The most important word in Rand Paul’s attack on Hillary Clinton


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is really good at making news, and he did it again Wednesday night with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that, in part, attacked Hillary Clinton for being too hawkish on Syria.

To interventionists like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we would caution that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria created a haven for the Islamic State. We are lucky Mrs. Clinton didn't get her way and the Obama administration did not bring about regime change in Syria. That new regime might well be ISIS.

This is not to say the U.S. should ally with [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. But we should recognize how regime change in Syria could have helped and emboldened the Islamic State, and recognize that those now calling for war against ISIS are still calling for arms to factions allied with ISIS in the Syrian civil war. We should realize that the interventionists are calling for Islamic rebels to win in Syria and for the same Islamic rebels to lose in Iraq. While no one in the West supports Assad, replacing him with ISIS would be a disaster.

Our Middle Eastern policy is unhinged, flailing about to see who to act against next, with little thought to the consequences. This is not a foreign policy.

Those who say we should have done more to arm the Syrian rebel groups have it backward. Mrs. Clinton was also eager to shoot first in Syria before asking some important questions. Her successor John Kerry was no better, calling the failure to strike Syria a "Munich moment."

A few things here:

1) The use of the i-word -- "interventionist" -- is what struck us most. This is a pretty clear indication that Paul intends to run in 2016, especially in a potential matchup with Clinton, on a more actively dovish foreign policy platform. It's also a pretty clear effort to differentiate her approach from his, which is often labeled "non-interventionist."

"Interventionist" is also used in the title of the column, and it doesn't strike us as having particularly positive connotations. Indeed, we're not aware of too many foreign policy hawks who use that word to describe themselves.

This might seem much ado about nothing, given that Paul is known to be less hawkish. He has also been critical of Rick Perry and Chris Christie on that count. But Paul has also long toed the line between the kind of non-interventionism championed by his father, Ron Paul, and a more middle-ground approach to foreign policy. And straying too far down the non-interventionist road risks folks invoking another i-word: "isolationism." It's a constant balancing act for Paul.

Bringing the word "interventionist" into the mix suggests that he is primed for this debate and is trying to set the terms -- or at least the terminology.

2) The turnabout here is striking. It's no surprise that Paul is a different kind of Republican on foreign policy, but check out the Democratic National Committee's response to his op-ed:

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Paul. Last week he criticized American policy to the president of another country on foreign soil. This week he's blaming the Obama Administration for another nation's civil war. That type of “blame America” rhetoric may win Paul accolades at a conference of isolationists but it does nothing to improve our standing in the world. In fact, Paul's proposals would make America less safe and less secure.

Simply put, if Rand Paul had a foreign policy slogan, it would be -- The Rand Paul Doctrine: Blame America. Retreat from the World.

MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin nailed it with this tweet:

That's basically true. And in fact, Republicans did use that same verbiage against Democrats who questioned the Iraq war during the 2004 campaign. In the space of one Associated Press story, in fact, three different high-ranking GOP campaign operatives used the "blame America" phrasing. And Republicans back then regularly used the word "retreat" to define Democrats' alternative approach to the war on terror.

It's still likely we'll never see a Clinton vs. Paul general election matchup in 2016. But the foreign policy dynamics of that race (which Paul can also use to differentiate himself in the GOP primary) would be absolutely fascinating.

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