Rand Paul's Sound Foreign Policy Instincts

"Looking back, is there any doubt Paul’s political judgment was correct?"

Rand Paul’s critics and the media, not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, have begun to question whether the senator from Kentucky has a coherent foreign policy.

This growing skepticism certainly matters, but of more immediate importance is that some of Paul’s supporters and sympathizers are starting to wonder the same thing.

As Paul has sounded increasingly hawkish against the terrorist group known as ISIS, many libertarians and conservatives have started to speculate the 2016 presidential possibility has gone over to the dark side.

Paul has been down this road before. When he joined with all but four Senate Republicans in voting to delay Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense, the reaction from many erstwhile admirers was fierce.

“If Rand Paul persists on going demagogic on Hagel,” wrote American Conservative co-founder Scott McConnell at the time, “he will have established beyond any serious doubt that regardless of who his father is, he is Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin’s boy.”

In response to such criticism, Paul suggested some libertarians and antiwar conservatives were missing the bigger picture.

“Everybody is really excited about Hagel, but the most important question and the most important constitutional issue is whether or not the president can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on U.S. soil,” he told me in an interview last year. “That’s a much bigger question than Hagel.”

And while Hagel’s decisive turn against the Iraq war galvanized an antiwar right that for most of the Bush administration had no visible political champions, Paul said that some people were exaggerating how antiwar Hagel’s voting record had actually been.

“You would think by some of the comments I get that Hagel is really Harry Browne,” Paul cracked. He told me he was setting his sights on filibustering John Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA and that he couldn’t count on the support of other Republican senators if he blew up their Hagel filibuster.

Weeks later, Paul launched his talking filibuster against Brennan and the Obama administration’s drone policy. He also ended up voting to confirm Hagel.

Looking back, is there any doubt Paul’s political judgment was correct? There is little evidence Hagel has been an effective voice for foreign-policy restraint within the Obama administration. The Brennan filibuster, meanwhile, was a major coup for antiwar conservatives and libertarians inside the GOP.

Additionally, the drone filibuster attracted support from mainstream Republicans who had never cared much about the issue before and actually moved public opinion. The Hagel fight followed the same script as most similar debates on the right since the Iraq war, with Republican dissenters effectively marginalized.

Hagel, a former GOP senator, received only four Republican votes. The Republican National Committee raised money supporting Paul’s filibuster, in which the Senate Republican leader participated.

“Rand Paul, in sharp contrast to his father, seems always to be calculating how far he can safely push intervention-skepticism,” wrote Reason editor Matt Welch in a Newsmax profile of the senator. “He also studies how best to sell his views in terms designed to persuade or at least neutralize his critics, particularly on the right.”

Welch went on to note that Paul looks for issues where the interventionists and hawks will be on the wrong side of conservative opinion: arming Syrian rebels, providing foreign aid to dubious regimes, pressuring the Obama administration to seek a congressional authorization of force before committing troops to battle.

Paul remains steadfast in making the case that our recent military interventions, from Iraq to Libya, have ended up inadvertently empowering jihadist groups like ISIS. “Intervention topples the secular dictator,” he said on the Senate floor. “Chaos ensues and radical jihadists emerge.”

In this speech, Paul chastised the hawks in both parties who once wanted to intervene on one side and now wish to intervene on the other. “Had the hawks been successful last year, we could very well now be facing an ISIS in charge of all of Syria and parts of Iraq,” he said.

But that doesn’t make Paul a pacifist or even an isolationist, he is quick to add. “It’s not that I am against all intervention. I favor striking ISIS,” he said. “I supported the decision to go to war with Afghanistan after our nation was attacked on 9/11.”

Paul’s father voted for the authorization of force used to go to war in Afghanistan and remained Washington’s leading skeptic of interventionism.

The conservatives and libertarians who criticized Paul on Hagel and are now worried about his stand on ISIS do have one point, however. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand against the hawks, even when that puts you in the minority.