MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. – “Anybody read about the Middle East?” asked Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to a Shriner’s hall packed with war veterans. “They’ve been killing each other for a thousand years and they’ll probably be killing each other for another thousand years. That doesn’t mean we just retreat, and do nothing. That means we need to acknowledge what the Middle East is like before we get involved.”
On Monday, Paul made a brief trip to this veteran-rich coast city to reiterate his subtly non-interventionist foreign policy. He did that at a forum hosted by Concerned Veterans of America, a group funded by the Koch network to mobilize conservatives on VA reform and related issues. Organizers said that it would be up to Paul whether he wanted to talk about those issues, or about the world at war. After sharing a few stories of heroic veterans, including one who had lost both legs in Afghanistan. Paul launched right into the positions that have set him apart from the Republican field.
“I’ve seen up close – secondhand, but up close – the effects of war,” said Paul. “I don’t see war as a chess game. I don’t see war as a game of Risk, where you put some troops here, you put some troops there… or oh, we’ll topple this government replace it with American-style democracy.”
Paul entered the Senate in 2011 as a critic of nation-building and the Iraq War. Since mid-2014 and the rise of ISIS, he’s tailored a narrow approach to fighting terrorism, starting with a limited authorization of military force that would sunset the post-9/11 AUMF. At the same time, he’s continued campaigning (and suing) for the end of some post-9/11 bulk data collection programs.
That’s been a hard sale with a Republican base that’s angry about the rise of the Islamic State, and deeply worried about it reaching across the Atlantic to attack Americans. No violence in the United States has been linked to the group, beyond lone wolf attacks by people who claim to have been inspired by it.
“It’s getting crazy, and they’re coming here,” said Sandy Kaminsky, 54, an Air Force veteran who moved to South Carolina from New Jersey. “The president has no real strategy for fighting them. He says we should worry about them over there? No: They’re already over here.”
In the Shriner’s hall, Paul asked veterans to think about the conflict in different terms. He was standing more or less along among candidates who wanted to over-commit in the Middle East, and to start wars, he said. The choice was not between pacifism and victory. It was between victory and expensive, jingoistic blundering.
“Is it really something we want to do to put a million American soldiers back there?” he asked. “Half a mission soldiers back there? When people say we should put boots on the ground, I say, absolutely: The first boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.”
That line sparked a very small smattering of applause. Paul immediately won the crowd back by attacking foreign aid – and a presidential rival, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“Why don’t we quit sending foreign aid to people that hate us?” he said, to applause. “Why don’t we quit sending foreign aid to countries that burn our flag and say ‘Death to America!’ Some people don’t get it, including a senator from your state who loves foreign aid to every country. He says he’s projecting power around the world. You don’t project power from bankruptcy court.”
The subject turned back to veterans’ care only after Paul sat down for the question and answer session with CVA’s Pete Hegseth. Some of the hundred-odd veterans who showed up had specific horror stories about long waits for surgery, and about the slow rollout of the Veterans Choice Act, which Paul supported. Paul acknowledged the problems, and tied them to wasteful spending and the built-in faults of a single-payer system.
“It is like Canada, or England,” said Paul. “The way health care is rationed is through waiting. It is not efficient, and it never will be. “
Paul’s solution, naturally, was in tighter military spending. Less waste (“you can’t walk around the Pentagon without tripping over a general”) meant more money to spend on care. Less military adventurism meant fewer returning soldiers who needed it. Paul, whose own version of an AUMF stalled out last year, warned that the resolution preferred by most Republicans “would have us at war with Nigeria, Libya, and 10 other countries” in pursuit of Islamic terror.
“A commander-in-chief should see war in the terms of sending your son, your daughter, into war,” said Paul. “Not glorifying war, and saying it’s a great thing.”
When the speech ended, Paul waded through a crowd of selfie-seekers. The event was CVA’s, not his; selfies, not campaign sign-ups, were the most he could get. His message, which he’ll need to carry into televised debates next week, seemed to survive intact.
“If I was a father during World War II, I’d tell my son to enlist,” said Andrew Felker, 67, a six-year Navy veteran. “I could not tell him that today. They say all these Arab democracies are coming up. You know what? The Muslim Brotherhood ain’t never gonna run a democracy. Why would I want my son to give his life for the Muslim Brotherhood?”