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September 13, 2013 1:39 PM Is Rand Paul “Winning” on Foreign Policy?

By Ed Kilgore

McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed has a triumphalist article up today claiming that Sen. Rand Paul has leapt from his old man’s gadfly position on national security and foreign policy to become a Big Dog indeed—perhaps the Biggest Dog in his party’s kennel:

Not long ago, the Washington grown-ups who run the Republican Party would have dismissed the junior senator from Kentucky making cracks about an establishment pillar like McCain as little more than the goading of a gadfly. But over the past two weeks, it has become clear that Paul’s brand of Republicanism has spread deeply within his party. He successfully rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers against a military intervention in Syria; thoroughly embarrassed Republican leaders who supported the air strikes; and temporarily elevated himself to the role of de facto foreign policy spokesman for the GOP. When President Obama took his case for war to the American people in a primetime address this week, it was Paul who delivered the unofficial Republican counterargument in a series of interviews and a widely covered speech.
Paul, in short, is winning.

While it’s clear a non-interventionist position is no longer unmentionable in GOP circles, Coppins goes much too far in claiming party-wide dominance for Paulism. It is not at all clear that Paul was the central figure—much less the organizer of “bipartisan” opposition—in the resistance to a use-of-force resolution on Syria. In his utterances on the subject, he frequently hinted at sympathy for Assad as the protector of Syrian Christians; few Republicans, and virtually no Democrats, Went There.

Moreover, Republican hostility to Obama’s position on Syria was not all that unprecedented; it was equally widespread during the Kosovo crisis (as Coppins does note) and reasonably strong more recently when Obama intervened in Libya (which Coppins does not mention). Moreover, the grounds for GOP opposition were hardly uniform: some deployed the “no-win-war” argument against limited military strikes, and others wanted to keep their powder dry for a future conflict against Iran.

And that points to the overriding reason that Paul appears to be in the “mainstream” of GOP foreign policy “thinking” right now: he’s standing on the common ground of conservative hostility to collective security arrangements, international organizations like the U.N., treaties, and the whole Democratic-created edifice of U.S.-sponsored constraints on the unilateral use of force. When it comes to a Democratic president calling on Americans to deploy limited means to enforce international norms regarding chemical weapons, Rand Paul and Dick Cheney stand together.

If Paul runs for president and has to articulate a positive vision for foreign policy and national security, that common ground will largely vanish, and the gap between Republicans who want to abandon collective security arrangements in order to “mind our own business” and those who want to Walk Tall across the global landscape will re-emerge. And it’s not at all clear Paul’s side of that factional argument is in any position to “win.”

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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