Rand Paul Loses His National Security Edge

The Kentucky senator secures his place among the 2016 GOP contenders after defending the White House drone policy he once lambasted in a 13-hour filibuster.

Sen. Rand Paul speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa. 
National Journal
Molly O'Toole, Defense One
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Molly O'Toole, Defense One
April 28, 2015, 6:10 a.m.

The GOP presidential candidate formerly known as the most divergent voice on national security just solidified his place within the 2016 pack.

“I do think there’s a valuable use for drones,” Sen. Rand Paul told Fox and Friends on Monday morning in the wake of revelations that U.S. strikes had killed three Americans. “And as much as I’m seen as this opponent of drones, I think in military and warfare, they do have some value.”

This is the same Paul who two years ago launched his presidential ambitions off a 13-hour filibuster of CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation. On the Senate floor, the Kentucky Republican railed against the Obama administration for not clearly ruling out the use of drones against American citizens on U.S. soil—though then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the “hypothetical” was “unlikely to occur.” And Paul lambasted the lack of transparency about the drone programs that have come to define the president’s counterterrorism strategy.

On Thursday, the White House announced a U.S. strike in January inadvertently killed two hostages being held by al-Qaida, including Warren Weinstein, an American USAID contractor. The same strike unintentionally killed another American, Ahmed Farouq, claimed to be a “deputy emir” for al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent. A separate hit also unintentionally killed a third American, Adam Gadahn, believed to be a prominent al-Qaida spokesman.

On Monday, Paul sought to clarify his shift. “I’ve been an opponent of using drones about people not involved in combat,” he said. “However, if you’re holding hostages, you kind of are involved in combat. “¦ You really don’t get due process or anything like that in a war zone. So these people were in a war zone and probably got what was coming to them, the captors. Unfortunately, some innocent people lost their lives, the hostages.”

“The world is so partisan, I guess I tend to not want to blame the president for the loss of life here,” he said. “I think he was trying to do the right thing.”

Paul is hardly alone; Republicans and Democrats alike are speaking out in support of the Obama administration’s actions in this incident and, more broadly, over its expansion of the use of lethal force with drones, which they call a necessary and effective weapon against global counterterrorism.

But his vote of confidence is at odds with the outrage that fueled his filibuster. In 2013, he tapped into uneasiness from across the political spectrum surrounding Obama’s legal authority to conduct such targeted killings, though Congress has been largely supportive of the programs. The attention garnered by Paul’s marathon rant forced other potential rivals, such as Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, to join him.

Paul may seek to paint his latest take on U.S. drone policy as an evolution, but it is the starkest contrast yet between the senator and the candidate. It may mark a point of no return for his onetime strategy to turn a less-interventionist foreign policy into an outsider advantage in the GOP primary.

Republicans are eager to reinforce the expectation that 2016 is going to be a national security election, having found it a fruitful area in which to criticize a perceived strategic vagueness from the Obama administration amid the rise of the Islamic State. But now that Paul is following suit on drones, he has solidified his move toward the mainstream hawkishness that renders the rest of the crowded Republican field largely indistinguishable—including from Obama. Deeper into the race, as they cancel each other out by running on the same national security platform, the Republican candidates will reveal a shared shallowness in experience on defense issues and few new ideas.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has sought to portray Paul as an unserious challenger during his own long-shot run at the Republican nomination, welcomed his fellow senator to the pack on Monday.

“@RandPaul glad to see your new position on drones/targeting Americans who join al-Qaida & affiliated groups,” he tweeted. “They do so at their own peril.”

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