Ron Paul’s opponents in the race for the Republican presidential nomination don’t mince words about his foreign policy views.
Mitt Romney says Paul would endanger Israel and that he “thinks it’s OK for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Newt Gingrich describes Paul as “stunningly dangerous” and bluntly says he wouldn’t vote for the Texas congressman. Former rival Michele Bachmann once said Paul would be a “dangerous president” who wouldn’t act against Iran “until one of our cities was wiped off the map.”
But the attacks on Paul, who finished a strong third in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, miss two essential points. First, several of Paul’s proposals closely track positions held by both Democratic and Republican foreign policy specialists. Second, a President Paul would have little ability to actually implement controversial ideas like eliminating foreign aid to Israel or closing American military bases in Germany, Japan and Korea.
“I tend to see Ron Paul as the only real traditional conservative out there today, and not at all out of sorts with strong American traditions that dominated the Republican Party up to 1952,” said Sean Kay, a political science policy professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. “Ron Paul has very appropriately challenged two fundamental assumptions about the war on terror and national security: that terrorism is a tactic and cannot be defeated in any conventional sense… and that the U.S. Constitution should matter on things like counter-terrorism and national security.”
None of that is to say that Paul’s views are conventional. Few Americans likely share his belief that the United States should have worked with Pakistan to arrest Osama bin Laden rather than unilaterally sending a Navy SEAL team into Pakistan to kill him. Paul’s strong opposition to the administration’s drone war against al Qaida militants around the world is also not a widely shared position, according to opinion polls.
Still, Paul’s core foreign policy views are clearly resonating with a broad swath of the Republican electorate, particularly among younger voters. That means top-tier candidates like Romney and Rick Santorum face a tough choice: Attack Paul to bolster their own national security bona fides, even at the risk of leading him to launch a third-party candidacy, or hold off on bashing Paul in the hopes of enlisting his support for the eventual GOP nominee and preventing his voters from turning to Obama or sitting out the election.
Paul, for his part, has shown no hesitation about striking back at his rivals. Speaking on a CNN program Tuesday, Paul said that Gingrich had “chickened out” of serving in Vietnam, giving the former House speaker little right to call for “sending these young kids over there to endure the danger” that Gingrich had himself avoided.
Many of Paul’s core views on foreign policy have been shaped by his belief that the Bush administration overreacted in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, threatening core American liberties. Paul wants to repeal the Patriot Act, the Bush era anti-terrorism law; close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and put terror suspects on trial in civilian courts; and make it impossible for American presidents to detain U.S. citizens without charge or order their assassination abroad. Paul also strongly opposes the use of waterboarding, a form of torture which most of his GOP rivals think should be used against terror suspects with knowledge of an imminent attack.
More broadly, Paul wants to reduce America’s role on the world stage by eliminating foreign aid, closing American military bases in places like Korea, and leaving Israel to its down devices rather than pledging to come to its aid in the case of an attack by Iran or its Arab neighbors.
Taken individually, many of those positions are held by people who wouldn’t otherwise dream of supporting Paul. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who endorsed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has long said that waterboarding should be outlawed. President Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, though his administration has backed away from that promise in recent months. Liberal lawmakers like Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont have deep reservations about the Patriot Act and believe some of its provisions should be eliminated.
Republican stalwarts like former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meanwhile, believe U.S. bases in Germany, Japan and Korea have outlived their usefulness and should be shut down or consolidated. With the administration looking for ways of cutting the defense budget, that could easily happen in the years ahead.
Paul’s positions aren’t shared by his primary GOP rivals. And there is little doubt that a President Paul would represent a big departure from the Bush and Obama administrations, at least rhetorically. In practice, however, Congress – particularly if Republicans retake the Senate – would block many of his more controversial positions. Paul would need congressional approval to shutter American bases overseas, pull the U.S. out of the United Nations, or eliminate aid to Israel and other close allies. He likely wouldn’t get it.
Still, a Paul administration would have the power to reshape a pair of core U.S. national security objectives: preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and using drones and elite Special Operations forces to kill terror suspects around the globe. Presidents order the use of military force, not lawmakers, and Paul has consistently made clear that he doesn’t believe the U.S. should send its forces into other sovereign countries to hunt militants or carry out strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“If we lived through the Cold War, which we did, with 30,000 missiles pointed at us, we ought to really sit back and think and not jump the gun and believe that we are going to be attacked,” Paul said during a Fox News debate when asked about Iran. “That’s how we got into that useless war in Iraq and lost so much in Iraq.”
Paul’s GOP rivals have vastly different views of Iran, and don’t share his libertarian-influenced views on abortion rights and legalizing marijuana. Paul stands little chance of winning the GOP nomination. But there are clear reasons why his views on the national debt and U.S. primacy on the world stage are resonating with so many voters. His GOP rivals ignore those dynamics at their own peril.