Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is trying to position himself as a one-man counterweight to Capitol Hill’s neoconservatives, a wing of the Republican party that has driven the GOP’s foreign policy agenda for the past decade.
In what he billed as a “major foreign policy speech” Tuesday at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Paul laid out an alternate vision for the role America should play on the global stage, which he said represents a realist — as opposed to neoconservative or isolationist — approach.
A number of the positions Paul outlined sounded strikingly similar to those embraced by progressive Democrats — and promise clashes with leading voices on foreign policy in his own party such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Like Paul, McCain joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the new Congress.
Paul’s remarks added up to a more nuanced, less dogmatic take on foreign affairs than what he advocated during his first two years in the Senate.
The freshman senator’s often quixotic campaigns to cut or eliminate U.S. foreign aid in the 112th Congress earned him a reputation as an opponent of international engagement. Paul, who was elected in 2010 with the strong backing of the tea party movement, sought to quickly erase that impression on Tuesday. And in the process he continued to position himself for a possible 2016 presidential run.
Presenting what he styled as moderate approach to international affairs, Paul argued that “there is room for a foreign policy that strikes a balance” between the extremes of “a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time” and one “that is nowhere any of the time.” That, he said, is similar to the middle ground U.S. leaders sought between appeasement and World War III during the Cold War.
Invoking both storied diplomat George F. Kennan and iconic Republican President Ronald Reagan, Paul made an argument for a U.S. foreign policy “that is not rash or reckless” but rather “reluctant, restrained by constitutional checks and balances.”
Reagan, he recalled, “did not shy away from labeling the Soviet Union as an evil empire, but he also sat down with [Soviet head of state Mikhail] Gorbachev and negotiated meaningful reductions in nuclear weapons.”
Such a foreign policy “recognizes the danger of radical Islam,” which Paul portrayed as communism’s modern-day equivalent, “but also the inherent weakness of radical Islam.”
It is, he continued, “a foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on the pretext of what they might someday do,” and one that “understands the distinction between vital and peripheral interests.”
That wasn’t the only swing Paul took at the sort of international interventions fellow Republican politicians have pursued in recent years.
“When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched, and I wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be,” he said early on his remarks.
He also knocked a nonbinding resolution the Senate passed by a vote of 90-1 last year, declaring it is not U.S. policy to contain a nuclear Iran. Paul was the lone nay vote.
“No one, including myself, wants to see a nuclear Iran. Iran does need to know that all options are on the table. But we should not preemptively announce that diplomacy or containment will never be an option,” Paul said.
In those and other remarks on Iran, Paul expressed concerns heard mostly from liberal commentators, who have worried openly that the United States is positioning itself for another poorly thought-out war in the Middle East.
“Understandably, no one wants to imagine what happens if Iran develops nuclear weapons, but if we don’t have at least some of that discussion now, the danger exists that war is the only remedy,” Paul said Tuesday.
Paul said in a question-and-answer session with reporters after his speech that there are several areas of foreign policy where he lines up with Democrats, highlighting in particular his work with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley in support of speeding up the timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan. In his speech, however, Paul cited Afghanistan as an example of a U.S. military intervention that was warranted.
Paul has also been among a small number of Republicans who has joined with liberal Democrats in criticizing the Obama administration’s targeted killing program overseas, via drones, on civil liberties grounds.
The senator is at stark odds, however, with Democrats on foreign aid spending, which the party, as well as activist Republicans, believe is a necessary part of American security and diplomatic posture abroad.
On Tuesday Paul distanced himself from both parties, decrying what he described as a “monolithic” approach to foreign policy in Washington.
“Anyone who questions the bipartisan consensus is immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged,” he said, pointing in particular to unanimity on Capitol Hill when it comes to Iran. There is more debate on potential strikes against Iran in Israel, he noted.
“In our foreign policy, our Congress has become not just a rubber stamp but an irrelevancy,” said Paul.
The senator made clear he is prepared to take it upon himself to change that.
At the very least, Paul might be able to tap into a growing desire among war-weary Americans to ratchet back the country’s ambition abroad. And Paul’s call Tuesday for fewer soldiers stationed overseas, fewer military bases and an end to “limitless land wars in multiple theaters” is where the U.S. military is likely headed amid belt-tightening at the Pentagon.
The senator made clear he is prepared to continue to take high-profile stands on that and other issues that have made him a gadfly in Congress.
“I do want to be part of the national debate and the international debate,” Paul told reporters.
And he did not shy away from talk of a run for national office in 2016. Paul said the fact that his policy positions don’t necessarily hew to party lines would appeal to moderate Republicans and independents and areas of the country where “we’re not doing very well” as a party.
He said the aim of his speech Tuesday was to explain his ideas on foreign policy and how they distinguish him from his father, retired Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and others in his party and in Washington.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.