At the height of the Iraq crisis, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) surrounded a mountain where Iraqi Christians and other minorities had taken refuge, one loud voice on the American public policy scene was silent. As President Obama launched air strikes that eventually allowed the Yazidis to leave Mount Sinjar, Rand Paul had nothing to say.
Paul’s silence was understandable; he is as close to an isolationist as the Republican Party has seen in decades. In recent years, Paul has criticized the White House’s decision to intervene in Libya, has been against efforts to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has criticized Obama in general for getting America involved in foreign affairs.
Even before the Mount Sinjar crisis, Paul had advocated against sending American troops to Iraq to protect diplomatic facilities, a practice common around the world. In June, he penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal advocating that American do nothing in Iraq.
"What would airstrikes accomplish?" he asked. "We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran's air force? What's in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?"
However, as a shrewd politician, Paul knew that Republican voters would not forgive him for advocating this position as groups of Christians were slaughtered by jihadists. So he kept his mouth shut.
His rivals did not. Rick Perry, the Texas governor who appears poised to make a second run at the White House, slammed Paul.
“[I]t’s disheartening to hear fellow Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), suggest that our nation should ignore what’s happening in Iraq,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote in a July op-ed.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a longtime hawk who has been openly critical of Paul and other isolationist upstarts within the GOP, also was critical of Paul’s refusal to engage. Paul is “part of a wing of the party that has been there prior to World War I that is a withdrawal to 'Fortress America.'"
Paul eventually addressed the issue, telling the Campbellsville Chamber of Commerce in Kentucky that he has “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.”
But Paul could not hide his isolationist tendencies for long. Last week, he labeled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “war hawk.”
“If you want to see a transformational election, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton," Paul said in the interview, which will air in full on Sunday's Meet the Press. "You'll see a transformation like you've never seen."
He also can’t hide the fact that at one point, he listed books on his website that the Weekly Standard said “blamed the United States for the rise of Islamic extremism, even attributing the attacks of September 11 to American folly rather than al Qaeda’s murderous ideology.” His father, Ron Paul, is also a fervent isolationist.
All of this points to a simple fact: If Paul’s past statements were to guide present policy, America would not be involved in Iraq, would not be trying to deter ISIS, would not be concerned about Ukraine, and would not care whether or not Israel was being threatened by terrorists. If you extrapolate his isolationist philosophy, there are few, if any, international issues that would warrant involvement by the United States.
A senior aide to Senator Paul disputes this analysis. He says, "America does have international interests and will, at times, be required to defend them. The Constitution requires that Congress, not the President, make the ultimate decisions on involvement in war. Senator Rand Paul has been the leading opponent of persecution of Christians in the Middle East. For anyone to say otherwise, is inaccurate."
Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor, said that Paul’s foreign policy philosophy would have dangerous ramifications for the United States and the rest of the world.
“Blaming America first for all of the world’s problems - the essence of Paul’s ‘non-interventionism’ - is a fantasy and it won’t keep us safe. No part of the world gets better or safer with less American involvement, something the Democrats have proved decisively in the last six years,” Whiton said. “Paul likes to invoke Reagan, who was indeed stingy with the lives of U.S. troops, but who also radically increased our military strength, waged political warfare against the Soviet empire, armed proxy armies around the world, rebuilt alliances, and engaged in forceful diplomacy - the very things Paul seems to fret make us unloved in the world.”
Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, added that Paul has only distanced himself from his isolationism when politics demanded it.
“As a previous example, he was not pro Israel; now he is pro- Israel. This is a major difference,” Goldberg said. “Does his policy depend on who is backing him at the moment or what state he is campaigning in? On the whole, if we look at his pre-presidential campaign policy, he was essentially a neo-isolationist, which in the era of globalization is a total misreading of reality and history.”
Whiton did credit Paul with igniting a debate about American policy in Iraq.
“But he is overestimating Americans' insularity. We’re always against foreign intervention right up the point we’re not - which is when we see threats like the kind multiplying around the globe today,” Whiton said.
This article was updated on August 26th at 10:25 am.
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