Jacob Heilbrunn

Why Rand Paul Should Join the Council on Foreign Relations

Sen. Rand Paul has been taking a number of moves to test the waters when it comes to running for the presidency. He garnered headlines in taking on President Obama about drone strikes. He addressed the Heritage Foundation, where he said, "I'm a realist, not a neoconservative nor an isolationist." He recently spoke at the GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner in Cedar Rapids. But no step might have more symbolic weight than if he were to apply for membership in the Council on Foreign Relations.

Historically, the relationship between conservatives and the Council on Foreign Relations has, to put it mildly, been a fraught one. The Council has long been a redoubt of establishment Republicans—Elihu Root, Henry Stimson, John McCloy, Henry Kissinger, and so on. It served as the bete noire of hardline conservatives. The Council, which was founded by New York financiers and lawyers, was seen on the right as being in cahoots with the British—a secretive organization, the agent of nefarious bankers intent on promoting world government. Many American conservatives loathed both Great Britain and the globalization. Perfidious Albion was America's enemy. It dragged gullible America into World War I and World War II. After World War II, it was seen as soft on communism by conservatives who called for rolling back the Soviet empire and scorned Kennan and Kissinger. Others continued to cling to the idea that the Council was part of a conspiracy for emasculating American sovereignty. But Paul would be wise to put as much distance between himself and these notions. Which is precisely why Paul should join the Council on Foreign Relations and, for good measure, sign on its president Richard N. Haass as an informal adviser. 

Already Paul has begun the work of polishing his foreign policy bona fides. In his thoughtful speech at the Heritage Foundation, for example, he lauded the realist thought of George F. Kennan to insist that America needs to distinguish between peripheral and vital interests. Paul's main point was that containment worked during the Cold War, that strategic ambiguity can work. Ultimately, diplomacy and military force prevailed, backed by the fact that the "engine of capitalism defeated the engine of socialism."

Paul asked,

Where are the Kennans of our generation, when foreign policy has become so monolithic, so lacking in debate that Republicans and Democrats routinely pass foreign policy statements without debate and without votes. Where are the calls for moderation, the calls for restraint?

Anyone who questions this consensus, said Paul, is "castigated" and "rebuked." The debate over what, if anything, to do about Iran, he added, seems to be "more robust in Israel than it is here." Containment and diplomacy, he concluded, should not be rejected peremptorily: "War should never be the only option."

Nothing would signal that Paul intends to be a serious candidate for the presidency than reaching out to mainstream Republicans such as Haass. Haass is the antithesis of a neoconservative, and it is neocons who, by and large, dominate the GOP, at least when it comes to setting the terms of debate. Whether they wield much influence outside it is a matter of debate. But as one of the avatars of shifting the debate on foreign policy, Paul would do well to broaden his message. Obviously, Paul is not going to abandon his libertarian credo. But it's hardly in conflict with tempering his message for a wider audience. His aim should be to present himself as a mainstream candidate espousing the revival of precepts that were successfully followed by GOP stalwarts such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush.

In his new book, Foreign Policy Begins At Home, Haass essentially lays out a sober case for a return to the precepts that have long animated the GOP—prudence abroad, a focus on rebuilding the American economy rather than engaging in foreign adventures. Haass himself acknowledges at the outset that he will be accused of being an isolationist, which he's not. But there is something quite novel about the head of the Council calling for America to retrench. Haass says that America “must recognize the limits to its influence.” In his view, “For the past two decades, American foreign policy, consumed with remaking large parts of the greater Middle East, has quite simply overreached.” His verdict on Afghanistan is withering: “What the United States will have to show for more than a decade of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan will be minimal.”

None of these sentiments will come as a surprise to Paul who has, more or less, been saying the same things. But it does matter who says them. Haass, a veteran of the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, who famously told the New Yorker that he still doesn't know when or why the decision to go to war in Iraq was made, is one of the figures in the GOP who has been in a state of internal exile. If Paul is intent on making a real run for the Oval Office, then tapping into the network of realist thinkers with government experience and serious intellectual attainments would be a good way to start.