What Rand Paul Still Has to Prove on Foreign Policy

The senator plans to clarify his stance in a speech Thursday night. But will voters and political strategists buy it?

Rand Paul will have a major foreign policy moment Thursday night: unveiling exactly where he stands between the hawks and the isolationists in his own party.

Paul advisers say the speech, which will be delivered at the Center for the National Interest in New York, is the senator's opportunity to embrace a moderate Republican foreign policy. As the Republican senator from Kentucky eyes a potential presidential run in 2016, he must prove to the party's establishment and voters that he's not as withdrawn from the world as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, nor is he shifting his positions drastically out of political necessity.

The ongoing U.S. response to the Islamic State has pushed Paul to clarify his stance on foreign policy, especially as he prepares to potentially run against more hawkish contenders like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Thursday night is Paul's chance to explain more broadly why arming Syrian rebels in the Middle East could perpetuate conflict and why, if he were president, he would go to Congress before conducting airstrikes against ISIS.

"There is a space between being a neocon and an isolationist," says Lorne Craner, a former official who worked under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush, and who now advises Paul on foreign policy. "That space may have been unoccupied since Bush 41 left office, but Senator Paul would like that tradition in the Republican foreign policy space to be revived."

Craner says Paul's speech Thursday was written by the senator himself, in an attempt to showcase to party elders and voters that just because he questions foreign aid and giving weapons to foreign fighters does not mean he is the kind of isolationist his father Ron was. Craner says Paul must prove what he already has proven to those in his inner circle—that he is a nuanced and measured leader.

"From my superficial impression a few years ago to what I have seen from working with him, it is very, very different," Craner says. " I am not saying he is Henry Kissinger, but the breadth of his knowledge is pretty impressive. He is a voracious reader."

Ron Kaufman, who served as a senior adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, says Paul's unique take on foreign policy may actually have more resonance among voters than Washington strategists give it credit for.

"Under the surface, there is a growing isolationist feeling, as more and more of these wars are felt and impact local communities. Senator Paul understands that better than a lot of folks do," Kaufman says. "It is a bigger part of our party than people realize."

Still, Paul won't be able to convince everyone. Some within the Republican Party are suspicious that the senator's speech Thursday is coming from a place of political desperation.

"When the world got more dangerous and Americans were increasingly worried about the absence of American leadership, he had two choices. He could either double down or distance himself from his past statements," says one Republican foreign policy strategist with experience on presidential campaigns. "He seems to be doing the latter. The problem is that he now exposes himself to wanting to have it both ways, and that is a really bad place to be if you are running for president."