishment views of Rand Paul get vilified as ideologically extreme and unworkable.
Something similar happened during the fight over Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Obama’s Secretary of Defense. You see, Hagel committed some cardinal sins for a Republican. He criticized Israel’s inhumane treatment of the Palestinians and called out the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, DC. He spoke out against the Iraq war, describing it as “a dangerous foreign policy blunder.” He suggested economic sanctions aren’t an effective foreign policy tool. Hagel even expressed an openness to cut defense budgets!
Appalling stuff, I know. For these thought crimes, Hagel was attacked as an extremist anti-Semite whose views are dangerously outside the mainstream. I actually had to write an Op-Ed at the conservative Daily Caller arguing that Hagel’s foreign policy views were not extreme or isolationist, but firmly within the traditional boundaries of the mainstream. It’s just that what passes for mainstream in the GOP these days is the kind of uninformed pugnacity that you’d think would thrive mainly on the fringes.
On whatever foreign policy issue is hot at the time, the right-wing invariably holds that America must do more, we must act and react forcefully. If we can’t act militarily, we must walk that line and convince the world that U.S. bombs and troops will be forthcoming if Washington faces anything other than absolute fealty on the international stage. Anything less than issuing threats or actually using force is condemned as weakness or appeasement.
On Ukraine, the Republican right insisted on an immediate show of force demonstrating military preparedness with NATO allies. It was also imperative to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and to combatively face down Putin.
But there were plenty of mainstream voices calling for calm and restraint. Henry Kissinger urged prudence. “Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation,” he lamented, arguing that “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” He advised that “the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington.”
On Syria, you saw Republicans outraged at the Assad regime’s apparent insubordination in the face of America’s dictates. Not only was this the result of Obama’s gutless reluctance to go to war on a whim, they argued, but Assad’s actions made a U.S. military response absolutely imperative.
But then people like Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote Op-Eds strongly urging the United States to stay out of Syria. “The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict—no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth—would simply make the situation worse,” the former Carter adviser wrote before adding that we must steer clear of getting “bogged down again in the Middle East.” (Incidentally, the Defense Department had similar views).
And on Iran, the GOP engaged in fanatical tirades about how untrustworthy the ayatollahs are and how only war could make the world safe from a soon-to-be-nuclear Tehran. All the while, mainstream foreign policy elites like Stephen Walt, one of the leaders of the realist school, criticized the “increasingly draconian economic sanctions” against Iran, the “covert actions” and the “repeated threats to use military force.”
Former CENTCOM Commander, Admiral William J. Fallon explicitly condemned the “constant” talk of “war, war, war.” Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright said a war on Iran would be wrong and counter-productive to preventing an Iranian bomb.
Is there anyone seriously about to argue that Kissinger, Brzezinski, and the former CENTCOM Commander are radical non-interventionists who rest dangerously outside the mainstream? Of course not. But their views certainly are unorthodox to the current crop of pro-war advocates occupying the power center of the Republican Party.
If Rand Paul was a non-interventionist like his father, there might be some more credibility in the establishment’s condemnation of being “outside the mainstream.” But Rand is decidedly not his father. Instead, he is comfortable working perfectly within the mainstream, while erring on the side of restraint on some important issues. Rand isn’t going to dissolve NATO, close down our global military presence, or cut the defense budget in half.
“Branding Paul as an isolationist will be a popular line of attack for his opponents in the Republican primary,” writes Thomas Skypek at The National Interest. “This, however, is a fundamentally inaccurate representation of Paul’s view.”
“As he begins to assemble the outlines of a 2016 platform, Paul should move quickly to define himself as the Republican champion of selective engagement rather than let his political opponents define him as an isolationist,” Skypek advises, noting that selective engagement represents the foreign policy views of academics well within the mainstream who, for example regularly publish at Foreign Affairs (the standard establishment outlet).
Rand Paul is not an isolationist, and he’s not a non-interventionist. From what I can see he is a realist who argues for restraint in certain cases. That this would be attacked as fringe and worthy of defeating politically is indicative of how far the Republican War Party has descended down the rabbit hole.