What ISIS Means for Rand Paul

by Eliana Johnson

President Rand Paul would “seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” That’s what he told the Associated Press last week, and the remark, coming as it did from a lawmaker notoriously wary of military intervention, has turned heads. Just days earlier, Paul attacked former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as a “war hawk.” 

With the Islamic State kidnapping and beheading Americans, Paul has certainly found an opportune moment to deflect the charge that threatens to derail his nascent presidential campaign: that he is an isolationist. Since he was elected to the Senate in 2010, he has struggled to escape the long shadow his father has cast over his political career; now, he is mitigating the vulnerability.

The younger Paul is openly at odds with his father. In his weekly column, published Saturday, the elder Paul fretted that “if the neocons have their way, the Federal Reserve will ‘print’ more money to finance another massive U.S. intervention in the Middle East” that would cause a “further devaluation of the U.S. dollar.” He concluded that President Obama’s admission that he has yet to settle on a strategy to combat the Islamic State is “a glimmer of hope.”

Richard Burt, one of Rand Paul’s foreign-policy advisers, says that the senator’s call to destroy the Islamic State is not merely a matter of political opportunity, but reflects the senator’s broader views about America’s role in the world. When I spoke with Burt, who served as ambassador to West Germany during Ronald Reagan’s second term, he was working with Paul’s team on an op-ed on the Islamic State threat.

Paul, Burt says, “understands that the United States is a global power and that there are occasions where the United States has to use military force.”

“I think this is all based on an approach to foreign policy that thinks in terms of American interests,” he says. “The thing that makes ISIS a particularly serious challenge is that we do have interests” in the Middle East, Burt says — in a thriving Kurdish minority and a stable, successful Iraqi government that integrates the country’s Sunni minority.

Burt tacitly suggests that what differentiates Paul from the neoconservatives who shaped policy at the top echelons of the Bush is his belief that the use of force should be “selective” and that leaders should think through the consequences of using force and have a strategy for bringing it to an end.

Though less idealistic than George W. Bush was in his call to end tyranny in our time, Paul is embracing the conventional foreign-policy stance of the pre-Bush era.

His latest comments are something of an about-face. In a June interview, he told me that President Obama’s contention that the Islamic State might establish safe havens in Iraq from which it could launch attacks on the United States was “a bit of a stretch” and said of the group, “Their first objective isn’t getting to the United States, their first objective would be getting to Baghdad.”

Asked about those remarks, Burt says, “I don’t think two months ago any of us really had a clear understanding of the momentum this group had.”