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.
Republican foreign policy experts are quick to question Paul’s credentials—anonymously, at least. One Capitol Hill staffer I talked to said, “I have yet to see any evidence that this guy’s anything more than someone who’s read up on a handful of issues as opposed to someone who’s traveled widely and thought deeply about the world.” Whereas Rubio has added Jamie Fly, the former director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, to his team, Paul has made no equivalent national security hire. On foreign policy, Paul listens to a group of political advisers that includes Doug Stafford, his former chief of staff who now works on his reelection campaign; Trygve Olson, a consultant who has worked on democracy promotion efforts in eastern Europe and who described himself to me as “a political guy who ended up doing a lot of foreign policy”; and Jack Hunter, a radio talk show host now working for Paul who calls himself “the southern avenger.” “I think this is a work in progress,” Elliott Abrams said of Paul’s foreign policy.
Nonetheless, as his ideological opponents readily admit, Paul is a skilled politician with a viable future. Yet he is popular not only because he is young, savvy, and articulate but also because he has exploited a long-standing gap between American citizens and their political leaders on foreign policy. When pollsters from Rasmussen asked likely voters this January, “Should the United States be the world’s policeman?” only 11 percent answered yes. No wonder Paul’s message of restraint has found such a warm reception.
The brashest of Paul’s positions—the immediate cutting off of aid, the major downsizing of military bases, the imposition of significant congressional authority—will likely never become U.S. foreign policy. But his effect on the rhetorical landscape could prove more lasting. Paul, George Will said, has “expanded the range of what is discussable.” The challenge he poses to advocates of military intervention is particularly potent, and particularly useful at a time when Washington is debating our intervention in Syria.
On the day Paul and I spoke, Rasmussen polled likely voters about the conflict in Syria. Seventy-three percent thought the United States should stay out. The Senate, meanwhile, was coming to its own consensus on Syria. The chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, had just introduced legislation that would provide arms and training to the opposition, and McCain and Democratic Senator Carl Levin would soon take to the Senate floor and demand missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Rubio had staked out his position on Syria well before, arguing for stronger actions against the regime back in 2011.
Paul was skeptical. He wondered which side the rebels were on, what would happen to Syria’s two million Christians, and whether a post-Assad state would be any better than the one that preceded it. “I’m not saying it’s not America’s problem; I’m just saying I’m not sure what the solution is, and I’m not sure anybody knows,” he said. “People who say they know, I think, are being presumptuous.” Two days later, Paul was off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to speak before a sold-out crowd at the GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner. The Iowa caucuses were more than two and a half years away, but Paul was already polling well among Iowans. He was leading Rubio by nineteen points.
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