A Conservative Realist Awakening? Rand Paul Strikes Back

"If Paul does get a boost from his performance last night and heads into the next debate ready to challenge Rubio again, he might yet live up to his early promise of making the Republican contest a battle of ideas."

Economics was the subject of last night’s Republican debate in Milwaukee, hosted by the Fox Business Channel and Wall Street Journal. But foreign policy stole the show—specifically, Rand Paul’s brand of conservative realism, which the Kentucky senator unsparingly deployed against Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. Paul questioned how Rubio could claim to be a conservative when he was for lavish government spending on defense. “I know that Rand is a committed isolationist,” an irritated Rubio shot back.

But Paul was not to be silenced. “How is it conservative,” he asked again, “to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures? You cannot be a conservative if you're going to keep promoting new programs that you're not going to pay for.” Rubio insisted that “the world is a safer place when America is the strongest military power in the world.” Paul refused to concede: “No. I don't think we're any safer—I do not think we are any safer from bankruptcy court. … This is the most important thing we're going to talk about tonight. Can you be a conservative, and be liberal on military spending? Can you be for unlimited military spending, and say, ‘Oh, I'm going to make the country safe?’ No, we need a safe country, but, you know, we spend more on our military than the next ten countries combined?”

Rubio seemed confused by the exchange—taken aback that anyone would question his platitudes, least of all on foreign policy. But Rubio was not Paul’s only target last night. After Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina called for a no-fly zone in Syria, with Fiorina adding, “I would not be talking to Vladimir Putin right now,” Paul took the opportunity to reply, “I think it's particularly naive, particularly foolish to think that we're not going to talk to Russia. The idea of a no-fly zone, realize that this is also something that Hillary Clinton agrees with several on our side with, you're asking for a no-fly zone in an area in which Russia already flies.”

“So, when you think it's going to be a good idea to have a no-fly zone over Iraq, realize that means you are saying we are going to shoot down Russian planes. If you're ready for that, be ready to send your sons and daughters to another war in Iraq.”

He had received some applause during his clash with Rubio—though less than Rubio did. But the audience was enthusiastically with Paul when he warned against getting involved in another Middle East conflict and concluded, “You can be strong without being involved in every civil war around the world.”

“But if you're not going to respond in a no-fly zone strategy,” Neil Cavuto, one of the moderators, asked, “what would yours be?”

“The first thing I would do is I wouldn't arm our enemies,” said Paul. “Most of the people who want to the no-fly zone also favored arming the allies of al-Qaeda, which became ISIS. That was the dumbest, most foolhardy notion. And most of the people up here supported it. They wanted to arm the allies of al-Qaeda. Some of them still do.

“That's how ISIS grew. We pushed back Assad, and ISIS was allowed to grow in the vacuum. So the first thing you do is don't arm your enemies.” All this might not have been as nuanced as old foreign-policy hands would like, but by contrast with the boasts and bromides of the others, Senator Paul could just as well have been Hans Morgenthau.

Paul was not the only candidate to question his fellow Republicans’ eagerness to get involved in Syria and Iraq, however. Jeb Bush sought to justify a no-fly zone by observing that “If you're a Christian, increasingly in Lebanon, or Iraq, or Syria, you're going to be beheaded.” But he sounded lost and halting as he continued, “And, if you're a moderate Islamist, you're not going to be able to survive either.” Donald Trump shot back, “Assad is a bad guy, but we have no idea who the so-called rebels—I read about the rebels, nobody even knows who they are. I spoke to a general two weeks ago, he said—he was very up on exactly what we're talking about. He said, ‘You know, Mr. Trump? We're giving hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment to these people, we have no idea who they are.’”

“Look at Libya. Look at Iraq,” he continued. “Look at the mess we have after spending $2 trillion dollars, thousands of lives, wounded warriors all over the place—who I love, OK?” Trump loves them so much, in fact, that he proposed America should have kept control of Iraq’s oil and “We should've given big chunks to the people that lost their arms, their legs, and their families, and their sons, and daughters, because right now, you know who has a lot of that oil? Iran, and ISIS.”

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