Rand Paul, Revisited

When likely presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) signed on to his Senate colleague Tom Cotton’s open letter to the Iranian leadership, a storm broke – among his own supporters. As Dave Weigel of Bloomberg News notes, it’s "a decision that has caused real fury in the libertarian base" that forms the core of Sen. Paul’s support. The Senator’s defenders soon moved to quell the burgeoning rebellion.

Jim Antle, managing editor over at the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, has written no less than three polemics directed at Rand Paul’s libertarian critics. And in keeping with Antle’s record as a thoughtful and puckishly amusing "fellow traveler" of the libertarian cause, his commentary is contemplative – and very far from a kneejerk reaction.

In a March 10 piece for Rare, he admits to being surprised at seeing Sen. Paul’s name among Cotton’s co-signers, and asks "What gives?" As it turns out, it’s all about "process":

"Most Senate Republicans are wrong about the substance of this issue – they at best favor making unrealistic demands the basis of any Iran diplomacy, at worst prefer military action – but they do have a point about the process questions. The Constitution gives the Senate a role in treaty ratification and there is a limit to a president’s ability to otherwise bind his successors and future Congresses to lesser agreements.

"Paul is siding with the majority of his Republican colleagues on process, while still defending the negotiations and warning against war (at great political risk). While the letter is condescending in tone and counterproductive to diplomacy in spirit, it doesn’t say anything inaccurate about Congress’ legitimate constitutional prerogatives – and may not even tell the Iranians anything they don’t already know."

This sudden enthusiasm for sticking to the Constitution on the part of Republican Senators who, for the most part, ignore that document when it suits their purposes (i.e. 95 percent of the time) is hardly a cause for celebration. Given that the letter was written at the behest of Sen. Cotton (R-Gitmo), who rose to fame on account of another letter – one calling for the editors of the New York Times to be jailed for the "crime" of reporting on the Bush administration’s efforts to track alleged terrorist funding – the sheer chutzpah of this propaganda campaign is astonishing. "By the time we return home," Cotton wrote to the editors of the Times, "maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars." Since Cotton’s concern for constitutional "process" doesn’t extend to upholding the First Amendment, one may be forgiven for failing to be impressed by the Senator’s newfound zeal on behalf of the Founders.

Aside from the obvious hypocrisy of Cotton & Co., however, one has to wonder about this separation of process from substance: what use is honoring the former – just this once! – if the latter results in World War III? Form without substance is a snare and a delusion, as that old paleoconservative Garet Garrett told us many years ago:

"There are those who have never ceased to say very earnestly, ‘Something is going to happen to the American form of government if we don’t watch out.’ These were the innocent disarmers. Their trust was in words. They had forgotten their Aristotle. More than 2,000 years ago he wrote of what can happen within the form, when ‘one thing takes the place of another, so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about revolution in the state.’"

Garrett was here speaking of the New Deal but he might just as well have been describing our post-9/11 world. Yes, we still have a Constitution, which is hauled out and dusted off on special occasions – such as the need to start an unnecessary war – but for all intents and purposes it has been hollowed out. The Cotton letter contains no less than three references to this vestigial organ, and indeed the entire text is framed as a lesson in constitutional law – all for the purpose of starting a horrific conflict sure to unleash a fresh assault on the rest of that hallowed document.

"The political reality is that whatever impact the letter has on the negotiations, it was going to have with 46 signatures," avers Antle:

"Paul already supports Bob Corker’s bill to subject an Iran deal to a congressional vote. Consequently, there was no upside for Paul to deny Cotton a 47th signature and allow more hawkish rivals like Marco Rubio to continue to call him ‘the chief cheerleader of Obama’s foreign policy.’

"Paul has been willing to take such risks when substantive matters are at stake – the context of Rubio’s jibe was Paul’s defense of President Obama on Cuba – but on things that are more symbolic, the cheap and false ‘Obama-Paul foreign policy’ framing doesn’t do libertarians and less hawkish conservatives any good."

This argument basically takes the position that since Sen. Paul has already capitulated, his signature on the Cotton letter – which is supposedly not a "substantive" matter – is just more of the same. Yet this strengthens my argument that Sen. Paul has crossed the line: his support for the Corker-Menendez bill, otherwise known as the "Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015," is not just a matter of process but indeed involves substantial policy issues.

Corker-Menendez doesn’t merely require a vote on the agreement: it effectively ties the President’s hands for 60 days after an agreement is transmitted to Congress, prohibiting the lifting of any sanctions. So here the supposedly bright line between process and substance is effectively erased. In addition, it sets up a formidable obstacle course not only for the ultimate approval of the agreement, but also – if by some miracle it’s finally given the congressional imprimatur – requiring endless mandated reports, verifications, and reviews which give the deal’s congressional critics the ability to nullify it unto eternity. In effect, the deal would have to be renegotiated on at least a quarterly basis – with Senators Corker, Menendez, and Cotton sitting at the negotiating table (that is, if Menendez can stay out of jail that long).

Finally, Corker-Menendez clearly rules out letting the Iranians engage in any uranium enrichment, which they’re entitled to do under the terms of the Nonproliferation Treaty. This is something Tehran will certainly never agree to: in effect, Corker-Menendez is a deal-killer.

So why didn’t I call out Sen. Paul earlier, the moment he signed on to the Corker-Menendez bill? The reason is because I – wrongly – gave him the benefit of a doubt on the whole "process" issue. Clarity on this question was achieved, on my part at least, when he signed the Cotton letter. It suddenly became clear to me that the Senator’s rhetoric didn’t match his actions.

It can be argued, albeit not very convincingly, that the Cotton letter probably will not have a substantive impact on the actual negotiations, although the prospect that Congress will override the President is surely not encouraging the Iranians to sign on. However, in tandem with Corker-Menendez, the letter is an attempted deal-killer – and a clear indication that Sen. Paul is trying to play both sides of the barricades in the Iran debate.

Antle ends by hauling out the favorite bromide of the Washington DC crowd, the old "purity versus pragmatism" canard:

"[B]y being the most prominent Republican opponent of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions and working with Barbara Boxer to develop an alternative to them, Paul is arguably doing more than any other single senator to slow the march to war. He is keeping nonmilitary options alive.

"Some libertarians and conservatives are disappointed that Rand makes political concessions Ron Paul would not have. You have to ask this question: is the loss of purity outweighed by a gain in effectiveness? It’s great to vote against wars that are not in America’s interests.

"It’s even better to stop them."

To begin with, Sen. Paul’s role as "the most prominent Republican opponent of the Kirk-Menendez sanctions" is worth far less than Antle assumes. He supports Corker-Menendez, which requires the previously imposed sanctions to stay in place until and unless Congress agrees to lift them: Paul, you’ll recall, voted for those sanctions. He argues that the sanctions brought Tehran to the negotiating table, but this is false: the Iranians have been trying to negotiate with Washington for many years, to no avail. Their goal has always been to normalize relations. Washington’s goal, on the other hand, has been to drive them into a corner, while unleashing terrorist groups like Jundullah and the Marxist-Islamist Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) to wreak havoc on Iranian civilians.

Secondly, the Boxer-Paul effort to forge an "alternative" to sanctions doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. It was announced with much fanfare weeks ago, and since then it’s been … crickets.

Finally, this juxtaposition of father and son is irrelevant – and unfair to them. As both critics and supporters of the Senator never seem to tire of pointing out, they’re different people operating in a different context. Ron Paul’s efforts have been focused on educating the American public and building a constituency for liberty and peace within the GOP, and in that he has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most libertarians. Rand Paul is supposed to be taking the next step, i.e. bringing that message to a much wider audience – and making serious a bid to take the White House. However, that doesn’t mean one has to choose between a vulgar "pragmatism" and a sectarian "purity" – a dichotomy that is largely a shibboleth.

One can be both principled and "pragmatic" by simply following what Murray Rothbard, the great libertarian theorist – who thought long and hard about strategy – called the "centrist" position, avoiding both the Scylla of opportunism and the Charybdis of sectarianism.

The sectarian insists on "standing on a street corner" and handing out leaflets that state the maximalist position: that is, sectarians insist on the immediate implementation of the libertarian program in full. This, says Rothbard, is "noble but ineffective."

On the other hand, our libertarian opportunists in effect abandon "the true principles in the name of gradualist advance, ‘realism,’ ‘practical life,’" etc., and wind up jettisoning the ultimate goal. These people, Rothbard contended, are "ignoble," and, "if they are at all effective," wind up pushing both the movement and society in general in the wrong direction.

The proper "centrist" position, as outlined by Rothbard, is as follows:

"The effective centrist avoids the pitfalls of ‘opportunism’ by keeping the objective firmly in view, and, in particular, by never acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full libertarian position." [Emphasis in original]

If we apply this principle to Sen. Paul’s conduct, the verdict is clear: both Corker-Menendez and the Cotton letter are clearly inconsistent with the ultimate goal of avoiding war with Iran. Corker-Menendez imposes so many limitations on the conditions under which an agreement can be verified and approved that, for all intents and purposes, it nullifies any reasonable deal that might be forthcoming. And the Cotton letter is worse in the sense that its purpose is to a) inform Tehran that nullification is likely, and b) send a message to Americans that any agreement achieved by this administration is likely to pose a danger to our national security and ought to be opposed.

Antle’s second piece is largely an account of Ron Paul’s successes – and failures – although the moral of this story is unclear. He claims the elder Paul failed to "reassure people his foreign policy would keep the country safe." However, in today’s context, when polls show the issue of terrorism on American soil is the primary concern of just 8 percent of voters, while "dissatisfaction with government" tops the list at 17 percent, it seems clear that the GOP rank-and-file want to be kept safe from their own government rather than the dim prospect of ISIS imposing sharia law in Kansas.

Antle goes on to write:

"There’s an obvious moral to this story for Rand Paul, who is struggling to find his foreign-policy footing in a suddenly more hawkish political climate. To advance significantly beyond his father’s national success, he has to be able to persuade a critical mass of non-libertarian Republicans that a less interventionist foreign policy is consistent with national security.

"But Paul has to do that in a way that is true to himself and doesn’t invite charges of insincerity or flip-flopping. I’m afraid this doesn’t fit the bill."

The link above goes to Rand Paul’s Facebook page, which features a ridiculous attack on Hillary Clinton for supposedly being soft on "the ayatollahs." The headline blares: "Who Said It – Hillary Clinton or an Ayatollah Spokesman?" To call this pandering – not to mention outright lying, since Hillary has been much more of a hawk than Sen. Paul on this subject – seems somehow insufficient, although I doubt there are any words in the English language that aptly describe the depths to which it sinks.

In all fairness, Antle clucks disapprovingly at such antics. Yes he fails to see the warning written on the wall: that this doesn’t augur well for Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.

I agree with Antle that Sen. Paul has to reach far beyond the 10 percent or so of Republican voters who might be considered libertarian-inclined, but I would contest his twin assumptions that a) we’re in a "suddenly more hawkish political climate," and b) that only the libertarian element of Republican voters are in favor of reaching an accommodation with Iran. Recent polls put support for the negotiations at 61 percent among Republicans, with Democrats at 66 percent. The number only drops down to 54 percent when we get to self-identified Independents.

The reality is that inside the Beltway we’re suddenly in a more hawkish climate: out here it the real world, however, it’s quite a different story. Americans in their overwhelming majority still say the Iraq war "wasn’t worth it" – and that includes Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents.

In Antle’s third piece, he acknowledges Sen. Paul was wrong to have signed Cotton’s letter, and goes further in saying that if the letter derails the talks "Paul and the other 46 Senators should be held accountable." However, he goes on to say:

"But the Cotton letter is at least as likely to have no more impact than a deport Justin Bieber petition. That’s why the ‘red line,’ to borrow a phrase from President Obama, should be the imposition of additional sanctions while negotiations are ongoing, which will most certainly short-circuit diplomacy. If Paul is able to help keep the negotiations going, it will outweigh his signature on the Cotton letter and even a vote for Corker-Menendez.

"Lots of things are suboptimal. Kirk-Menendez and any preventive Iran AUMF are non-negotiable."

First, we don’t yet know what impact the Cotton letter will have: we don’t even have an agreement, so far, and it’s entirely possible the Iranians will back off because of it – the campaign to deport Justin Bieber to the contrary notwithstanding.

Secondly, the imposition of additional sanctions isn’t likely: the President would surely veto a congressional initiative along these lines, and the War Party doesn’t have the votes to override – unless the agreement goes through and the Iranians immediately violate it. If Corker-Menendez passes, however – with Sen. Paul’s support, I might add – it’s not clear how we will know if the Iranians have stepped over the line. Will a "report" in the Weekly Standard do? How about a briefing from the Israelis (or do I repeat myself)?

Remember, Sen. Paul has voted for sanctions against Iran: he believes they’re a valuable tool. How do we know he wouldn’t vote the same way he has in the past? The answer is: we don’t know. And that is precisely the problem: one never knows, from one day to the next, what Rand Paul will say or do.

Again, Antle contrasts Rand with Ron, pointing out the latter’s role as an educator and the former’s role as a working politician out to win, as if these are irreconcilable opposites. But is this really the case?

A successful politician is a leader, that is, someone who takes a position, sticks to it, and persuades people of the rightness of his stance: in short, he leads rather than follows. So a winning candidate is indeed partly a teacher: aside from which, voters respect a candidate with firm convictions, and tend to despise panderers.

Antle points to Ron’s pedagogical response to Rudy Giuliani, contrasting it with Rand’s response, during the Kentucky Senate race, to the evil Trey Grayson’s false characterization of him as an "isolationist" – Rand ran an ad calling Grayson out as a liar. Yet these different approaches are more a question of personal style than anything else. Ron just isn’t an attack dog, while Rand tends to be more combative – except lately, when he’s challenged on his foreign policy views by neocons, and starts backpeddling, which Ron would never do. Indeed, the lesson of Rand Paul’s campaign for the Senate – hit back hard – is being ignored by him and his current advisors.

The examples of Pat Buchanan and Sen. Robert A. Taft – the leader of the Republican Senate caucus at the beginning of the cold war – given by Antle as examples of successful anti-interventionist politics simply do not apply. Buchanan had some initial success, but his campaign soon petered out, much to his – and my own – dismay. The reasons for this are complex, and too involved to go into here in much detail. Suffice to say that the groundwork had not been laid for such a candidate to win the GOP nomination, much less the presidency.

As for Sen. Taft, he too failed – not once, but three times. The Eastern Republican Establishment basically stole the nomination from him, and you can read all about it in Phyllis Schlafly’s classic book, A Choice, Not An Echo. As Rothbard points out in his The Betrayal of the American Right, Taft, as the leader of the Republican "old Right," often vacillated, hemming this way and hawing that way until one became a bit dizzy following his flip-flops. He was, by the way, also an uninspiring speaker, and this, combined with his tendency to waffle, kept him out of the White House – and led, eventually, to the Old Right’s defeat and the consignment of "isolationism" to the prison house of supposedly discredited notions.

The one argument made by Antle that carries some weight is that, as he says, "it’s a little early to write off the biggest counterweight to the GOP’s most hawkish voices." After all, Sen. Paul hasn’t even formally announced his White House bid. So why rule out supporting him at this very preliminary stage – when most normal Americans aren’t even thinking about the next presidential election?

I thought this was a pretty good point – at first. But then I pondered it a bit more, and asked myself: If he’s flip-flopping and pandering to the worst elements of the GOP at this early stage, what can we expect from him in the future? Candidates tend to appeal to their base in the beginning, and only start trimming their sails and charting a course for the center when the race gets down to the wire. Paul, it seems, has skipped the first stage and gone straight for the second – not a good sign at all. Such a tack is not only unprincipled, it isn’t even good politics. Why alienate your base this early on? On strictly pragmatic grounds, it makes no sense whatsoever.

What this tells me is that Rand Paul is a loser, i.e. that he’s not going anywhere. And his recent drop in the polls is a sad indication of this fact. I’m sure his hawkish advisors – and the GOP mega-donors he’s been courting – are telling him it’s due to his "isolationist" foreign policy stance, but that’s baloney. As I showed in the preceding paragraphs, polls show Americans are sick and tired of Washington’s global meddling. They want our leaders to concentrate on the systemic problems eating away at our prosperity and our peace of mind on the home front. Lindsey Graham, who’s about to enter the GOP presidential primaries, is running around New Hampshire telling voters he wants US "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria: he’s polling around 1 percent.

Antle rightly fears libertarians may "isolate themselves from the rest of the [Republican] party," and that’s always a danger. Yet their enemies have succeeded in isolating themselves from the rest of the country, and this is something Rand Paul – who’s been marketing himself as "a different kind of Republican" – needs to point out. This purity-versus-principle routine can be turned around and used against the neocons: do they want to go down in flames defending the foreign policy of George W. Bush, or do they want to win this time around?

Rand Paul is certainly not asking this question: instead of taking the offensive, he’s fleeing the foreign policy battlefield at the first opportunity. When it comes to calling out Jeb Bush for being a hypocrite on drug policy, or making bold proposals on issues of criminal justice, he’s raring to go. But when it comes to foreign policy – the one area where a President has almost a free hand – he tends to turn tail and run.

Can Rand redeem himself? Will he? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I have my strong suspicions. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A thank you note: I want to thank each and every one of you who donated to our recent – rather hairy – fundraising drive. It was pretty discouraging for a while, but you came through in the end. For that I am grateful beyond words: we’re one of the few bigger web sites to fundraise this way, and I’m proud to say we’ve succeeded with this model for over fifteen years. Again, thank you one and all: we here at Antiwar.com work day and night to be worthy of your support.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].