Why foreign policy matters more to Rand Paul than anyone else running for president

Over the weekend, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul showed why his views on foreign policy are the thing most likely to trip him up in his near-certain bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.


Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. autographs a shirt for a fan after speaking at a GOP Freedom Summit, Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Here's what he said during an interview with ABC's Jon Karl about the possibility of pursuing containment as it relates to Iran's quest for nuclear weapons:

They said containment will never, ever, ever, ever be our policy. We woke up one day, and Pakistan had nuclear weapons -- if that would have been our policy with Pakistan, we would have been at war with Pakistan. We woke up one day, and China had nuclear weapons. We woke up one day, and Russia had them. "The people who say, ‘By golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war.

Cue furor among hawkish conservatives. Here's WaPo's Jennifer Rubin: "[Paul's] repeated refusal to rule out containment has profound implications for his presidential ambitions and may suggest he has given up on positioning himself as a mainstream conservative on national security."

On Tuesday night, Paul penned an op-ed for the Post that sought to clarify his views.  He wrote, in part:

Nuance has been a bit lacking in our foreign policy of late. Whether through preemptive war or “red lines” that were crossed without consequence, the extremes of foreign policy have had their way, and it has not worked....It is a dumb idea to announce to Iran that you would accept and contain that country if it were to become a nuclear power. But it is equally dumb, dangerous and foolhardy to announce in advance how we would react to any nation that obtains nuclear weapons.... I have often said that we have, for too long, had a debate between the extremes of foreign policy — and that to be on either end of the extremes can have life-or-death consequences....False choices between being everywhere all of the time and nowhere any of the time are fodder for debate on Sunday morning shows or newspaper columns. Real foreign policy is made in the middle; with nuance; in the gray area of diplomacy, engagement and reluctantly, if necessary, military action.

The truth of the matter is that Paul is a different kind of Republican when it comes to foreign policy.  Take Paul's history on Iran. In the spring of 2012, he worked to slow approval of a measure sanctioning Iran for their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, making clear that he didn't want the vote to be seen as a first step toward a potential war. While he eventually voted for those sanctions, he opposed an effort to put more sanctions on the country earlier this year, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer: " I think the bottom line is we should give negotiations a chance. My hope is that sanctions will avoid war. We've been involved in two long wars in the Middle East. And I think it would be best if we can do anything possible to try to avoid another war now."  (He was one of two Senators not to sign on to the sanctions effort led by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.)

Here's Foreign Policy's Colin Dueck explaining the differences between Rand's foreign policy views and those of the GOP establishment -- represented, for the purposes of this conversation by Senators like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and, yes, Ted Cruz:

Consider the foreign policy address Paul delivered at the Center for the National Interest [in January]. In that speech, Paul bucked the party establishment by citing U.S. President Barack Obama’s diplomatic resolution to Syria’s chemical weapons program as a possible model for dealing with the nuclear weapons programs of Iran and North Korea. He also emphasized the need for a policy of containment rather than preemptive war in dealing with jihadist terrorism and declared that “dialogue is nearly always preferable to war.”  The speech was in line with Rand’s previous calls for deep cuts in U.S. military spending and foreign aid, strategic disentanglement overseas, and a dramatic scaling back of the United States’ postwar "national security state" including its targeting and surveillance of suspected terrorists.

In that speech, Paul summed up his views this way: "I really am a believer that foreign policy must be viewed by events as they present themselves, not as we wish them to be."  His critics -- the McCains and Grahams of the world -- would call it something else, something like isolationism. Here's Cruz on Paul: “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

No matter what you call it, it's clear that on foreign policy, Paul stands on one side of the GOP's 2016 field while Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and virtually every other major contender stand on the other side. What's less clear is whether Paul either a) represents a silent majority among Republicans when it comes to how the U.S. makes decisions about where and when to intervene internationally or b) will hedge some of his more controversial positions on foreign policy -- as his father refused to do in his own presidential bids -- in order to make himself palatable to the establishment wing of the GOP.

On that first point, it's worth remembering two things. One is that former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, when he was considering a run for president in 2011, advocated considering the possibility of drawing down the number of troops in Afghanistan. Barbour is a pillar of the GOP establishment, and for him to have supported such a position can't be ignored.   The second is how the leaking of information about the National Security Agency's massive domestic and international surveillance programs have changed the way people -- including Republican Members of Congress -- view America's involvement in the world. Witness the surprisingly close vote to drastically limit the NSA surveillance program in the House last July; 94 Republicans voted in support of zeroing out money for the surveillance program.

On the second point, it's hard to know how Paul will play it.  His allies have made clear he is savvier, politically speaking, than his father and understands that he isn't likely to enjoy majority support within the party for his foreign policy views. Therefore, he won't spend oodles of time talking about those issues. Still, some of Paul's appeal to the libertarian end of the GOP base is founded in his foreign policy/NSA views. Walking away from those views could be a risky politically maneuver for Paul.

Foreign policy almost never plays a major role in deciding who each party nominates for president or who the nation chooses as its top elected official. And it's not likely to be in 2016 either. But, for Paul, his views on foreign policy are a window into the larger divide he will try to straddle -- between his libertarian base and the GOP establishment he knows he needs to win the nomination.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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