Jacob Heilbrunn

A New Assessment of Rand Paul

Is Rand Paul the avatar of a new Republican foreign policy that will return the GOP to its traditional and more moderate roots? Or is he too eccentric and erratic to command real respect inside his party, which is currently dominated by neoconservatives? In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Stuart A. Reid, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, astutely analyses the Paul phenomenon.

Paul first captured national attention with his filibuster on March 6 in which he opposed John Brennan's nomination for the CIA. He said, "I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court." With such statements Paul laid bare the rift that exists in the GOP between neocons and himself over the best way to conduct American foreign policy. One of his first moves was to introduce legislation slashing both domestic and defense spending. Paul opposed American intervention in Egypt, noting to Reid, "I'm a little skeptical, because the neoconservatives in my party the year before wanted to fund Qaddafi and sell arms to Qaddafi." Here Paul was alluding to a 2009 meeting, divulged in WikiLeaks cables, where Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, among others, talked about approving the sale of military equipment to Libya. Soon enough, though, they were champing at the bit to depose the Libyan dictator. As Reid sees it, "Paul is forcing a conversation that the Republican party doesn't want to have—and with an interlocutor much of it considers to be a foreign policy lightweight."

But Paul tries to make it clear that he isn't an isolationist or an extremist. He's distanced himself from his father: "In April," Reid writes, "the elder Paul founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and named Slobodan Milosevic apologists and 9/11 truthers to its board. Rand did not attend the think tank's opening." There's more. "If Germany wants to have their joint base with us and we want to have it, we could do it. Maybe we do it with, instead of fifty thousand troops, five thousand troops," he told Reid. Some of Reid's most interesting material concerns Israel. Unlike his father, Rand is going out of his way to speak to neocons and to suggest that he is not anti-Israel. In January Paul, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Israel, where he met with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. According to Reid,

the trip was designed not only to reassure the pro-Israel crowd but also to win over Christian supporters. For seven days, Paul and his wife, Kelley, rolled around the Holy Land on a bus full of American evangelical leaders. The fifty-three person tour was organized by David Lane, a born-again political activist from California.

Paul may be seeking some cover on Israel, but it won't be an easy issue to finesse. Already Netanyahu, clearly apprehensive that the issue of Iranian nuclear ambitions has been put on the backburner because of upheaval in Syria and Egypt—"there is no sense of urgency," he said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation"—is dismissing Iran's president Hassan Rowhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing and pressuring President Obama to demonstrate that he is serious about military action against Iran. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to buy more time.

Still, Paul has the luxury of playing the role of critic on the sidelines rather than making policy. He will be seeking to influence debate inside the GOP as much as attempting to take on Obama. Once the primary season heats up, Obama will most likely be a sideshow. The skill that Paul demonstrates in the next few years in attempting to set new terms of debate inside the GOP may have a pivotal impact not just on his own fortunes, but also the party's. Already, as Reid observes, Paul leads Florida Senator Marco Rubio by nineteen points in opinion polls in Iowa. He is a force that is not going away.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.