Rand Paul's flailing search for a hawkish foreign policy
Rand Paul this week derided President Obama's approach to ISIS, then explained what he would do differently if he were president. It turned out, though, that the Republican senator from Kentucky and the president pretty much see eye to eye on the issue.
In a Time op-ed, Paul wrote that he would have "acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS" by launching airstrikes, arming the Kurdish rebels, bolstering Israel's Iron Dome missile defense, and securing the U.S. border.
One problem: Obama has already done just that, or most of it, anyway. Obama has ordered more than 125 airstrikes in the past month against ISIS; shipped arms to Kurdish forces; provided $225 million in emergency funding for the Iron Dome; and, in the face of GOP obstructionism on immigration, eyed executive action to strengthen the border.
The only area where Paul diverges from Obama is that he would order Congress back from vacation to hear his plan. Given Congress' apparent reluctance to take on this issue, this is the foreign policy equivalent of Vanilla Ice's claiming that adding one more note to Ice, Ice, Baby meant he wasn't ripping off Freddie Mercury.
Paul's excoriation of Obama is remarkable given that only a few months ago, he explicitly defended the president and blamed ISIS' proliferation on former President George W. Bush and his gung-ho interventionism.
"I don't blame President Obama," he said in a late June appearance on Meet the Press. At the same time, he threw cold water on the idea of a U.S. military intervention, saying, "I'm not so sure where the clear-cut American interest is."
And as recently as August, Paul wrote a column arguing that hawkish interventionists had "abetted the rise of ISIS."
On the one hand, it's not surprising Paul is cribbing the administration's ideas. Grandstanding aside, almost everyone is pretty much on the same page about how to handle ISIS.
But Paul's newfound hawkishness is remarkable given his past tendency toward isolationism, which formed the heart of his unique appeal within the GOP. It was also the greatest obstacle to his winning the GOP presidential nomination in a party full of foreign policy hawks.
That dovish position grew even more problematic once Russia invaded Crimea, and once ISIS began swarming across Syria and Iraq. Though Pew last year found Americans' appetite for foreign entanglements waning, that trend has now reversed, most sharply among Republicans.
Paul is now racing to shed the "isolationist" tag that dogged his proto-presidential candidacy. His Time op-ed even bears the none-too-subtle headline, "I am not an isolationist."
But Paul is also spitting the same anti-interventionist lines that boosted him in the first place among his war-weary, libertarian faithful. Paul is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, and as a result his Time column reads like a bunch of flip-flopping nonsense.
Paul insists he is merely adapting: "I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist," he wrote in Time. "I look at the world and consider war, realistically and constitutionally."
It's certainly possible for changing circumstances to alter one's global calculus. But they can just as easily alter one's political calculus, too. In Paul's case, it's hard to see his abrupt about-face as anything but a bid to remain relevant as his party lurches rightward on foreign policy.