Rand Paul is for the first time weighing in on the chaos in Iraq.
President Obama has cited the risk of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) establishing safe havens in Iraq from which it might launch attacks on the United States, but Paul isn’t so sure. The Kentucky senator and likely 2016 presidential candidate has since his election in 2010 used his perch to advocate for what he calls a policy of “non-interventionism” abroad and he says the president’s claim is “a bit of a stretch.”
“What they see in front of them are the Shiites that they’ve hated for a thousand years,” he tells National Review Online of the Sunni-aligned ISIS. “Their first objective isn’t getting to the United States, their first objective would be getting to Baghdad.”
Asked whether he supports targeted drone strikes on top ISIS leaders, Paul raises broader questions about the president’s power to wage war. He tells me the answer is part of a “legal question” about “whether we think that war is authorized forever.”
“Did Congress 13 years ago give power to a president that will never be taken back?” he asks. “Is it unlimited in time and geography?”
Until now, the Kentucky senator has been largely silent on the deteriorating situation in Iraq, deflecting reporters’ questions, but in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in Friday’s newspaper, he outlines his views, attempting to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, who he suggests would have opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and and putting boots on the ground there now.
He leaves the question of targeted airstrikes open, saying there are “many questions” that need to be addressed before the U.S. proceeds: “What would airstrikes accomplish? We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran’s air force? What’s in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?”
Asked whether he supports the president’s decision to send 300 military advisers to Iraq and continuing to aid the Iraqi army, Paul says he doesn’t “second guess” the decisions. But he couldn’t help himself, adding that the United States has for a decade now funneled aid the Iraqi army and “you gotta wonder what’s happened to all the money.”
“You can’t ask American soldiers to defend territory the Iraqis are unwilling to defend themselves,” he says.
Though most foreign-policy experts have traced the current chaos to the Obama administration’s failure to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement with Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, Paul says insurgents very well could have seized control of the country’s most important cities even if the U.S. had maintained its presence — and that it’s a good thing American soldiers aren’t getting caught in the crossfire right now. “This may well still have happened,” he says. “I think it’s probably fortunate that [American troops] weren’t there.”
Paul’s foreign-policy thinking represents that of a large faction of war-weary Republican voters. The party’s hawkish wing is working feverishly to defeat it: former United Nations ambassador John Bolton founded a political-action committee last year that is donating to and endorsing candidates who support more robust American engagement with the world ahead of November’s midterm elections, and former vice president Dick Cheney this week announced with his daughter Liz that he has founded a nonprofit advocacy group aimed not-so-subtly to stamp out Paulite thought.
“I don’t think that’s a great political strategy,” Paul said of those like Bolton and Cheney who are building organizations that will pour money into the political process, presumably to oppose him and other like-minded candidates. “Most public opinion polls show the reason my message is popular is not because of the messenger, it’s because of the message.”