After declaring certain Christian defenders of Israel to be “warmongers,” arguing we could not defeat the Islamic State without being an air force for Iran, opining we didn’t have a national security interest in Syria or Iraq, accusing interventionists of abetting the Islamic State’s rise and decrying Hillary Clinton as too hawkish, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has decided that if you can’t beat the “neocons” he might as well join them. He told the Associated Press: “If I were President, I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” Well, welcome aboard, Sen. Paul. And thank goodness he has dropped his prior indefensible positions.
There are a few questions about Paul’s remarkable metamorphosis, which follows increasingly vocal criticism from potential opponents such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry (does he owe Perry an apology since he has now adopted some of the same views?) and conservative policy wonks. I asked his longtime adviser Doug Stafford a few of the questions that come to mind:
Has Paul changed his view of the Middle East since his Wall Street Journal pieces?
Was it a mistake to oppose authorization for use of force against Syria?
If destroying the Islamic State requires boots on the ground, would he authorize that?
How does this reconcile with his view that we didn’t have a stake in the outcome of Syria or Iraq?
Isn’t he doing exactly what he criticized – acting as “Iran’s air force” in destroying the Islamic State, or has he changed his mind?
Doesn’t he now have the exact same position as Hillary Clinton, whom he called too trigger-happy?
If we need to destroy the Islamic State, should we increase the defense budget so it is adequately funded?
Was it a mistake for the president to withdraw all troops from Iraq in 2011?
Stafford didn’t answer, but at some point Paul will be asked to explain this complete about-face — and break the news to the UC-Berkeley kids that he’s in favor of war, just like Hillary Clinton is, in the Middle East. The turnaround is so sudden and so at odds with all he has written and said in the past few months that the question will naturally arise: Is he jettisoning his worldview to revive a presidential campaign? If so, the libertarian extremists who followed Paul the Elder may need to find a new isolationist. One Republican operative backing another 2016 contender wisecracked, “He is starting to put John Kerry to shame when it comes to flip flops.”
And there is the rub. Now, I am all in favor of politicians giving up ridiculous foreign policy positions and adopting instead those that have held the GOP in good stead since Ronald Reagan. But forgive me if I am a bit skeptical that Paul has turned over a new leaf and will stick with Rand Paul 2.0 when presented with tough decisions. If he gave up long-held beliefs in a matter of a few months, how long will it take him to throw overboard views he just adopted?
His transformation does, however, show rather definitively that there is no real struggle in the GOP between isolationists and hawks. Rather there was Rand Paul vs. everybody else; now he’s apparently thrown in the towel. Or does he lack any true convictions, a criticism leveled at Hillary Clinton, who blows with the wind depending upon the political fashions of the day? As a former State Department official critical of the administration put it, “More and more he reminds me of another senator who had little foreign policy experience and thought he could be and should be president: Obama.”
If Paul is serious about this transformation, it is important to carry through on his newfound desire to obliterate the Islamic State, which he now recognizes is a threat to the United States. Would he reverse course and now support droning Americans who have joined up with the Islamic State? Maybe we do need a robust National Security Agency program to detect plots against the homeland. Maybe we should be using military trials at Guantanamo Bay and not risk bringing terrorists to the homeland for trial and incarceration with the regular prison population. Maybe we need a new secretary of defense, rather than Chuck Hagel, whom Paul voted to confirm. Paul’s about-face also raises the question as to what his beef with Clinton now is. Before she was too hawkish. Maybe now — like fellow Republicans — Paul will acknowledge that she was insufficiently persuasive in urging the president to take a tougher stance against Syria.
I suggested yesterday that Paul was floundering because of eccentric views and subpar staff. But like President Obama — whom he resembled until he decided to become a neocon hawk — he and he alone is responsible for his worldview and statements. And right now he risks disappointing all factions on the right and frittering his core claim to be a different sort of politician, one more principled and willing to shake up the parties’ political alignment. If people he criticized were right in insisting we intervene to obliterate the Islamic State, why shouldn’t voters choose one of the GOP presidential candidates who got it right, not the one who insisted everyone else was wrong — and then joined them?
As Kerry found, when you try to please everyone, you wind up pleasing no one — and handing your opponents material for devastating ads.