The reaction of some hawks on the right to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster suggests a refusal to recognize why Paul was so successful in garnering praise. They are seemingly unable to recognize the deeply held perception of many, if not most, of the American people that Iraq and Afghanistan were unsuccessful and that enthusiasm for the Arab Spring is misplaced. They have lost credibility with the American people and they need to both acknowledge that and strive to get it back.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)

Internationalists like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his policy mavens have not gone back to make the case that Iraq and Afghanistan were “worth it,” nor have they devised any course correction or refinement based on our recent experiences. Doing neither of these is a political mistake (as is any policy or movement that averts its eyes from widespread public opinion) and has left a vacuum for Paul to step into with gusto.

Conservative hawks sought to divide Paul from the larger GOP on his broader national security vision rather than find some commonality with his insistence on a straight answer from this administration. It is not loony or delusional or irrelevant to require a president, who has been so cavalier with the truth and so willing to aggrandize executive power, to acknowledge some limit on his authority; it is disturbing that the administration had to be humiliated into providing an answer about domestic drone use against non-combatant Americans.

Paul’s ideological opponents on the right only made him appear bigger and more attractive by their cluelessness as to the war weariness and privacy and civil libertarian concerns to which some have rallied.

Hawks have been remarkably inept lately in public diplomacy and in putting some fences around political theory. They have stopped making cogent arguments for some policies either because either there are none (really is there some justification for continuing to pump up the Muslim Brotherhood?) or because like other conservatives they are trapped in an echo chamber. I will put this bluntly: They now face a Rand Paul problem because they did not construct a sound, reasonable national security policy that would endure over time. In short, they lost the public and now they are panicked that Paul may win the party and the country over.

I have argued for a more sober view of 21st century democracy promotion. To that I would add that conservatives should champion a full scale examination and reform of the Pentagon and of the 9/11 intelligence reorganization, which has proved cumbersome and unwieldy. More than lip service has to be paid to “looking for savings” in defense. It is a shame that Michele Flournoy who has some smarts and insight into these issues was not nominated for defense secretary, but that doesn’t excuse Republicans responsible for congressional oversight or outside national security experts from taking on this task.

Moreover, they have been fighting the wrong battles if you will. While spending time lambasting Paul, they didn’t spend much time or ink hollering that the president had taken a non-U.S. citizen from out of the country, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, and brought him into the United States for a civilian trial. Why was Sen. Mitch McConnell practically the only elected official raising a rumpus about that one? (In a written statement, McConnell concluded, “The decision of the President to import Sulaiman Abu Ghaith into the United States solely for civilian prosecution makes little sense, and reveals, yet again, a stubborn refusal to avoid holding additional terrorists at the secure facility at Guantanamo Bay despite the circumstances.  At Guantanamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers. . .  Abu Ghaith has sworn to kill Americans, and he likely possesses information that could prevent harm to America and its allies.  He is an enemy combatant and should be held in military custody.”)

And instead of writing editorials decrying Paul’s follies, conservatives should have been adding to his demands, insisting the administration come forward with an explanation for its new found infatuation for negotiating against itself on Iran’s nuclear program. Hawks need to fight smarter and harder on the right things; defending Obama’s refusal to answer a colleague’s question is not one of those things.

Policy innovation requires attractive and articulate spokespeople. Fortunately, there is a new generation of leaders including Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) who are informed and can make the case for a strong American presence in the world. But they must also be willing to challenge some conventional wisdom on the right, undertake nitty-gritty work (like updating the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that is out of date and ill-adapted to the present state of hostilities) and challenge the administration on everything from the United Nations ( how about a filibuster to champion a pullout from the U.N. Human Rights Council?) to our relations with Islamist governments in Turkey and Egypt. It was shameful not to have mounted a filibuster against Chuck Hagel’s defense secretary nomination and to allow the administration to escape scrutiny on national security leaks.

But most of all, proponents of a strong U.S. presence in the world must shed the angry man routine and give conservatives (and the country at large) a set of better policy alternatives and more effective leadership. They criticize the administration’s lack of an Arab Spring policy, but the right has been equally fuzzy on its own approach.

In sum, stop insulting Paul; start constructing a better alternative. And for goodness sakes, find more engaging leaders.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.