Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.
It doesn't lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I'm largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.
This is such a radical departure from the prevailing American mindset that some of Paul's critics see it as more evidence of his weirdness. A video montage meant to discredit him shows him taking the perspective of Iran. After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, "Why wouldn't it be natural that they'd want a weapon? Internationally they'd be given more respect."
Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?
One of the depressing things about politics is not simply that elected politicians exist "in the world of the possible" but that those who are about the business of expanding that world are generally denigrated. I wrote about this for the Times, last summer, so I don't want to repeat the argument. Suffice to say that I don't think we've yet come to terms with the fact that the Iraq War proceeded with the endorsement of "serious people," while those who dissented were consigned to quackery.
I have had exactly the same thought Paul offers above--about all nations pursuing nuclear arms. If I were them, wouldn't I want the bomb? By what philosophy would I conclude that allegedly hyper-moral America and its friends should have a monopoly on the uses of nuclear power?
But that sort of thinking is not only outside of mainstream political discourse, it's actually intellectually denigrated. The sense is that our morality should be defined by what seems achievable.
I strongly suspect that his willingness to ask questions which have been deemed quackery, seemingly because they are "impolite," fuels a lot of the excitement you see among some progressives (and even Andrew.) The problem arises when there's actual quackery thrown into the mix. But that's nothing new for the GOP.
MORE: See the video at the top for some sense of what I mean.