For all of the talk about just how big a test Russia's invasion of Ukraine is for President Obama, it also presents one of the first significant looks into how his potential successors would handle a global crisis. And that's a big deal for the guy whom some have already pegged as a radical isolationist.
Rand Paul, now singled out as a 2016 Republican front-runner, still has to contend with his image as an isolationist who "will endanger America's future." That particular portrait comes from the figurehead of the Republican Party's traditional foreign policy arm, Sen. John McCain. It's also not really accurate. The crisis in Crimea gives Paul a shot to actually prove that—and distance himself from his father's more radical beliefs.
Paul has been relatively quiet on Ukraine so far. Before releasing a rather bland statement on Friday, he warned members of his own party not to "tweak" Russia. "We still need to be conscious of the fact that Russia has intercontinental ballistic missiles," Paul told The Washington Post last week. "Though the Cold War is largely over, I think we need to have a respectful—sometimes adversarial—but a respectful relationship with Russia."
Paul thoroughly hashed out that kind of cautious foreign policy thinking during a January speech at the Center for the National Interest. "I really am a believer that foreign policy must be viewed by events as they present themselves, not as we wish them to be," he told the audience at the center's 20th-anniversary dinner.
Much of the speech was an attack on neoconservatives, who, Paul says, "increasingly preach a doctrine that is hostile to diplomatic engagement." It's the kind of critique you'd expect from the Left, not from a Kentucky Republican. "To this crowd," Paul said, "everyone who doesn't agree with them ... is the next [Neville] Chamberlain. To this crowd, anyone who doesn't clamor first for the military option ... is somehow an isolationist."
"The irony," Paul continued, "is that this crowd wants to 'project power' ... but from inside an echo chamber that isolates itself from negotiation because 'foreigners' can't be trusted."
Paul didn't just poke at members of his own party. In the speech, he also detailed his vision of functional diplomacy:
"In order for both parties to perceive victory," Paul said, "I think both parties must save face or at the very least not lose face."
That may sound obvious. But a central question for the Obama administration right now is figuring out how to convince Russia to de-escalate in Ukraine while still appearing relatively strong. Obama attempted to give Vladimir Putin an "off-ramp" by suggesting that EU officials take the place of Russian military in Crimea to protect Russia's interests in the region. But it's an offer that nobody, including administration officials, really thinks Putin will accept. Paul's office, so far, hasn't offered any alternatives.
At first look, Paul's isolationist image goes over much better with the public than McCain's hawkish one. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 52 percent of Americans, including 53 percent of Republicans, think the U.S. should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." Only 38 percent of Americans disagree, making for the most lopsided results on the issue in almost 50 years of polling.
It's not so simple. Americans—surprise!—hold some contradictory beliefs. That same Pew poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that Obama is "not tough enough" on national security and foreign policy.
So a majority of Americans want their politicians to be relatively isolationist. But, at the same time, a majority of Americans want them to be tough about it.
The foreign policy challenge for any 2016 candidate is to either reconcile or overcome those beliefs. This is particularly tricky for Rand Paul. His father, the former congressman and perennial presidential contender, is at the center of much of the senator's support. But Ron Paul's policy views, foreign and otherwise, could haunt a potential Rand Paul presidential campaign. Ron Paul was the politician who, during the 2012 campaign, asked why Iran shouldn't want to have nuclear weapons, and called sanctions against the country "acts of war." Isolationist, sure. But tough? Tough enough to get through a Republican primary, especially?
It's easy to see why Rand Paul is trying to lay low. The Post's Jennifer Rubin trashed Paul's line from last week about "tweaking" Russia, calling it a disqualifier from "serious consideration as president." An American Enterprise Institute scholar told Rubin that the comments marked "a sad day for America." A GOP House aide told her that "we've seen 'Isolationism, the Movie' before. It ends badly for the U.S."
Conservatives are already drawing lines between the two Pauls, with Rubin writing Tuesday that "you really have to wonder" whether Rand will do any better than Ron among conservatives, in part because of his foreign policy beliefs. Rubin's not alone. "The return of foreign policy to the front burner of American politics should be the beginning of a process that returns Paul's libertarians to the margins of American politics," writes Jonathan S. Tobin at Commentary.
To complete the circle, we need the invocation of a certain former British prime minister. "The notion," Rubin wrote Tuesday, "that we should 'nation build at home'—voiced by the president and by Rand Paul—is now akin to Neville Chamberlain's 'peace for our time,' a sign of utter and dangerous cluelessness on national security." Paul may laugh off the Chamberlain labeling, but until he really makes a point of specifically drawing out his response to a foreign policy crisis, he just leaves space for others to define him.
Rand Paul will get his chances to try to prove that he's not an isolationist, an appeaser, that he's capable of being tough when that's what's called for. But with Putin as a diplomatic adversary, it's hard to imagine a better time for Paul to lay out what he would do than now.