Rand Paul seeks distance from Ron Paul’s foreign policy — in tone, at least

February 6, 2013

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who looks more and more like he will pick up where his father left off and run for president in 2016, tried to create some separation between himself and his famous dad in a speech Wednesday.

"I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist," Paul began in his opening remarks at the Heritage Foundation.

Paul called for a balanced approach to foreign policy that includes both significant action against radical Islam but also shunned the neoconservative and interventionist strains that dominated the Republican Party for the past decade and which his father, Ron Paul, campaigned vehemently against.

But even as he charted his own course on foreign policy, the differences between he and his father were much more about tone and emphasis than about substance. And indeed, he echoed much of what his father has espoused in recent years.


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). (Chip Somodevilla - GETTY IMAGES)

While many people think of Ron Paul as an isolationist, it's important to note that he identified more as a non-interventionalist -- i.e. getting involved only in limited circumstances in which American interests were clearly at stake. For example, even as he was a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, he initially voted the authorize the use of force in Afghanistan.

Rand Paul embraced much of his father's policy of limited intervention on Wednesday, calling for the closure of overseas bases, reluctance to use force, avoidance of nation-building, and the approval of Congress in order to declare war.

In the most telling moment of the speech, he even agreed with one of his father's most controversial statements, saying "western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam."

The difference is that, while Ron Paul's views on so-called "blowback" were often expressed in a very blunt manner -- he even said 9/11 was the result of blowback and said that Islam wasn't the enemy -- Rand Paul repeatedly emphasized that the threat of radical Islam is real and quickly pivoted to that message Wednesday, rather than dwelling on the idea of blowback.

"Radical Islam is no fleeting fad but a relentless force," he said. "Though at times stateless, radical Islam is also supported by radicalized nations such as Iran. Though often militarily weak, radical Islam makes up for its lack of conventional armies with unlimited zeal."

Policy-wise, Rand Paul agrees with his father about blowback -- at least to some degree -- but he also expressed that view in a more careful manner that won't scare Republicans (or at least not nearly as many).

Reason.com's Matt Welch summarizes is thusly:

But where Ron Paul breaks through the soft interventionist consensus with bracing and sometimes abrasive blasts of convention-defying, anti-imperial purism—witness his Tweet yesterday about murdered Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle dying "by the sword"—Rand Paul (who reacted to Kyle's killing by telling Breitbart.com that "Chris Kyle was a hero like all Americans who don the uniform to defend our country") has figured out a way to sell anti-neoconservative ideas to audiences allergic to his father.

Paul told The Fix after the speech that he's not looking to be constantly compared to his father and that he hopes the speech will indeed help him chart his own course.

“Part of what this speech is intended to do is spell out who I am, where I’m coming from, and it isn’t exactly the same (as Ron Paul). And there are definite differences,” Paul said. “But what I don’t want to do for the next four or six or however many years that I’m part of the debate – it doesn’t make for great Thanksgiving conversation if I’m always either separating myself from my father or commending my father.”

Later in the speech, Rand Paul tied his call for moderation on foreign policy to Ronald Reagan, whom he said resorted to military force less than the presidents who came before him or those who came after.

In essence, Paul is making the argument that a non-interventionalist foreign policy is not anathema to the Republican Party, but rather its most successful historical strategy.

The difference between Rand Paul and his father is that Rand is taking care to massage his message of limited intervention and show Republicans how it fits into their existing worldview. Ron Paul took no such care, content to please his vocal and active base of libertarian thinkers.

It's a smart strategy for the son.

The fact is that the Pauls' view of foreign policy is increasingly popular in today's Republican Party, which is a big reason why Ron Paul did much better in the 2012 presidential race than he did in 2008. Long and costly foreign wars have made even Republicans who backed the war in Iraq tire of foreign enterprises; even in last year's presidential primary, many GOP presidential candidates were separating themselves from the party's neoconservative recent past.

But even as Ron Paul made a huge statement last year, he was still on the margins of the party and was never a serious threat to become the party's presidential nominee -- in large part because he didn't cater his foreign policy message to the wider array of Republicans and did things like blaming 9/11 on U.S. foreign policy.

Starting with his speech on Wednesday, Rand Paul began his effort to avoid the sins of the father and assure the GOP base that he's not out on a limb when it comes to foreign policy. He emphasized limited intervention, rather than his father's emphasis on anti-imperialism; he points to the overwhelming economic costs of nation-building rather than the moral case against it; and he emphasizes targeted action against radical Islam rather than the United States' role in fomenting it.

And for a party that is increasingly skeptical of foreign involvement, that's a message that could work for him.

But in the months and years ahead, it will be incumbent on Rand Paul to continue to emphasize the differences between him and his father -- both in tone and in substance.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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