The Mildly Distinctive, Mostly Mainstream Foreign Policy of Rand Paul

One thing you can say about Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is that he’s a crafty politician. His thirteen-hour filibuster to protest President Obama’s nomination of National Security Advisor John Brennan as CIA chief caused a stir across the political spectrum. Paul’s action was the high point of the brief debate about Obama’s reliance on drones that Brennan’s nomination sparked. Paul was flabbergasted and angry that he could not get Brennan, Attorney General Eric Holder, or any other administration official to answer his question as to whether the President believed he had the power to kill by drone on American soil an American accused of being a terrorist bent on imminent harm. Several senators on both sides of the aisle used the occasion to pressure the President to release the legal rationales underlying the drone program (an associated, unclassified memo leaked to the public), which he finally did after much foot dragging, and attempts to release but some of the documents. 

A sad spectacle in opaqueness it was. Sad was the need for the United States Senate to hold a top-level appointment hostage in order to receive documents that were its due. Sad is the administration’s continued power to play, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, “accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner . . . powers . . . exercised in the dark.” Sad is Congress’s failure to substantially challenge the drone program following release of the memos (there are a few bills floating around to limit executive drone power, and to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, legislation that will, sadly, go nowhere).

One thing you cannot say about Paul is that he has a foreign policy that differs much from that of the Republican and Democratic mainstreams, despite the clamor from the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Lindsey Graham and John McCain worked themselves into twinned frenzies at Paul’s chutzpah over drone targets. These guys, and their echo chamber in the media, dearly love Hellfire-armed Predators, even when directed by Obama. McCain went so far as to refer to Paul, and his Tea Party compatriot Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas, who joined the filibuster after encouragement from party chair Reince Priebus, as “wacko birds.” Paul poses a mostly personal (not policy) challenge to the Republican dinosaurs. It’s telling that McCain’s epithet came not following Paul’s disavowal of the Civil Rights Act, but when he appeared to break with the reigning Washington foreign policy consensus over drones.

How big a threat does Paul pose to Washington’s foreign-policy-as-usual? Not much of one (though this hasn’t stopped consensus defenders from arguing the contrary). Take a look at his official website, his voting record, and his February 6, 2013, speech to the Heritage Foundation. There’s also the unofficial transcript of his filibuster, available (in one hour blocks) on his website. As Paul votes with his party 68% of the time (with the occasional surprise, as when he voted to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense—one of only four Republicans to do so) and his filibuster zeroed in on Obama’s galling civil liberties record and the potential for domestic drone strikes against Americans (but not on the use of drones elsewhere, even against Americans; an analysis of the filibuster is available here), I’ll focus on his website, and his one big foreign policy speech.

The Website

Paul devotes but a single outdated page of his site to “foreign policy and national defense.” Would Paul send your daughter into combat? You betcha: “If the military action is justified and there is no other recourse, I will cast my vote with a heavy heart.” He believes war requires Congress to declare it; and that “we fight to win” (which is code for the application of massive, unrestrained levels of violence). He like nearly all of the rest of his colleagues contends that the US ought not to fight under the UN banner. He includes a nuanced reference to Obama’s participation in the campaign to remove Col. Gaddafi, critical only of the President’s “understanding of constitutional checks and balances.”

Paul acknowledges that the president is commander-in-chief, albeit “not a king.” He is critical of the failure of the country to pay for its recent wars (as is this analyst): “it would be interesting to know how many Americans believe we should continue borrowing money from countries like China and saddling future generations with debt to pay for our current actions in Libya.” He continues: “to involve our troops in further conflicts that hold no vital US interests is wrong.” Paul suggests no method whereby citizens might sort vital from non-vital interests.

What’s distinctive about Paul’s site, but ought not to trouble the foreign policy elite, is that he quotes James Madison in support of the legislative branch’s role in “the question of war,” and stresses the fiscal cost of war. While the page’s tone is tea stained, you will get no argument from other national legislators about these positions (their actual behavior, of course, is another matter).

The Speech

In the first paragraph of his address to the Heritage Foundation, Paul adopts the mantle of the “realist,” and rejects those of “neo-conservative” and “isolationist,” a self-description shared by the vast majority of his colleagues of both parties. John McCain’s suggestion during the 2008 presidential campaign that the US might need to stay in Iraq for a hundred years shocked Paul, but he admits that the US “is in for a long, irregular confrontation, not with terrorism, which is simply a tactic, but with Radical Islam.” The reference to terror as tactic is a sign of greater sophistication than one sees from many of his colleagues in both parties and both houses, but the focus on a religious ideology as the enemy is both eminently conventional and out of bounds for most self-described “realists.”

He takes pains to say the struggle is with “a radical element of Islam,” and not the whole religion (a boilerplate claim). But the radicals make up “no small minority, but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority.” “Whole countries, such as Saudi Arabia, adhere to at least certain radical concepts” such as the death penalty for religious offenses. He does not call for abrogation of the US-Saudi alliance, or an end to US drone strikes in Pakistan (another place where “radical concepts” meet with approval). He agrees with his libertarian allies that “western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam,” but quickly counters that short of occupation, Radical Islam will not “go quietly into that good night.” To reinforce the point, he resurrects Vice President Henry Wallace, and slaps him for being naïve about the Soviet threat.

He deploys the standard descriptors when referring to Radical Islam: “relentless force,” “unlimited zeal,” “supported by radicalized nations like Iran.” He compares unfavorably the historical knowledge and memories of Americans (“more concerned with who is winning ‘Dancing with the Stars’”) to that of “Islam.” He tries but fails to connect the historical ignorance of the American public (“over 50% still believe Iraq attacked us on 9/11”) to the effectiveness of defense against “our enemies:” “Until we understand the world around us, until we understand at least a modicum of what animates our enemies, we cannot defend ourselves and we cannot contain our enemies.” Using the standard Washington definitions, pervasive stupidity is not an obstacle to ‘defense’ or ‘containment.’

He evokes another ghost from the early Cold War—“where are the [George] Kennans of our generation?”—to complain about how calls for foreign policy “moderation” and “restraint,” simple questioning of the “bipartisan consensus,” results in “immediate castigat[ion],  “rebuke,” and “challenged patriotism” for the person foolish enough to do it. He cites a current case: “the most pressing question of the day, Iran developing nuclear weapons is allowed to have less debate than it receives in Israel.” He names the several Israeli intelligence officials who publically broke with Netanyahu and his amen corner in the US over the imminence of an Iranian bomb and the wisdom of attacking Iran to forestall it. The upshot? “I have voted for Iranian sanctions in the hope of preventing war and allowing for diplomacy.” He anticipates how this will sound, and quickly adds: “I did, however, hold up further sanctions unless Senator Reid allows a vote on my amendment that states, ‘Nothing in this bill is to be interpreted as a declaration of war or . . . authorization of force.’ The debate over war is the most important debate that occurs in our country and should not be glossed over.”

He’s dubious of the value of the sanctions he voted for: “I’m persuaded that for sanctions to change Iran’s behavior we must have the commitment of Iran’s major trading partners, especially, China, Russia, Japan, and India.” Why vote for sanctions you don’t believe will work? In case the relative reasonableness on sanctions gets him slammed by Likudniks at home and abroad, he bows before the consensus: “No one, myself included, wants to see a nuclear Iran. Iran does need to know that all options are on the table.” In case that sounds too close to the current policy consensus, “In a recent Senate resolution, the bipartisan consensus stated that we will never contain Iran should they get a nuclear weapon. In the debate, I made the point that while I think it unwise to declare that we will contain a nuclear Iran, I think it equally unwise to say we will never contain a nuclear Iran.  War should never be our only option.”


Paul can’t leave the Cold War on the rubbish heap of history; he attempts to rehabilitate Kennan’s original notion of containment (with a balance among diplomatic, economic, and military means) for the War on Radical Islam. He proposes a Goldilocks foreign policy, located somewhere between “appeasement” and “a third world war.” He taunts the contemporary “Truman caucus” for its eagerness to “support freedom fighters everywhere, including Syrian rebels” and the “1980s war caucus” for its support of bin Ladenism (“we all know how well that worked out”). Like most of his colleagues, Paul embodies the need for the United States to have a world-historical enemy, to crusade against evil empires, axes, and doers. USSR kaput? Step right up, al Qaeda. “Like communism,” claims the Kentuckian, “Radical Islam is an ideology with worldwide reach.” He (unwittingly?) steps in it here: To equate “Radical Islam” with “communism” is to endorse the Empire of Bases, the hundreds of US facilities, depots, and airfields strewn across the globe, infrastructure essential to the kneejerk power projection the Senator laments.

The Arab Spring opened the prospect for a debate over “whether we should continue to send aid and weapons to countries that are hostile to Israel and the United States;” he singles out Egypt (presumably because it’s ‘run’ by the Muslim Brotherhood). Two points here: he remains loyal to ‘Israel’ (despite his deviation from the neocon line on Iran), and he ignores the fact that massive US aid to Egypt is the ongoing price American taxpayers must pay for the Camp David Accords.

His wariness about future wars and occupations does not preclude his endorsement of Kennan’s recommendation that the US maintain “a preponderance of strength” to support containment. (Neither Paul nor Kennan addressed the likelihood that military advantage enables the interventions they abhor; recall Madeleine Albright’s question to Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell regarding his reticence to use force in the former Yugoslavia, “What’s the point of having this superb military, Colin, if we can’t use it?”). Avoiding “endless occupation . . . does not mean that by leaving we cannot and will not still contain Radical Islam.” Paul clearly prefers counterterrorism to counterinsurgency (though he does not use the terms), a position increasingly popular among national legislators of both parties ten years after Shock and Awe. The preference also helps explain why he has little or no problem with killer drones as long as the killing is done overseas.

Naturally, any public address on foreign policy by an elected Republican must include a hat tip to Ronald Reagan. Paul’s misunderstanding of Reaganite diplomacy and defense policy is typical of the extraordinary delusions one encounters when a Republican official holds forth on the topic. Where were these people during the era (Paul spent the eighties in college and medical school)? Reagan’s foreign policy was as close to Kennan’s containment as any postwar president; was “robust but also restrained;” “pulled no punches” but also negotiated with Gorbachev; Reagan’s “policy was much less interventionist than the presidents of both parties that came right before him and after him;” Reagan had “a policy of strategic ambiguity.”

The latter concept (wildly wrongheaded in this context) leads Paul to endorse a corner stone of the consensus—deterrence and first-use of the Bomb: “The world knows we possess an enormous ability of nuclear retaliation [sic] . . . Over sixty years of not using nuclear weapons shows wise restraint. . . . but for our enemies to be uncertain what provocation may awaken an overwhelming response, nuclear or conventional, is an uncertainty that still helps keep the peace.” We do not learn which “peace” is kept by the threat of omnicide; Radical Islamists have never been deterred by the Bomb. Paul had an opportunity here to be a truly innovative “constitutional conservative,” to point up the irrelevance of the nuclear complex for the War on Terror (and thus call for its abolition), to break with the consensus, and he missed it.

Wrapping up, Paul returns to his call for a middle-of-the-road foreign policy, neither thoughtlessly interventionist nor naively isolationist. “There are times,” he argues, “such as existed in Afghanistan with the Bin Laden terrorist camps, that do require intervention.” The Senator does not elaborate on the nature or extent of the military intervention required in this litmus test for the consensus (he passes). Here was another opportunity to constructively set himself apart from his colleagues and the rest of official Washington. He might have endorsed the view of many of us at the time (when sympathy for the US was running at over 90% in global public opinion polls, and bin Laden’s camps had been closed by the Taliban)—that the world collectively pursue the perpetrators through international law and the criminal justice system. He does not understand that the use of military force invariably occurs on a slippery slope, that state violence has its own inexorable logic; how to put the leash back on the Dogs of War once loosed?

Paul’s “true conservative foreign policy” is constrained only by “respect for the constitution and fiscal discipline.” He finds these constraints missing among his congressional colleagues, only too willing to cede war making power to the executive, and to write an endless series of gigantic checks against borrowed money once the president unilaterally commits US forces to combat. He recalls his attempt to pass a non-binding sense of the Senate resolution to remind Obama that as a candidate he’d endorsed a view that presidents ought not to deploy forces absent congressional approval except in cases of “imminent threat to our national security.” Only ten Republicans, and not a single Democrat, voted for Paul’s resolution.

Paul’s foreign policy would, he tells us, “have less soldiers stationed overseas and less bases [sic].” “Instead of large, limitless land wars in multiple theaters, we would target our enemy; strike with lethal force.” Which soldiers would he bring home, and from where? The Army and Marine Corps are already shrinking; does he recommend shrinking them yet further? Is Radical Islam our only “enemy”? What of what appear to be Chinese Army cyber attacks on US organizations? North Korea? Russia (as thought Mitt Romney)? Mexican drug lords? FARC guerillas in Colombia? How to kill bad guys if you close overseas bases? He rejects nation building as presumptuous and overly expensive (but then so did George W. Bush). Paul would attempt to coordinate armed US interventions with “the host government,” and require a declaration of war in other cases.


Paul’s foreign policy is mildly distinctive. The snark about American ignorance of history is rare if not unique. Most elected officials do not directly insult their constituents. His complaints about the fervent public-private policing of the consensus echoes those of Dennis Kucinich. Very few national legislators have the courage to cite contrarian security assessments from prominent Israeli intelligence officials. He tries to rebalance US policy toward Iranian nuclear research away from its zombie-like stumbling after the Israeli Right. He apparently does not realize that the US has applied a growing list of sanctions to Iran since 1979, not just over the past couple years. Paul makes the obligatory belligerent noises regarding a Mullah’s Bomb, while supporting sanctions he doubts have much practical value. But does distinctiveness equal genuine difference here? What if Iran were not a “Radical Islamic” state, but run by mere Persian nationalists? Would Paul have voted against sanctions? The Senator does not mention Pakistan’s Islamic Bomb. He is critical of the centrality of war to US foreign policy, his critique of war-made-easy goes considerably beyond that of most of his fellow Senators.

Paul’s pitch for a foreign policy constrained by constitutional checks-and-balances (“With Libya, the President sought permission from the UN, from NATO, from the Arab League—everyone BUT the US Congress!”) evinces bipartisan courage, but the real test comes when the president is a member of his own party. The Kentuckian’s stereotypically Republican obsession with deficits and debt (“the looming debt crisis will force us to reassess our role in the world;” “Admiral Mullen calls the debt the greatest threat to our national security”) is distinctive to the extent it applies to foreign aid and defense expenditures. Most Republicans advise frugality solely for social spending, and work doggedly to protect ‘defense’ from cuts. For Paul, “It is time for all Americans, and especially conservatives, to become as critical and reflective when examining foreign policy as we are with domestic policy.” Albeit highly unlikely for the foreseeable future, were Americans to heed Paul’s call, the consensus would be in danger.

Paul asks several legitimate questions in closing: “Should our military be defending this nation or constantly building other nations? What constitutes our actual ‘national defense’ and what parts of our foreign policy are more like an irrational offense? Can we afford this?” He provided answers to the first and third questions, but left the second one mostly unaddressed. He hopes others will take up his questions, and that “this occurs before the debt crisis occurs and not amidst a crisis.” He cannot be sanguine about the prospects.

In addition to its distinctive elements, Paul’s Heritage Foundation speech showed considerable allegiance to central components of the consensus, including its pervasive Cold War triumphalism. This matters for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that much of the debt Paul bemoans consists of trillions spent to ward off the Communist menace. There’s also the assumption—evident in the Senator’s view that “the Cold War ended because the engine of capitalism defeated the engine of socialism”—that Congress-approved persistence, proxy wars, drones, special operations forces, and truck loads of money can defeat “Radical Islam.”

It’s unfair to describe Paul as an Islamophobe, but his identification of Radical Islam as the “enemy” leaves him with little room to maneuver outside the consensus. He shows no understanding of Islamist grievances, of the origins of political Islam, of its allure for the disaffected and dispossessed. He’s unable to separate the sizable number of radical Islamists from the much smaller number of violent jihadis (a mistake that unnecessarily multiplies the size of his “enemy”). And he does not understand that drone strikes in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia may create as many new ‘terrorists’ as they shred. He makes no call for an updated version of Obama’s Cairo speech to reset the failed reset in US-Muslim relations. There is no grand proposal for a Marshall Plan for the poorer precincts of the Muslim world (which would’ve fit his Cold War frame; as a physician, Paul ought to know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure). He’s unable to imagine a broad systematic reconciliation with Muslims, even of the non-radical variety.

A self-proclaimed “realist,” Paul does not recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians in his speech. While hardly the most rabid Zionist in Congress, Paul stays sufficiently close to Netanyahu to avoid becoming a target for AIPAC. There’s not a word here about foreign economic policy, about the other Washington Consensus (around neoliberalism, the IMF and World Bank). No mention of “free trade agreements” like NAFTA or the Transpacific Partnership, currently under negotiation by Obama under a pall of secrecy as stiff as that shrouding drone policy from public and Congressional view. Paul takes swipes at US-Saudi and US-Egypt relations, but proffers no wisdom regarding other American entanglements.

He leaves many questions unaddressed, and ignores many central issues. But this is perhaps expecting too much from a single speech. In sum, Rand Paul’s foreign policy is a relatively deft dance around the edges of the consensus, with just enough novelty to worry hawks, but not enough to excite doves. It is clearly, however, superior to the foreign policies of either John McCain or Mitt Romney. It’s absurd and dishonest to describe Paul as an isolationist, though he’s hardly yet a transformational figure. Yet. Consider Paul’s recent embrace of immigration reform and a version of marriage equality, and his call along with Democrats Jeff Merkley and Sherrod Brown for Obama to leave as few troops in Afghanistan as possible after 2014. His growing popularity among young voters and first place finish in the CPAC straw poll combined with his foreign policy makes him the Republican frontrunner for 2016.

Steve Breyman was William C. Foster Visiting Scholar in the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau of the US State Department in 2011-12. Reach him at

Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at