If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. That, apparently, is Rand Paul’s approach to convincing the political establishment and, perhaps more important, Republican-primary voters, that he is not an isolationist.
He’s said it on television, he’s declared it in print, and, on Thursday evening, he’ll proclaim it again to a ballroom full of foreign-policy realists.
So, if he’s not an isolationist, what is he? The “non-interventionist” label the Kentucky senator has offered up doesn’t seem to have stuck; in tonight’s remarks, he’ll embrace a new one: “conservative realist.”
In New York to deliver the keynote address at the Center for the National Interest’s annual dinner and to receive an award from the foreign-policy organization, which was founded by Richard Nixon in 1994, Paul will offer a sweeping picture of his worldview for the first time.
In doing so, he is treading on sensitive territory and directly taking up his greatest political vulnerability. Since Paul’s election in 2010 and his dizzying rise to national stardom, his foreign-policy views have been the subject of much scrutiny — in part as a result of his parentage (his father, former Texas congressman Ron Paul, has for decades been an isolationist iconoclast in Republican circles, arguing against the War on Terror and calling for the United States’ withdrawal from global alliances) and in part as a result of his own unorthodox beliefs, which he has at times struggled to define.
The conservative-realist label “works really well for him,” says Doug Stafford, who oversees Paul’s political operation as the head of his political-action committee, RAND PAC. Stafford defines it as a commitment to a strong defense and a desire to be engaged in the world while at the same time “not looking to intervene everywhere.”
In his speech, an advance copy of which has been shared exclusively with National Review Online, he will outline a number of national-security threats, from Russia to China to the Middle East, and his proposals for dealing with them. But he will cut to the chase early, arguing that “the greatest threat to our national security is our national debt.” That’s why, he will say, the promotion of free trade and technology should lead our diplomatic efforts.
The tenor of Paul’s remarks is highly pragmatic. “Those of you who are familiar with me know that I deeply believe in individual liberty,” he will say. “I have learned through experience that this ideal can only be achieved by recognizing, as Bismarck said, that ‘policy is the art of the possible.’ We need a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a commonsense conservatism of strength and action.”
His embrace of pragmatism is a departure from the cheerfully idealistic attitude he has displayed on a number of domestic-policy issues, an approach that has buoyed his many fans. Conservatives and liberals alike were delighted when Paul took to the Senate floor last March and mounted a spirited 13-hour filibuster in order to call attention to the White House’s refusal to rule out drone strikes against American citizens on American soil.
In the realm of foreign policy, however, Paul paints himself as hardheaded and rational. His lodestars are the Cold War strategist George F. Kennan and the Reagan-era secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. “Until we develop the ability to distinguish, as Kennan put it, between vital interests and more peripheral interests, we will continue to drift from crisis to crisis,” Paul will say, and he will emphasize extending the reach of American values through such methods as free trade rather than nation-building, which he treats with a degree of scorn.
Kennan, working and writing during the Cold War, offered a simple formula to differentiate vital from peripheral interests: As the preeminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, he considered nations with a military-industrial capacity — and, correspondingly, the ability to wage war against the U.S. — objects of vital interest, and those without that capacity peripheral. At times, however, he found it difficult to distinguish between them, initially opposing the Truman Doctrine to aid free people resisting Communist expansion because the strategy was too universalistic, then changing his mind, saying he had underestimated the importance of psychological warfare, of pushing back against the Soviets even when vital American interests were not under attack.
Perhaps the best way to understand Paul’s approach to the world is through Weinberger, who, in 1984, limited the use of American troops by ticking off a series of criteria that had to be met before they were deployed. In his speech, Paul does the same, arguing that wars must have a plan for victory, be authorized by Congress, and be worth the sacrifice of blood and treasure expended in them.
Over the past two years, Paul has gradually assembled the team of foreign-policy hands who helped him draft the speech. Among them is Janet Mullins Grissom, a Washington lobbyist who worked for former secretary of state James Baker and as the campaign manager of Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell’s first successful Senate bid. Though McConnell backed Paul’s Republican opponent in 2010, the junior senator endorsed the minority leader in his reelection bid this year and has spent considerable time stumping for him in the Bluegrass State. Paul’s brain trust also includes Rick Burt, the former ambassador to Germany who negotiated the 1991 START Treaty, and Lorne Craner, a former president of the International Republican Institute and assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
Paul’s speech is a broad statement of principle rather than an endorsement of policy particulars, a contrast with remarks in recent months from the likes of Florida senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who, like Paul, are potential 2016 presidential contenders. Rubio in September called for a return to former defense secretary Robert Gates’s 2012 defense-budget baseline; Jindal earlier this month called for the U.S. to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on national defense.
“We’ve had to deal with a lot of specifics over the last couple of years,” says Stafford. “There are a lot of misconceptions about [Paul’s] foreign policy — some of them are just honest misconceptions — and we wanted to have him explain who he is and what he believes in a well thought-out manner.”
As a result, Paul will leave questions unanswered. He will say it’s important that the U.S. and Iran find a diplomatic solution that prevents Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but not whether he would back a military solution if necessary. A Russian settlement with Ukraine, he will say, must take into account Russia’s longstanding ties with its neighbor, but he doesn’t make clear what that means. He will urge European governments to spend more on defense but remain silent on the matter of the U.S.’s military spending, which has been the subjected of heated debate over the past several years.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Paul will have many more opportunities, and many more speeches, in which to answer these questions and to clarify his thoughts between now and when he hits the campaign trail in earnest in 2016.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.