Rand Paul’s Tactic for Winning Over a Nervous GOP: Invoke Reagan
Policy + Politics

Rand Paul’s Tactic for Winning Over a Nervous GOP: Invoke Reagan

Every presidential hopeful makes a requisite foray into the weeds of foreign policy at some point, and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on Thursday night began his. In remarks delivered at the Center for the National Interest in New York, the likely candidate for the Republican nomination in 2016 staked out a position somewhere between his isolationist father and the interventionist neoconservative movement that largely controlled U.S. foreign policy during the presidency of George W. Bush. 

Paul, whose criticism of U.S. intervention abroad has made some members of the Republican establishment uncomfortable, did what any smart Republican does when trying to comfort the party establishment: He invoked Ronald Reagan.

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Concerned that Rand Paul might be too reluctant to commit American troops abroad? He’s got some Reagan for that:

“Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: ‘Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will,’” he told the crowd.

Worried that fear of terrorist blowback might deter Paul from forceful action? Have some more Reagan:

“As Reagan said: “When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act.” 

Think that Paul might be a little too invested in trying to avoid foreign military entanglement through negotiation? Hey – you know who else valued diplomatic action? That’s right: “Reagan understood that war should never be the first resort.” 

Throwing in a reference to Reagan’s Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and a paean to the Reagan era economy, Paul demonstrated what many Republican candidates appear to accept as a matter of faith: That if you say the name “Reagan” enough, somebody will think you sound like the man himself.

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Reporters at the event quoted Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist after the speech as saying, “I think I just heard Ronald Reagan speaking.” 

In fairness to Paul, the speech did lay out some specific positions and he emphasized the need for clarity of mission when troops and other assets are committed. “Stalemate and perpetual policing seem to be our mission now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria,” he said. “A precondition to the use of force must be a clear end goal. We can't have perpetual war.”

However, his point about clarity of mission was difficult to square with his position on the current conflict in Iraq and Syria.

He said that he remains in favor of the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but he remains opposed to the arming of the Syrian opposition. His rationale is that identifying the real moderates in Syria is somewhere between difficult and impossible, and that the U.S. could wind up having whatever supplies we deliver turned back against American troops and their allies.

Air power, he said, should be used to “rebalance the tactical situation in favor of the Kurds and Iraqis and to defend Americans and our assets in the region.”

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However, he offered no clear end-game for the current conflict in the region. 

“I doubt that a decisive victory is possible in the short term, even with the participation of the Kurds, the Iraqi government, and other moderate Arab states,” he said. “In the end, only the people of the region can destroy ISIS. In the end, the long war will end only when civilized Islam steps up to defeat this barbaric aberration.”

This sounds, at least a little bit, like the perpetual war he specifically said the country needs to avoid.

Related: Rand Paul Waffles Over Further Action Against ISIS

Paul also sharply criticized the Obama administration’s handling of Libya, saying the country has been turned into a “Jihadist wonderland” in the wake of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi — something he says might not have happened if Obama had handled U.S. intervention there differently and sought Congressional authorization for the intervention.

In acting without Congressional approval, Paul said, “President Obama missed a chance to galvanize the country. He missed a chance to lead. A president who recognizes the Constitutional limitations of power is not weakened, but actually empowered by the public debate that comes with a declaration of war.”

It may not be clear to everyone what difference a Congressional vote might have made to the outcome of Libya — possibly short of preventing U.S. involvement entirely — but Paul put down a very prominent marker on where he stands with regard to presidential war powers.

Paul’s third principle, that “peace and security require a commitment to diplomacy and leadership” probably caused the most heartburn among the more hawkish denizens of the GOP aerie because of his insistence on recognizing the tradeoffs inherent in taking military action abroad.

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“We must understand that a hatred of our values exists, and acknowledge that interventions in foreign countries may well exacerbate this hatred, but that ultimately, we must be willing and able to defend our country and our interests,” he said. “We can’t be sentimental about neutralizing that threat, but we also can’t be blind to the fact that drone strikes that inadvertently kill civilians may create more jihadists than we eliminate.”

It was likely lines like this that inspired Weekly Standard editor and noted neoconservative Bill Kristol to crack on Twitter that Norquist was mistaken about hearing Reagan. 

“No,” he wrote, “that was George McGovern.”

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