The Principled Realism of Rand Paul

On ISIS, the Kentucky senator steers a distinctive course between his party’s neoconservatives and its bellicose populists.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Senator Rand Paul distinguished himself among Republicans this week by championing a more careful, pragmatic response to ISIS than any other primary candidate.

So far, it hasn’t won him much support.

The rise of the terrorist group has divided the GOP in an interesting way.

Its neoconservative wing, represented by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, believe that the Obama Administration ought to have toppled Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad long ago; that his ouster should still be pursued concurrent with fighting ISIS, in part to thwart his Iranian allies; that the United States ought to impose a no-fly zone in Syria while arming or even fighting alongside a Saudi-backed coalition; and that conflict with Russia won’t matter if the next president is sufficiently assertive.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are vying to lead a faction with a different view of fighting ISIS. In their telling, the U.S. erred in toppling dictators in Iraq and Libya––pursuing the same course in Syria would empower the same Sunni extremists; instead, the U.S. ought to focus on destroying ISIS as its first priority in the region; in doing so, it should be wary of Iran and Saudi Arabia, rather than embracing the latter; and it should cooperate with Russia against our common enemy, rather than butting heads with the nuclear power in a way that could escalate catastrophically.

These factions confound conventional wisdom.

Rubio and Bush are cast in the press as pragmatic moderates; Cruz and Trump are seen as a right-wing ideologue and a bellicose barbarian. Yet in this clash, the median voter, folks who regard President Obama as a pragmatist, and those skeptical of George W. Bush’s foreign policy align more closely with Cruz and Trump than with Rubio and Bush.

That’s because Cruz and Trump have the better of this argument.

And yet, I cannot align comfortably with either man, even on the narrow issue of responding to ISIS, because although I agree that it is folly to fight Assad and ISIS at the same time, especially given the potential for catastrophic conflict with Russia, Cruz and Trump have taken other positions on this subject that no one should abide.

Cruz asserts that the United States should resort to “carpet bombing,” a euphemism for dropping explosives on vast tracts of foreign territory, indiscriminately destroying most everything including innocent civilians. And he inaccurately asserted that “Iran has declared war on us” as he called for regime change in that country, as if that is a viable option––and as if fighting Iran and ISIS at the same time makes any more sense than fighting Assad and ISIS at the same time. Meanwhile, Trump suggests that he would retaliate against the family members of terrorists, ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and register Muslim Americans.

Before Tuesday’s debate, I expected Ohio Governor John Kasich to offer a sensible alternative to both the Rubio/Bush camp and the Cruz/Trump faction. Instead, like the neocons, he declared that America should topple Syria’s dictator even as it tries to destroy ISIS; that it’s time for America to “punch Russia in the nose;” and that the U.S. ought to mount an invasion of Syria on the scale of the Persian Gulf War. Another candidate, Chris Christie, distinguished himself mostly in his desire for more intrusive domestic surveillance and civil-liberties abrogations.

Then there’s Paul, who stood out Tuesday in large part because he alone opposed almost all of the worst ideas championed by his rivals. In his most direct critique of the Rubio/Bush faction, he said:

There is often variations of evil on both sides of a war. What we have to decide is whether or not regime change is a good idea. It's what the neoconservatives have wanted. It's what the vast majority of those on the stage want. They still want regime change. They want it in Syria. They wanted it in Iraq. They wanted it in Libya. It has not worked. Out of regime change you get chaos. From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam. So we get this profession of, oh, my goodness, they want to do something about terrorism. And yet they're the problem, because they allow terrorism to arise out of that chaos.

He took direct aim at Donald Trump too.

“I think we defeat terrorism by showing them that we do not fear them,” he said in his first answer. “I think if we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet, I think that at that point the terrorists will have won.” He went on, “I will do whatever it takes to defend America. But in defending America, we cannot lose what America stands for. Today is the Bill of Rights' anniversary. I hope we will remember that and cherish that in the fight on terrorism.” Later, Paul tried to speak out against indefinite detention, but was shut down by moderator Wolf Blitzer.

His position is nevertheless clear: Overreacting to terrorism can do more harm than terrorism itself.

Later still, he took aim at the neoconservative faction and Donald Trump in a single answer:

I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow. I think those who have wanted regime change have made a mistake. When we toppled Gadhafi in Libya, I think that was a mistake. I think ISIS grew stronger, we had a failed state, and we were more at risk.

I'd like to also go back to, though, another question, which is, is Donald Trump a serious candidate? The reason I ask this is, if you're going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails. That entails getting rid of the First amendment, OK? It's no small feat. If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there's something called the Geneva Convention we're going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America. So when you ask yourself, whoever you are, that think you're going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?

And while Paul did not criticize Cruz directly, he is surely least likely among the GOP candidates to urge the carpet bombing a foreign country or a war of choice against Iran.

Paul has many flaws, like all his rivals.

But if you’re hoping for a nominee who champions civil liberties even in war time; opposes a proxy war with Russia; opposes “carpet-bombing,” war with Iran, or punishing innocent Muslims; and its temperamentally and ideologically unlikely to overreact to terrorism, then Paul is the GOP candidate for you. I realize that I am describing a collection of positions that may appeal more to centrist elites than large swaths of the GOP primary electorate. And yet I notice those elites are more favorably disposed to Bush, Rubio, and even Cruz than to Paul.

They should reconsider their opinion of Paul.

Having watched the Kentucky senator struggle in the polls, I’d started to hope that Kasich, who has good qualities, would gain traction. But with Kasich declaring his desire to lash out at a nuclear rival and launch a Persian Gulf-style invasion of Syria, during a debate in which Paul turned in the strongest performance of his career, Paul deserves to surge. There is no saner voice in the GOP primary debate about ISIS.

Rand Paul 2016: Because everyone else’s foreign policy is terrifying.