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July 09, 2013 10:36 AM Rand Paul, the Non-Neocon

By Ed Kilgore

The moment when Ron Paul’s Revolution reached its limits and exposed its vulnerabilities during his relatively strong 2012 presidential campaign is pretty easy to identify: December 15, 2011, at a candidate debate in Sioux City, Iowa, when Paul repeatedly articulated his long-held view that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was an understandable act of self-defense motivated in part by America’s history of aggression against that country, epitomized by CIA involvement in the coup that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The other candidates, who had been engaged in a continuing rivalry to show who was most avid for war with Iran, pounced on Paul, and you get the sense that his support levels in Republican primaries soon reached a cap that his domestic policy views might have enabled him to exceed.

Given his background as very much his father’s son, one might have thought that foreign policy heresy would have been a big and perhaps prohibitive factor in Rand Paul’s 2010 audacious Republican Senate primary campaign in conservative Kentucky. But while Paul’s opponent, Trey Grayson, and prominent Grayson proponents like Mitch McConnell and Dick Cheney, tried to make Paul’s non-interventionist instincts an issue, it never gained traction. And that is in no small part because, as Foreign Affairs senior editor Stuart Reid explains in the July-August issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul the Younger has learned to tailor his foreign policy utterances in ways that don’t seem to express empathy with traditional American enemies or offend traditional American friends. At the same time, Rand Paul has been able to exploit the very large open territory created by neoconservative domination of Republican foreign policy, made even larger by the GOP base’s bottomless appetite for anti-Obamaism, even when it involves opposing alliances and military actions supported by neocons.

This open territory is, argues Reid, very much the product of the success neocons have achieved in wiping out the older GOP “realist” tradition in foreign policy. So any conservative disturbed by the Bush administration’s Iraq adventure or the use of drones by the Bush and Obama administrations is by process of elimination driven into alliance with Paul. And at the grass roots, Paul is uniquely able to tap deep and long-standing distaste for foreign aid, which is profoundly unpopular (and exaggerated in its perceived size) across all party and ideological lines.

In interviewing Paul and some of his intraparty critics, Reid developed the sense that there is a degree of convergence developing, partly because of Paul’s aggressive outreach efforts (epitomized by his Big Foreign Policy Speech at the Heritage Foundation earlier this year), and partly because of a shared hostility to Obama’s own “realist” foreign policy.

If Paul does run for president in 2016, and particularly if one of his chief rivals is Marco Rubio (whose instincts and advisory circle are decidedly neo-connish), we could witness the rare event of a genuine Republican foreign policy debate. But in the meantime, no one should underestimate Rand Paul’s adaptability, which is as important a characteristic as the extremist habits and associations (viz.: a staff member, book co-author and “advisor” named Jack Hunter with a long history of neo-Confederate activity) he inherited from his father.

Please read Stuart Reid’s article and be forewarned.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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