Why Rand Paul Loves Foreign-Policy Fights

Arguing over military intervention with his fellow Republicans is an ideal platform for the libertarian senator's most popular, and disruptive, ideas.

Rand Paul sure seems to enjoy getting into it with his fellow Republicans. This week, the Kentucky senator has been feuding with Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who decried Paul’s “isolationism” in a weekend op-ed. Paul promptly and tartly fired back, saying of Perry, “Apparently his new glasses haven’t altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly.” (Perry has been wearing the bold, hipsterish frames for about a year now. How rude of Paul not to have noticed.)

A similar dispute unfolded a few months ago, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz depicted his foreign-policy vision as a Reaganesque happy medium between the extremes of Senator John McCain, on one pole, and Paul on the other. Not pleased to be used as a foil, Paul fired back with another op-ed in which he claimed Reagan’s legacy for his own and condemned “politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”

Why is Paul so eager to have these fights? Sure, the others took their shots first, and Paul is only responding. But he’s also clearly seeking to elevate and call attention to his disputes with others in his party. The reason for that is also somewhat obvious: Paul is running for president—and he thinks he’s winning on this issue. 

The Republican Party remains deeply divided over foreign policy. During the George W. Bush administration, the many Americans who turned against the Iraq war included a lot of Republicans. Today, 63 percent of Republicans believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth it, according to a recent poll. But of course, there's still a vocal contingent of hawkish Republicans who strongly disagree. Just as Cruz described it, the party is torn between the McCain wing that wants to see a more muscular posture for America abroad, even if it costs taxpayers money, and the Paul wing that wants to cut back on defense spending and foreign entanglements. 

There has been no reckoning post-Bush between the two sides of this intraparty argument, aChris Cillizza smartly notes. The party’s presidential nominees since Bush—McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—were both on the McCain end of the spectrum; big donors like Sheldon Adelson and party elites, many of whom are Bush administration veterans, are largely in the hawks’ camp as well. But Paul believes that the base of the party—as the poll on Iraq and others suggest—is increasingly on his side. Perry may be trying to cozy up to the establishment by taking on Paul, aligning himself with those who see themselves as the party’s grown-up wing. But Paul believes he wins with the public, and with Republican primary voters, by articulating his noninterventionist views. 

Paul is not, however, running a purely anti-establishment presidential campaign. Quite the contrary, he’s assiduously courted major donors and party insiders, seeking to reassure them that he’s more grounded than his father, former member of Congress and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. That’s why both his Perry and Cruz op-eds have, once you get past the name-calling, sought to emphasize common ground and rebut the "isolationist" charge. “Regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ... there is little difference among most Republicans on what to do,” he wrote in response to Cruz in March. “All of us believe we should stand up to Putin's aggression. Virtually no one believes we should intervene militarily.” Responding to Perry this week, Paul wrote, “Some of Perry’s solutions for the current chaos in Iraq aren’t much different from what I’ve proposed .... Because interestingly enough, there aren’t that many good choices right now in dealing with this situation in Iraq.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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