July/ August 2013 The Education of Rand Paul

How is a first-term senator becoming a force in his party on foreign policy? Because in today’s GOP, he’s what passes for moderate.

By Stuart A. Reid

McConnell and the Republican establishment had a different successor in mind: Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, the Harvard-educated son of a banker. Paul was, however, the clear choice of the newly formed Tea Party movement. Even though the race centered on economic issues, the Grayson campaign, backed by internal polls of likely Republican voters showing 75-25 splits in its favor on national security positions, sought to make foreign policy an issue. “When his father ran for president in 2008, for the vast majority of Republican voters his foreign policy views made him a nonstarter. So we thought, ‘Wow, here’s his son,’” Grayson told me. “We’re going to assert that he has similar views, even when it’s not clear on specific issues whether he’s in fact exactly the same … and that will disqualify him in the minds of voters.”

The campaign seized on comments Paul had made about sending prisoners from Guantánamo Bay back to the battlefield—just another issue on which Paul, as his opponents put it, was “too kooky for Kentucky.” In a debate broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television, Grayson demanded that Paul explain why he was in favor of allowing detainees to return to war zones. “And don’t talk about Chinese Uighurs,” Grayson warned. (Paul had claimed that his comments about release were made in reference to the Uighur prisoners the Bush administration had already decided to free, marking perhaps the first time the plight of Chinese Muslims had figured in Kentucky politics.) Paul weathered the debate well, making Grayson’s footnoted attacks look desperate.

During the campaign, Paul tapped into his father’s national fund-raising network, gathering small pledges from libertarian donors across the country. Among them were the millions of listeners to the radio show hosted by Alex Jones, America’s most prominent conspiracy theorist; they were so eager to contribute that once when Paul was on the air, they crashed his Web site. In one 2009 appearance, Jones asked Paul if he thought the new world order was going to succeed. Paul replied, “Thirty years ago, nobody thought there’d be one currency in Europe. Right now, most people don’t think there could be one currency in our [continent], and yet the talk of the amero is out there.” The what? Paul seemed to be referring to a short-lived uproar that started when conspiracy theorists encountered images of a fictional unified North American currency created by a designer of novelty coins.

Grayson, by contrast, lined up endorsements from the GOP establishment, including Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom implied that Paul was soft on terrorism. But their support, Grayson told me, “played right into Rand’s hands. The voters didn’t care so much about the foreign policy stuff, and they saw the establishment trying to protect one of its own.” Paul won the primary by twenty-three points and cruised through the general election.

Paul was sworn into the Senate in January 2011, and he wasted no time in proving his Tea Party credentials. That same month, he introduced legislation to cut $500 billion over the eight months left in that fiscal year. His budget for the next fiscal year eliminated the Departments of Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Commerce. It froze foreign aid, scaled back defense spending, and privatized the Smithsonian Institution. The Senate rejected it 90 to 7.

Paul’s budget constituted early proof that his thinking on foreign policy deviated from the party line. Just as Washington should stop fostering dependency through generous entitlement programs at home, he argued, it also needs to stop subsidizing the security of governments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East—foreign welfare queens that can afford to pay for their own needs. In practice, that would mean closing down some U.S. military bases and shrinking the number of troops stationed at others. “The neocons want to characterize this as ‘Oh, he wants to disengage, he doesn’t want to be involved anywhere,’” Paul told me, but he said that overstates his position. “If Germany wants to have their joint base with us and we want to have it, we could do it. Maybe we do it with, instead of fifty thousand troops, five thousand troops.” In South Korea, he said, U.S. forces could leave as part of a deal in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program and allowed inspections to verify that it had done so.

When Obama directed the U.S. military to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya in March 2011, the emerging split on foreign policy within the Republican side of the Senate spilled out into the open. John McCain took to Fox News Sunday to defend the intervention as necessary to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi and support democracy after the Arab Spring. Invoking the United States’s “unique moral responsibilities,” Marco Rubio endorsed the campaign and urged the administration to openly embrace the goal of removing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from power.

Paul, meanwhile, recorded a video response to Obama’s address on Libya, condemning the president for failing to seek approval from Congress “before hastily involving ourselves in yet another Middle Eastern conflict.” Along with Senators Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, and John Cornyn, all of whom lean to the right within the GOP, he sent a letter to Obama challenging the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution. The law, passed in 1973 over the veto of Richard Nixon and in response to the Vietnam War, requires presidents to obtain congressional authorization for military campaigns lasting longer than sixty days, but no president since has accepted its constitutionality.

Paul’s opposition to the Libya campaign went beyond questions of procedure. “In Libya, unless there’s something that I don’t know that wasn’t reported in the media, I’m not sure what our national security interest was,” he told me. “I’m a little skeptical, because the neoconservatives in my party the year before wanted to fund Qaddafi and sell arms to Qaddafi.” Paul was referring to a 2009 meeting, revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, in which Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins discussed the sale of military equipment with the Libyan government. “The next year they want to send boots on the ground and can’t get in there quick enough to topple Qaddafi,” Paul said. While McCain and others had not called for ground troops, Paul’s point remains: “The only thing that seems to be consistent in their position is being involved.”

Stuart A. Reid is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.


  • Abe Froman on July 10, 2013 4:03 PM:

    Fix the byline, Rand was sworn in January 2011, making this his third year

  • brian t. raven on July 12, 2013 11:02 AM:

    A very nice piece of work. A reminder that Rand, despite his status as high-level kook, is clever enough to be a threat to our future.

    Attn: Washington Monthly fact-checker...US foreign aid is actually less than one fifth of the paltry 1% mentioned in the article. It's a bit under 0.2% - which places it in 19th place among the richest countries. Very stingy.

    Here is some sobering perspective, from Oxfam:

    Americans spend as much on maintaining their lawns�$30 billion annually�as the US government spends on foreign aid.

    Americans spend more on caring for pets�$45 billion annually�than the US government spends on foreign aid.

    Americans spend as much on candy�$30 billion annually�as the US government spends on foreign aid.