WASHINGTON – In March of 2013, Rand Paul occupied the Senate floor for a 13-hour filibuster, promising to “speak until I can no longer speak” in the cause that “no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime.” Enthused Ted Cruz: “You’re standing here today like a modern Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Marco Rubio also rose in support, with a speech that will be long remembered for its quotes from rappers Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z.
This was probably the high point of hip-hop-based Senate discourse (though who knows what the future might bring). It was certainly the center-stage moment for libertarian foreign policy –appealing to a concern for civil liberties, an exhaustion with the global war on terrorism and a suspicion among elements of the right that President Obama is capable of anything, including missile strikes against citizens at cafes.
But the greatest enemy of ideology is history, which tends to pick apart political abstractions bit by bit. Military aggression by Russia, a regional power grab by Iran and the rise of the Islamic State as the most dangerous terror state in modern times have all highlighted the risks of American passivity. The main GOP charge against Obama is weakness, not executive overreach. And the three musketeers from that day in 2013 have had a nasty breakup. “I don’t agree” with Paul on foreign policy, says Cruz. Rubio, should he run, would be the field’s foremost exponent of muscular internationalism.
Paul himself has beat a tactical retreat from the front lines of libertarian foreign policy. Having previously proposed slashing defense spending, he now awkwardly embraces increases. Having tracked closely with Obama’s position on Iran, he now prefers negotiation from “a position of strength.”
This movement from paranoia to platitudes highlights the tension at the heart of the Paul campaign. He must send signals of sympathy to the extensive libertarian field organization assembled by his father. He must also show indications of evolution to mainstream Republicans in order to be imaginable as commander in chief. Every word Paul says on foreign policy must pass through this balancing test. The result is a tap dance on a tightrope.
Paul is either abandoning his deepest beliefs on foreign policy or playing a libertarian long game. The latter is much more likely.
Paul often uses policy and proposals, not to reveal his deepest beliefs, but to advance a set of unstated beliefs. His drone filibuster was not really about the lunchtime vulnerability of Americans to Hellfire missiles. Paul was using the issue strategically, to advance his opposition to the global war on terrorism. His proposed restrictions on the war against the Islamic State – involving yearly congressional reauthorization of the use of force – is couched as constitutionalism. But his plan would make it practically impossible for a chief executive to conduct a war. Which, we can fairly assume, is the larger goal.
Paul opposes aid to Syrian rebels because, he says, arms might fall into the wrong hands and be used against Syrian Christians. But what, then, is his plan to save Christians and fight jihadists? That really isn’t the point. The objective of his argument is to reinforce a policy of nonintervention.
Or take Paul’s “Stand with Israel Act,” which would end all foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. But Paul’s broader, libertarian agenda is the gradual elimination of all foreign aid, period, including to Israel. “All nations should be free of foreign aid,” he recently said.
In case after case, Paul is attempting to cloak libertarian positions in Republican rhetoric. And sometimes he goes much too far. The emotional center of Paul’s presidential announcement speech was the story of conducting a cataract operation on a man in Guatemala, who was then able to see his wife for the first time in years. “As I saw the joy in their eyes, I thought, ‘This is why I became a doctor.'”
But Paul, of course, would eventually cut off funding for the USAID Child Blindness Program. And for vaccinations, and AIDS drugs and malaria treatments. Freeing nations from foreign aid, after all, is one reason he became a politician.
All politicians are selective in their treatment of issues. Paul is deceptive, because he can’t talk frankly about his breathtakingly ambitious ideology, which is fundamentally unsuited to the strategic and moral challenges of our time. This has made him the candidate who peaked two years too early.
Michael Gerson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.