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.
Even as the neoconservatives are busy trying to stamp out Paul’s brand of foreign policy, however, Paul is engaging in a concerted outreach to them. After Paul won his primary, he spoke with a group of GOP foreign policy hands at a meeting organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative that included Senor, Bill Kristol, Jamie Fly, and Tom Donnelly. Senor met with Paul again before the Israel trip, and the two discussed Senor’s book on the Israeli economy. Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has met with Paul twice, forty-five minutes each time, talking mostly about the Middle East. He found Paul willing to listen and argue. There are two possible explanations for Paul’s discussions with neoconservatives, Abrams said. “One is purely political—that is, like the trip to Israel, it is a part of creating a better image of himself as someone who listens to everyone and who is just seeking as many opinions as he can get. The other theory is that he’s actually interested in seeing what we think.”
By putting out feelers to the foreign policy establishment, Paul is fueling chatter about his presidential ambitions—speculation he openly embraces. Part of this effort involves distancing himself from his father. During the presidential debates of 2007, Ron Paul, spasmodic in voice and animated in eyebrow, alienated voters with his argument that 9/11 was backlash against the United States’s meddling in the Middle East. “Ron saw himself as a truth teller,” said a senior Republican aide with ties to Rand Paul. “Rand sees things a little differently. Rand believes that the best way to effect change is to win and then be able to make policy.” In April, the elder Paul founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and named Slobodan Milosevic apologists and 9/11 truthers to its board. Rand did not attend the think tank’s opening.
There is plenty more distancing left to do. This May, the National Association for Gun Rights, a group that sits to the right of the National Rifle Association, sent a fund-raising letter under Paul’s name raising alarm about the Obama administration’s support for the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which would supposedly allow UN bureaucrats to confiscate Americans’ guns. “I don’t know about you,” the letter said, “but watching anti-American globalists plot against our Constitution makes me sick.” The allegation played to populist suspicions about international institutions. (As Paul’s long-shot primary opponent Gurley Martin said during one debate to much applause, the UN needed to be “sent back to France or wherever in the hell it came from.”) But it was wholly untrue: the treaty in question explicitly affirms the right for countries to set their own domestic gun policies.
In June, Paul issued a call to arms concerning the NSA’s electronic surveillance program. As he had done before, Paul bypassed the measured criticism he could have summoned and instead embraced the paranoid style. “How long until these spying capabilities suffer some ‘mission creep’ and they start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows?” he asked in a mass email. The dispatch requested that supporters join Paul’s class-action lawsuit against the federal government (something legal experts say has no chance of succeeding) and that they donate to his leadership PAC.
The domestic market for American activism abroad is soft. Part of the fault for that lies with the economic recession. At a time of high unemployment, ambitious programs of international engagement are a tough sell. Take foreign aid, which by definition has no domestic constituency. According to one 2010 poll, Americans on average believe that their government spends 27 percent of its budget on international assistance but should spend 13 percent; the actual fraction is 1 percent. “Foreign aid—just those two words have taken on a negative connotation with a lot of our Republican base,” McCain told me.
But neoconservatives cannot heap all the blame for the erosion of their foreign policy monopoly on the economy. “One word, two syllables: it’s Iraq more than anything else,” the conservative Washington Post columnist George Will said when I asked what explained the growing popularity of Paul’s foreign policy. In Iraq, the Bush administration attempted to transform the Middle East unilaterally and cheaply. When the experiment failed—when it became clear that the reformation of Iraq could only be had at great cost, if at all—the contradictions in the administration’s worldview were laid bare. To a lesser extent, this was true in Afghanistan, too, where achieving even the limited goal of denying al-Qaeda a safe haven has proved frustratingly elusive. “Conservatives have been eloquent and correct for forty years on how hard it is to fix Cleveland,” Will said. “They seemed to neglect what they knew about Cleveland when it turned to Afghanistan.”
With Iraq having “thoroughly shattered the Republican Party’s brand on foreign policy,” as the Cato Institute scholar Christopher Preble put it, some Republicans began searching for alternatives to the neoconservative ideology that had dominated their party’s thinking. In another era, they would have bumped into something called the Republican realist, a category that last had influence during the George H. W. Bush administration in the figures of Colin Powell, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft.
But sometime in the 1990s, that species began to go extinct. After Bush lost his reelection, the realists never could transcend technocracy to achieve real political influence, and never could offer a message that competed with that of the neoconservatives. Today, Republican realists face the added disadvantage of having a president from the opposite party who, generally speaking, has adopted just the type of limited foreign policy they prescribe. Agreeing with the incumbent Democrat gets you nowhere in the Republican Party.
And so the non-neoconservative Republicans are left with Paul, who, in the words of the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “can sometimes sound like a libertarian purist, sometimes like a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode and sometimes like—well, like a man who was an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., just a few short years ago.” Paul’s perceived extremism has prevented the old-school realists from claiming him as their own. As one former official who identifies as a realist told me, “While some (but not all, to say the least) of what Rand Paul says makes sense, he is much too outside the mainstream on all sorts of economic, domestic, and foreign policy questions to be the heir to Bush 41, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, etc.” The isolationist wing of the GOP is long gone, so it is impossible to know what they would make of Paul, but, Trey Grayson said, “Robert Taft wouldn’t be hanging around the equivalent of Alex Jones.”
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