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

On the other hand, Reagan was more of an internationalist; he was willing to bind the United States into arms-reduction deals with the Soviets. When Paul was asked just after his election whether he would vote in favor of the New START Treaty, an agreement between the United States and Russia on joint nuclear weapons reductions, he said, “It doesn’t sound like I’m probably going to be in favor of that.” The Senate ended up ratifying the treaty before he was sworn in. “The fact that twenty-six senators, all Republicans, voted against the New START Treaty must have sent Reagan twirling in his grave,” Matlock said.

Paul’s self-proclaimed realism also fits uneasily with his libertarianism. Traditionally, realpolitik is the school favored by statists—people like Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger—who believe that grand strategy is best left to a strong executive. Paul’s opposition to drones reveals this contradiction most. The CIA’s drone program allows the United States to fight terrorism by joystick from Nevada, without having to engage in the messy business of nation building. As the foreign policy commentator and former Ron Paul adviser Leon Hadar told me, one would think that drones would be “the weapon that realists would fall in love with.” Yet for Paul, they represent the very embodiment of unchecked government power.

In fixating on the possibility that the federal government could use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, Paul made it look like his opposition to drones owed more to conservative chain emails than to studied Human Rights Watch reports. Reasonable critics have questioned the Obama administration’s drone policy over the secrecy surrounding the targeting process and the possibility that collateral damage from strikes helps terrorist recruitment. (Both were problems Obama attempted to address in his speech at National Defense University in May.) The idea that a Hellfire missile could interrupt a barbecue, however, does not top their list of concerns. When I suggested to John Tate that the filibuster had to be symbolic, he said it probably was—but only partly so. “There’s a certain segment of the people that aren’t so sure about what you said, that we’re not going to do drone strikes on American soil,” he said.

Speaking to me in his office, Paul argued that the drone program’s lack of geographical limits means that the same problems it poses in, say, Yemen could affect the United States too. “We have circumstances overseas where you and I are talking, and they think you’re a terrorist, and they blow us both up,” he said, trying to lend some immediacy to a hypothetical scenario. While the two of us may be terrorists, he continued, the only person who gets to see the evidence is the president. “He flips through flash cards, and they do a Power-Point, and he decides who he’s going to kill,” Paul said. He added, “Let’s say you are a bad person and you may be plotting. Maybe it is a good thing to kill you. But then”—he began gesturing successively to the three silent staffers beside us—“Moira sits in your chair next, and we kill her, and then Rachel sits in your chair, and then Sergio sits in your chair. Is there an end to it?”

As his imagined bloodbath demonstrated, Paul’s anti-drone crusade pivots between principled opposition to executive power and fantastical scenes of robotic doom. John McCain told me that Paul’s filibuster proved so popular because “it feeds into the conspiracy theories of Americans—the government, the black helicopters going around taking unilateral actions that can trample on individual liberties.”

Yet as out-there as the filibuster may have been, it received the support of the thirteen sitting GOP senators (and one Democrat, Ron Wyden) who formally joined it. McCain said that upon seeing his fellow Republicans flock to the floor, he was “both entertained and dismayed, because it certainly showed, one, the herd instinct around here, but second of all, the influence and inordinate fear of primary challenges.” For Republicans with foreign policy views like McCain’s, it’s bad enough that a noninterventionist coalition is forming around Paul, Cruz, and Lee; what’s worse is that members of their own faction have to pay obeisance to it.

For many in the Republican foreign policy establishment, Paul’s positions are naive, even dangerous. His floating of the idea that the United States might be willing to live with a nuclear Iran—a stance that puts Paul more in line with realist scholars of international relations than the Republican base—startles those who believe that such a state would upset the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and threaten Israel. Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that containment “is an option that should be considered, but having been considered, it should be rejected because there is no way to contain a nuclear jihadist Iran.”

Paul’s proposals to sever foreign aid, meanwhile, have been met with allegations that he just doesn’t get it. Military assistance, the argument runs, buys the United States influence abroad and promotes stability where it is needed most. “Rand Paul is one nice fellow, but I bet you he’s never talked with CIA Director General Petraeus about what would happen if we cut our aid off to Pakistan,” Lindsey Graham said last year.

Most of Paul’s 2012 book, Government Bullies, is dedicated to singling out federal regulators—Environmental Protection Agency officials who arrest a homeowner for spreading topsoil, Department of Agriculture administrators who levy multimillion-dollar fines on a teenage rabbit breeder, and so on. But in a chapter on “foreign bullies,” Paul recounts his crusade against aid to Egypt. “I do not have forty years of foreign policy experience,” he writes. “But I do know that if you want [to] take on a bully, you can’t be meek. You don’t pull punches, but swing as hard as you can, preferably with a blunt object.”

Swinging at Egypt, however, would seem to send exactly the wrong message to the new government: that while a military dictatorship can receive billions of unconditional dollars from the United States for thirty years, as soon as it is replaced with an electoral democracy the funding will dry up. Cutting off aid would also disempower one of the few stabilizing forces in the chaotic country. “I’m not sure what exactly we would achieve by doing that,” said Richard Fontaine, a former McCain adviser who is now president of the Center for a New American Security.

While the Republican foreign policy establishment dismisses the substance of Paul’s views, it recognizes their appeal. In March, the American Enterprise Institute, admitting that “fiscal constraints, weariness with war and isolationism are eroding the American will to lead,” launched the American Internationalism Project, led by former Senators Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl. Dan Senor, who advised Mitt Romney on foreign policy during his 2012 campaign, has begun organizing a network of donors to back internationalist candidates in Republican congressional primaries.

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.