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.
In February 2012, after Egypt charged nineteen American nongovernmental organization workers with illegally funding pro-democracy groups and prevented six from leaving the country, Paul found a peg on which he could hang his long-standing opposition to foreign assistance, and he proposed an amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt until the Americans were freed. “Dependency often leads to indolence, lethargy, a sense of entitlement, and ultimately to a state of insolence,” he said on the floor of the Senate. “Egypt has been receiving welfare from the United States for nearly forty years.” The measure failed, but the Egyptian government allowed the NGO workers to leave, and Paul took credit for playing the bad-cop role. He later introduced a bill proposing that the government end all aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; it failed 81 to 10.
Notably absent from that list was Israel. Ron Paul never got along with the pro-Israel crowd. (The Republican Jewish Coalition, for example, did not invite him to a presidential candidates’ forum in 2011.) Fearing that the son had inherited the father’s views, supporters of Israel rallied around Trey Grayson during the 2010 primary.
After Paul won, their fears appeared to be confirmed. In September 2012, Paul was the Senate’s sole “nay” vote on a nonbinding resolution endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred redline for military action: Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration has said it will support military action only if Iran actually develops nuclear weapons.) He has refused to rule out the option of containing a nuclear Iran, for fear that doing so will commit the United States to war if Iran were to go nuclear despite the international community’s best efforts.
But aside from his stance on Iran, Paul has gone out of his way to woo the pro-Israel crowd, distancing himself from his father on the topic. “He pretty much threw his father under the bus, very early on, to try to make it clear that he didn’t share all of his father’s views,” said one Republican foreign policy adviser who met with Paul privately. Another adviser who has spoken with Paul privately told me that Paul criticized his father’s stance on Israel, pointing out that Ron Paul’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policies was inconsistent with his stated preference for the United States to mind its own business. “He had clearly thought through where his father’s foreign policy broke down,” the adviser said.
This past January, Paul traveled to Israel, effectively making public the sentiment he had conveyed in private. He had just received a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he spent the first part of his trip meeting with politicians including Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke at a lunch hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and told an audience at a free market think tank in Jerusalem that he favored only a “gradual” reduction of U.S. aid to Israel.
The trip was designed not only to reassure the pro-Israel crowd but also to win over Christian supporters. For seven days, Paul and his wife, Kelley, rolled around the Holy Land on a bus full of American evangelical leaders. The fifty-three-person tour was organized by David Lane, a born-again political activist from California. Owing to their belief that the second coming of Jesus requires a state for God’s chosen people, American evangelicals have a special attachment to Israel. “It’s the Abrahamic covenant,” Lane explained. “God said to Abraham, ‘I’m going to give you the land and that’s my word, that’s my covenant.’ And so there’s never going to be peace because if you go over there, all the key places of the Jews, the Muslims have put a mosque on top of it.”
Paul and the others bathed in the Dead Sea and held a church service on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. They visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the Sermon on the Mount; the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion; the Mount of Olives, from which he ascended into heaven; and the ruins of Megiddo, where Armageddon is supposed to take place. “What happened to Rand Paul was spiritual,” Lane said. Afterward, Lane said, Paul sent him a handwritten note confiding that his first night home, he woke up in a dream singing the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”
If the trip to Israel was the first step of Paul’s move to make himself more acceptable to the conservative mainstream, the second took the form of a speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank led by former Senator Jim DeMint, who had endorsed Paul in the primary. Branding himself a “realist,” Paul urged “a foreign policy that is reluctant” but not isolationist. Indeed, “there are times, such as existed in Afghanistan with the bin Laden terrorist camps, that do require intervention.” Paul’s advisers had also approached the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations as possible venues, but in part because Paul was not interested in holding a question-and-answer session, he ended up at Heritage. And so, with Paul taking no questions after the thirty-minute speech was over, attendees started eating lunch at 11:30 in the morning.
In making the case for restraint, Paul invoked the diplomat George Kennan, quoting liberally from a biography written by the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. Kennan was a foreign policy realist who was most famous for drafting the United States’s containment policy, a path that avoided both appeasement and war. Yet he also believed that grand strategy belonged in the hands of unelected wise men, making him an odd hero for a Tea Party populist. When I pointed out this seeming contradiction to Paul, he said that after reading the Kennan biography, “you kind of thought of him as a snob and an elitist.” (Gaddis, reached by telephone in New Haven, responded that Kennan “was certainly an elitist. I don’t think he was a snob.”) But citing Kennan allowed Paul to claim the threadbare mantle of Republicans’ favorite dead president, Ronald Reagan. As Paul explained, in attempting to contain the Soviet Union through limited means Reagan was arguably the most Kennanesque of any Cold War president.
Not everyone, however, bought Paul’s portrait of a restrained Reagan. The day after the speech, Robert Kagan spent an entire Washington Post column criticizing it, pointing out that Reagan ramped up military spending, armed rebels around the world, and attacked Grenada and Libya. “Well, you didn’t see us in a major land war with Iraq,” Paul retorted to me. “You didn’t see us in a twelve-year war that we’ve been involved with in Afghanistan.” He had a point. In negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan overruled the neoconservatives within his administration who were pushing for a harder line, and every military action he authorized was indirect or small-scale. “When it comes to using force, Reagan was very, very cautious, and he did not like to expose our people to unnecessary danger,” said Jack Matlock, one of Reagan’s foreign policy advisers.
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