It is anyone’s guess whether and how long Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) will stick with his new hawkish stance toward the Islamic State. But whether he flips back again to a philosophy of retrenchment and U.S. inertness, he is still burdened by a few years of votes and many years of rhetoric evidencing a President Obama-like preference for retrenchment and conflict avoidance (which usually entails appeasement, as it does in Ukraine). It didn’t need to be this way. Had he been less a Paul and more a libertarian, he wouldn’t have tied himself in knots.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama during the G20 summit. (Guneev Sergey/Getty Images) Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama during the Group of 20 summit. (Guneev Sergey/Getty Images)

Richard Epstein, one of the most visible and respected libertarians, writes persuasively:

The just state should, in my opinion, protect private property, promote voluntary exchange, preserve domestic order, and protect our nation against foreign aggression. Unfortunately, too many modern libertarian thinkers fail to grasp the enormity of that last obligation. In the face of international turmoil, they become cautious and turn inward, confusing limited government with small government. Unwisely, they demand that the United States keep out of foreign entanglements unless and until they pose direct threats to its vital interests—at which point it could be too late.

The most vocal champion of this position is Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul has been against the use of military force for a long time. Over the summer, he wrote an article entitled “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War,” for the pages of the Wall Street Journal arguing that ISIS did not threaten vital American interests. Just this past week, he doubled down on this position, again in the Journal, arguing that the past interventions of the United States in the Middle East have abetted the rise of ISIS.

Epstein demolishes Paul’s theory that U.S. intervention gave rise to the Islamic State. (As an aside, we did not intervene, which has been the topic of debate and discussion for several years now.) Epstein explains,”The United States could have, and should have, supported the moderate opposition to [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad by providing it with material assistance, and, if necessary, air support, so that it could have been a credible threat against Assad, after the President said Assad had to go over three years ago. The refusal to get involved allowed Assad to tackle the moderates first in the hope that the United States would give him a pass to tackle ISIS, or, better still, even assist him in its demise, as we might well have to do.”)

In sum, Paul’s philosophy, which might not still be his philosophy, isn’t dictated by libertarianism. A common-sense and forward-leaning foreign policy is perfectly compatible with libertarianism, as Epstein shows. Rather, Paul’s preference for inaction and his willingness to ignore events in the real world appear to be just a pale imitation of his father’s fantastical thinking on foreign policy.

It is not just George W. Bush whom Paul the Younger (and Obama for that matter) seek to blame., Epstein points out. (“Rand Paul likes to insist that the initial blunder was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Whether that invasion was right or wrong is irrelevant today. The question now is how to play the hand that we have been dealt. Whatever the wisdom of going into Iraq, peace had been restored by the surge when President Obama took office in 2009.”) He also is in the business of imitating what Jeane Kirkpatrick famously called the liberals’ penchant “to blame America first.” This, too, is a common trait of anti-interventionists on the far right and left.

Christian Whiton, a former Defense department official, noticed this as well, taking issue with Paul’s insistence that U.S. intervention caused the rise of the Islamic State: “The idea was these non-Islamist rebels could confront Assad—who has much American blood on his hands—and also keep the jihadists out. This fact is something Paul must have known from his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but chose to forget in this instance. But more telling is Paul’s belief that America is somehow to blame for the creation of the Islamic State despite having done next to nothing in Syria and withdrawing from Iraq. Paul ignores the real cause: Iranian support for Assad allowed him to kill off secular rebels while the jihadists who would become ISIS and later the Islamic State took advantage of the maelstrom—and our inaction.” But let’s not forget that Paul defended Assad, saying he was good for Christians.

Paul’s “blame America first” philosophy extends to Russia as well, Whiton points out:

As Russian President Vladimir Putin began his move on Crimea after months of Moscow-induced political crisis in Ukraine, Paul said, “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.” He added that, “I think we need to have a respectful—sometimes adversarial—but a respectful relationship with Russia.”

Notwithstanding his senatorial caveat, the unmistakable implication of this statement is that Paul believes America’s “tweaking” of Moscow is at least partly to blame for Russia’s invasions and subversions abroad. In Paul’s world, Putin is driven to act by the United States, rather than a more probable quest for personal power or the age-old Russian desire to dominate Europe and punish nations that attained the wealth and stature that somehow continue to evade Russia.

Missing from Paul’s inclination to blame America for the world’s threats is any real policy to mitigate those threats.

The old Rand Paul who promised a different foreign policy to college kids and other libertarian-leaning audiences will have to duke it out with the newer Rand Paul. The conflict between the two Pauls has not gone unnoticed by the base. (At the hard-core conservative Red State in a post entitled “Rand Paul’s Transparent Duplicity on Iraq,” the blogger compares his flip-flop to Mitt Romney’s — and that’s a slur on the far right — and wants to know “how and why he has repudiated the one stance that he has actually kept consistently since he was elected and was spouting on television two months ago: that invading Iraq to destroy terrorists is what caused all this chaos in the Middle East in the first place.”) 

In any case, the damage is already done since Paul’s instincts and ingrained philosophy have been set forth in numerous verbal remarks and op-eds. The voters may well heed Whiton’s counsel: “In the real world where American power is not the cause of our problems, modern presidents of both parties have used our national power judiciously but forcefully to confront threats abroad. At least they often did up to the current president, whose de facto non-interventionism offers a preview of what Rand Paul’s foreign policy would produce.” Quite simply, Obama’s presidency is a lesson in the dangers of the outlook Paul espoused until he decided it was better to destroy the Islamic State after all.