If Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has a glaring shortcoming in his likely quest for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, it’s his reputation as an isolationist within a party clamoring for more aggressive U.S. intervention against marauding Islamic militants in northern Iraq.
While hawkish GOP senators including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are demanding that President Obama step up and broaden U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and send arms and other assistance to the embattled Kurds, a Hamlet-like Paul says, “I have mixed feelings about it.”
“I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said during an appearance last week before the Campbellsville, Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Paul has been sharply criticized by McCain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who have warned audiences separately of the dangers of Paul’s views on foreign policy and foreign intervention, Politico reported last month.
"The general fear on the part of a lot of leaders in the Republican Party is that there's an isolationist temptation after two big wars, an isolationist temptation in the American electorate," Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, told Politico. "And I think people are genuinely concerned about it and desirous of trying to stop it before it spreads further."
Paul commanded unfavorable attention with an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he argued against the U.S. military re-engaging in Iraq. “Many of those clamoring for military action now are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war,” he wrote. “They have been so wrong for so long. Why should we listen to them again?”
David Adesnik, writing recently in the conservative Weekly Standard, said, “In the realm of foreign policy, Senator Paul faces the challenge of dispelling perceptions that he shares the isolationist tendencies of his father, former congressman Ron Paul of Texas. He wants to convince conservative voters that he has been mislabeled and misunderstood. His approach to foreign affairs has not changed, yet Senator Paul now presents his views as applications of Ronald Reagan’s firm but cautious approach to national security.”
Paul, a libertarian who is among the top Republican presidential contenders in the polls, repeatedly has voiced concerns about allowing the U.S. to be drawn more deeply into Middle East conflicts, including Iraq and Syria, with their deep sectarian divisions and constantly shifting alliances.
Last year, Paul sided with many others in Congress who believed it would have been a mistake for the U.S. to intervene in the Syrian civil war -- one that pitted President Bashar Hafez al-Assad against disparate rebel forces that included elements of the current ISIS. McCain, Graham and other defense hawks strongly argued at the time that the U.S. should be arming the rebels.
Days after his return from a secret trip to visit rebels in Syria in May 2013, McCain bemoaned the "terrible, unfair" fight he said was being fought in the war-torn country, and continued to pressure Obama to increase assistance to opposition forces, CBS News reported at the time.
Now Paul says he has serious reservations about Obama’s decision last week to launch limited air strikes designed to slow the advance of the ISIS militants toward the Kurdish city of Erbil, even while McCain and Graham say much, much more needs to be done to save the Kurds and prevent an ISIS attack against the U.S.
“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them?” Paul said during his appearance in Campbellsville, according to WBKO-TV in Bowling Green, Ky. “Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria-- Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re not bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another.”
Paul acknowledged that his views on foreign policy run counter to conventional wisdom within his own party, but argued that it would “resonate beyond party label,” according to a report by WBKO.
“There are a lot of people independent or Democrat who would like a reasonable foreign policy where we're not always at war. Where we are reluctant to go to war, where we have more of a moderate foreign policy,” he said. “I think [that] is appealing to a lot of people. I think Democrats fear that.”
Paul is among a small group of lawmakers who say Obama must obtain congressional authorization for further military action in Iraq, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. Obama insists that the air strikes would be limited in nature, and that he was unalterably opposed to sending ground troops back to Iraq to directly engage ISIS – saying that was up to the Iraqi military to do.
The president also warned last weekend, “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” prompting Paul and others to demand a war vote.
“Constitutionally, he should come forward with a plan to Congress and we vote for it or against it,” Paul said, according to The Journal. “I have an open mind as to exactly what we do.”
Paul, a freshman senator, is a leading contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, although he runs between six and 14 percentage points behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in hypothetical matchups in the polls.
Clinton, the odds-on favorite to lead the Democratic ticket, took issue with Obama’s approach to the Middle East in an interview with The Atlantic last weekend by saying the U.S. should have taken a more active role arming and training the rebels against Assad’s ruthless regime.
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