When it comes to national security, Rand Paul is having a tough time trying to manage the conflict between his own convictions and good politics.
For years, the junior senator from Kentucky and potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate has carefully and consistently built a reputation as an anti-interventionist on foreign policy. He's done that at a time when the Iraq War was unpopular, and when military operations like the U.S. intervention in Libya have turned into a disaster. It's been a political winner among the young, libertarians, and other huge swaths of the country that are sick of America's hawkish misadventures.
But after ISIS started sending out videos of their men beheading Americans, public opinion on intervention in Iraq completely flipped. Americans suddenly feel an almost visceral need to do something.
That puts Paul in a tough spot. And he's responded in recent weeks by indicating a willingness to support air operations against ISIS, which seems like a departure from his core beliefs.
Still, it's not as if Paul is calling for all-out war. In a very tough speech on the Senate floor, he blasted the idea of providing (more) aid to "moderate Syrian rebels," who have been described by other supporters of the airstrikes as the best partners on the ground for defeating ISIS:
So, yes we must now defend ourselves from these barbarous jihadists, but let's not compound the problem by arming feckless rebels in Syria who seem to be merely a pit stop for the arms that are inevitably scarfed up by ISIS.
Paul is probably more right than anyone cares to admit on these Syrian rebels. They have received arms from the U.S. but show little ability to defeat Basha al-Assad or other radical groups. Plus, the boundaries between "moderate" rebels and jihadi groups like al-Nusra and ISIS are not as hard and impenetrable as it may seem from Washington. If a fighter defects from the Free Syrian Army to ISIS, there isn't anyone around to collect his U.S.-provided gun before he hoists the black flag.
That's the big problem in the fight against ISIS: All of America's potential allies on the ground have been horrible. The U.S. was not willing to intervene alongside the completely ineffective Iraqi Army when Nouri al-Maliki was president. It is not willing to partner with Bashar al-Assad, for obvious reasons. And the Free Syrian Army is terribly flawed, too, for all the reasons Paul says.
Which brings us to the big political problem for Rand Paul: If public opinion or his conscience are guiding him toward military confrontation with ISIS, and if his better judgment guides him away from the available alliances on the ground, he is rapidly backing himself into the trap of Clintonian foreign policy. That means airstrikes and harassment, carried out indefinitely.
An airstrikes-only approach provides all the satisfaction of conflict and little risk of major casualties for U.S. forces, which quickly swing public opinion against a president and his party. But in recent times, this policy has always had one of two endings. When President Obama and Hillary Clinton did it in Libya, this "smart power" strategy resulted in a stateless region of chaos; the Libyan government can hardly meet safely in the territory it claims to rule. When Bill Clinton did it with his no-fly zone in Iraq, it settled into a kind of stalemate. It was a relatively light drain on U.S. budgets, but it was also vaguely humiliating. A domestic uprising against Saddam never materialized to justify our policy. And American hawks could put pressure on the president for a more robust policy of regime change. What's the point of military engagement, they'd ask, if victory isn't on the table?
How would the use of air power cause Sunnis in Iraq to channel their political energies and aspirations into rebuilding their own country? Why wouldn't more direct U.S. involvement attract more fighters from the region? Many potential jihadis may not have joined ISIS to sack Mosul, but will if it gives them an opportunity to defy the Great Satan and fire rockets into the sky at U.S. airplanes.
Defeating ISIS is a worthy goal. But Paul's airstrikes-with-no-alliances strategy seems doomed to failure. It's less a policy than it is a moralistic gesture. It's not a realistic goal for defeating ISIS, because it can't decide who the victor should be. And it's not a realistic goal for peace in the future, or husbanding America's military and moral resources.
Paul should not let a fickle public's opinion back him into a Clintonian corner on foreign policy — especially if he wants to look like an alternative to a Clinton in 2016.