Is Sheldon Adelson Turning Even Rand Paul Anti-Isolationist?

The staunchly pro-Israel megadonor's 2016 involvement puts Paul in a precarious position.

National Journal

When Republican presidential hopefuls met with Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas last month, the billionaire casino mogul who almost single-handedly kept the Newt Gingrich primary campaign alive in 2012, had just announced his intention to back the Republican candidate with the clearest shot at winning the White House in 2016.

But Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who's been singled out as a Republican front-runner, was nowhere to be found. It's not entirely surprising given that Paul was similarly missing from the wish list of 2016 contenders Adelson drew up last year.

While Adelson has repeatedly insisted his decision about whom to back in 2016 will be governed solely by electability, two pet issues stand above all the rest. One is his push to kill online gambling (there's evidence he's already made inroads with the GOP there). The other — and this is where Paul comes in — is protection of Israel.

Rand Paul's foreign policy views have always been more nuanced than those of his isolationist father, Ron Paul, but they've still earned him ample criticism from conservatives. In particular, his argument for curtailing foreign assistance abroad has concerned allies of Israel, which receives more than $3 billion in aid from the U.S. annually.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, in a Tuesday editorial titled "Rand Paul's Foreign Policy Extremism," suggested such positions won't sit well with people "who play a significant role in presidential primaries." Indeed.

Though he was never mentioned by name at the Las Vegas meeting, an event put on by the Republican Jewish Coalition, speaker after speaker implicitly criticized Paul's relatively isolationist approach to foreign policy, according to a report by Time's Zeke Miller. From Miller's report:

Several prominent GOP donors at the conference suggested that [Sheldon] Adelson, who spent more than $100 million backing Newt Gingrich and Romney in 2012, is likely to spend vast sums against Paul if he appears to be well positioned in the Republican primaries. Adelson's spending is largely motivated by his strong concern for Israel, and Paul's positions may well put a target on his back.

Recently, Paul's been going out of his way to emphasize that his foreign policy position is evolving, particularly with regard to Israel. He's increased outreach to pro-Israel and neoconservative groups, according to Miller's report. And while he once favored deep cuts in foreign aid, including eliminating U.S. money for Israel, he has since softened his stance. Paul now says the U.S. should start by cutting aid to countries who "don't appear to be our allies," and in 2013 traveled to Israel to personally relay the message.

In a Tuesday op-ed published in The Washington Post, Paul sought to clarify his position on Iran, where development of nuclear weapons is a major concern for Israel.

"I am not for containment in Iran," he wrote (containment here means living with an Iran with nuclear weapons). "Let me repeat that, since no one seems to be listening closely: I am unequivocally not for containing Iran."

Paul's argument was that his vote against a bill that would have prevented a policy of containment in Iran had been misinterpreted by the media. But his appeal didn't end there. "Foreign policy is complicated and doesn't fit neatly within a bumper sticker, headline, or tweet," Paul said. "Those who reduce it to such do a disservice to their reporting and, potentially, to the security of our nation."

Much of the editorial was dedicated to attacking the perception that his views are anti-American-intervention in any circumstance. "False choices between being everywhere all of the time and nowhere any of the time are fodder for debate on Sunday morning shows or newspaper columns," he wrote. "Real foreign policy is made in the middle; with nuance; in the gray area of diplomacy, engagement and reluctantly, if necessary, military action."

Paul will likely never win over pro-Israel groups, and some movement toward the middle, or normalizing, is inevitable for any serious 2016 contender. Still, whether he's actually evolving on foreign policy or simply, as he claims, correcting for media spin, the optics of his Israel-friendly pronouncements aren't good — the timing is such that it's hard to ignore the incentives put in place by Adelson and the hawkish, pro-Israel wing of the GOP.

After all, even a Paul can't run a winning presidential campaign on $25 checks from the grassroots alone.