Jacob Heilbrunn

The Rand Paul Threat

Sen. Rand Paul should be pleased by the wilding that conservatives have attempted against him in the past week. Paul is attracting numerous brickbats from the likes of Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, Bret Stephens, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and Rep. Peter King. The attention suggests that his opponents are worried—worried that Paul may be making friends and influencing people both inside and outside the GOP.

Lowry weighed in to accuse Paul of "dewy-eyed foolishness" and "blame America first libertarianism." Stephens complains that he might well lead the GOP to a "landslide defeat." And King says his views are "disastrous."

What's all the fuss about? 

The proximate cause of the latest fusillade against Paul are his recent comments about the possibility of the containment of Iran. To even suggest that containment might be a viable strategy is apparently heresy inside the GOP, or at least that's the way it's supposed to be. Paul himself says that he wasn't endorsing containment, in a Washington Post op-ed. He says he hasn't precluded anything. "Nuance," he says, is what he's after. Connoisseurs of the Bush presidency may recall that 43 famously declared, "I don't do nuance." Look where that got him.

Still, nuance is not what tends to win you presidential elections. A clear stance does. And the truth is that in a sense Paul's critics are right. He does represent a sharp break with the party's stands since 2001. While it's too much to dub him an isolationist—the boo word of American foreign-policy debates—he clearly is enunicating stands that are at variance with the Bush-Cheney legacy. Until now, the GOP—emblematic in Peter King's vociferous remarks—has preferred to act as though everything was hunky-dory during the Bush era. Perhaps the Iraq War could have been conducted better, but it was a noble effort. Torture is unpleasant, but only sissies would complain about it. And so on.

Now comes Paul who says it ain't so. What's more, he's actually attracting, as W. James Antle III points out on this web site, attention and adherents, offering more than just headline-grabbing statements. No doubt Paul has not spelled out his stands because he may not always know what they are. But his critics are correct to allege that he represents a direct and potent threat to the credo that the GOP has embraced for over a decade. 

But they go too far in claiming that he is espousing an edentate foreign policy. Paul's earlier and tough statements on Russia show that he is not oblivious to the need to project an aura of power and strength. In his speech last year at the Heritage Foundation, he was careful to distinguish himself from isolationists and to invoke George F. Kennan's strategy of containment—you know, the strategy that won the Cold War—as something worthy of admiration and emulation. 

It's a point worth stressing because Paul's detractors resemble the Republicans of the 1950s who embraced the rollback doctine, which never really ended up rolling back anything. They were all full of talk of confrontation and readiness to resort to nuclear war. If he plays his cards, well, right, then Paul could seek to revive a different tradition, the realist one exemplified by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

Whether that approach can enjoy a revival, at least within the GOP, is very much an open question. Vladimir Putin's truculent actions have certainly helped revive the neocons and their compatriots. But whether their views enjoy much traction outside of Washington is another matter. For now, a good index of Paul's broader success may be the amount of derision and vitriol that is poured upon him by his detractors.

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