Rand Paul's Foreign Policy Challenge

He may have a lot going for him, but he has one major weakness...

Last year, I wrote in the National Interest about the tremendous opportunity that Senator Rand Paul had to facilitate a meaningful debate on U.S. grand strategy and foreign policy within the Republican Party. With Senator Paul's entry into the race last month, he remains the candidate most likely to drive this discussion. We have already seen the onslaught of what I referred to last year as “bumper-stick foreign-policy slogans” being hurdled his way—namely the dubious title of “isolationist.”

A little over a year ago, President Barack Obama considered ISIS the “jayvee team,” the Iran deal was but a glimmer in Secretary of State John Kerry’s eye, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama were on speaking terms, and all foreign-policy watchers were focused on Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. In the wake of these events, it will be interesting to see how Senator Paul’s vision holds up, amid increasing political pressure and a dynamic international environment.

In March, Senator Paul called for a $190 billion boost in defense spending over the next two years through offsetting domestic cuts. However, Senator Paul’s proposed amendment failed to advance, and criticism from his heavily libertarian base commenced. As Katie Zezima noted in the Washington Post, Senator Paul’s spending amendment is in stark contrast to his 2011 views on defense spending when he called for a 23-percent decrease in the defense budget. In proposing this amendment, Senator Paul opened himself up to legitimate questions about the consistency of his foreign-policy views and a title more dubious than isolationist: flip-flopper.

In international affairs, circumstances are constantly changing and reasonable men and women can change their views. In fact, great leaders do this—they adapt to changing circumstances based on facts and reason to achieve their goals. Senator Paul has an opportunity to explain his change in position, but he still lacks a central, organizing vision for his foreign policy. Calling it isolationism or noninterventionism won’t work. Calling it selective engagement, as I suggested last year, is a great option. But regardless of the moniker he chooses, Senator Paul needs a coherent vision of his own that he can condense into his own bumper-sticker foreign-policy slogan.

Many of the the declared and likely Republican presidential candidates, especially Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, have been vocal critics of Senator Paul’s foreign-policy views. In discussing the Iran nuclear deal on “Face the Nation” last month, Senator Graham said, "The best deal, I think, comes with a new president. Hillary Clinton would do better. I think everybody on our side, except maybe Rand Paul, could do better.”

In the crowded Republican field, Lindsey Graham is the most likely to play the neoconservative foil to Rand Paul in this debate. Graham has positioned himself as one of the leading Republican policy voices on Capitol Hill and will do the same in the presidential nominating contest, if he elects to run. He will be the foreign-policy hawk. Former UN ambassador John Bolton has also been flirting with a possible presidential run. If he joined the race, Bolton would also put significant pressure on Paul.

Politically, Rand Paul's team needs to be prepared for the debate and have presidential answers to the criticism that will be lobbed his way. The criticism will escalate in the coming months. This debate, however, would be great for the country and is long overdue. U.S. grand strategy has been in flux since the end of the Cold War.

The United States need a substantive debate on its role in the world and the 2016 nominating contest is the perfect forum for that discussion. The real question is: Will the debate be substantive? Or will it be superficial, characterized by one-liners and perpetual mudslinging?

Thomas M. Skypek is the co-founder and CEO of GovBizConnect.com and a former Nuclear Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute. Opinions expressed are his own.

Image: Flickr/ markn3tel​