How Rand Paul Can Shed His Isolationist Image

The crisis in Ukraine presents the senator with an opportunity to ditch the label before heading into 2016.

Rand Paul speaks to the press outside the White House, January 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
March 5, 2014, midnight

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.

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