Can Ron Paul Lead on Foreign Policy?

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The Texas Republican has shifted his party's debate on the domestic front. But will anyone follow him on war and security?

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Four years ago, Ron Paul was the Chicken Little of the Republican Party.

In 2007, he warned of an impending financial crisis, an imperious Federal Reserve, and a tyrannical federal government. Few voters and virtually no leaders listened to him.

Then the sky fell.

After the crash, Paul's doomsday predictions got a second look. As House Republicans began to side with his beliefs, the libertarian from Texas stopped seeming as out of step with the mainstream of his party. Half of House Republicans voted against the bank bailout in 2008 and all of them voted against the stimulus bill in 2009. By 2010, every single one was ready to sign on to cosponsor a bill Paul introduced to audit the Fed.

For years, Paul also argued that America's wars were ineffective and economically draining. Republicans didn't listen before -- but that was before debt reduction became the cause of the day and Osama bin Laden was killed.

"National building in Afghanistan hardly had anything to do about finding information about where [bin Laden] was being held," Paul said last week's GOP debate, adding it's time to "reassess" getting out.

Leaving Afghanistan would've been heresy to Republicans in 2008. Today, it may sound like common sense -- especially after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, where America is not formally at war, and where he successfully hid for at least five years.

With the debt and deficit several times larger now than they were in 2008, mainstream Republicans may come around to Paul's positions on Iraq (leave), Libya (shouldn't have gone in), foreign aid (end it), and the defense budget (cut it).

"Maybe we could take care of people back here at home if we weren't spending $1.5 trillion dollars per year on our militarism," Paul said at the debate.

None of this means that Paul has any better shot at winning the Republican nomination in 2012 than he did in 2008 -- especially after saying if wouldn't have ordered the raid on bin Laden.

"I think things could have been done somewhat differently," Paul said Thursday. "I would suggest the way they got Khalid [Sheikh] Mohammed. We went and cooperated with Pakistan. They arrested him, actually, and turned him over to us, and he's been in prison. Why can't we work with the government?"

But it seems increasingly likely Paul will nonetheless sway enough voters that at least one of his presidential rivals will seek to woo over his highly-vocal supporters, who already appear better organized than during Paul's last bid.

That could make him a significant influence in the campaign. In 2008, Paul won almost 10 percent of the caucus vote in Iowa and 8 percent of the vote in New Hampshire. His influence on the 2012 contests will likely be much bigger: he's better known now, more popular, and may raise more money. Most importantly, early Republican contests in 2012 will award delegates on a proportional, not winner-take-all, basis.

Last time a candidate just needed to finish first to take all of the delegates from a state. Now, a solid second- or third-place will be money in the bank toward the nomination. Paul's rivals won't want to ignore his voters; they'll want to siphon some of them off to win more delegates.

Paul lost the battle for the nomination 2008 and all signs point to another loss in 2012. But, to everyone's surprise, he's been setting the pace for the Republican Party on domestic issues. As improbable as it seems, he just might do the same on foreign policy.

Image credit: Brian Frank (Reuters)

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Justin Miller was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 to 2011. He is now the homepage editor at New York magazine. More

Justin Miller was a associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously he was an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics, a political reporter in Ohio, and a freelance journalist.
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