Rand Paul Drinks Tea, Turns Into Hawk?

“When it is said that nothing, including a nuclear strike, is off the table on Iran, are those who say it not also threatening genocide?”
– Rep. Ron Paul, May 22, 2007

“I don’t think you take [nuclear weapons] off the table.”
– Rand Paul on Iran, The O’Reilly Factor, May 19, 2010

“Rand Paul believes in a strong national defense, opposes closing Guantanamo Bay, and believes that Iran is a serious threat….”
– Text of Rand Paul campaign ad, March 2010 (removed from YouTube “by the user” in the last 72 hours)

In September 2008, an estimated 10,000 liberty-minded individuals crowded into the Target Center in Minneapolis, just a few miles away from the Republican National Convention.

They had staged a sort of alternative convention, a “Rally for the Republic,” hailing presidential candidate Ron Paul, the longtime Republican congressman from Texas, who had been excoriated by his party so badly that they had refused to let him onto the floor of the convention hall without an escort and had prevented many of his delegates from announcing their votes out loud during the Sept. 3 roll call nomination.

Paul supporters, who had swelled in numbers and had once raised $6 million in small donations for him in one day, were dismissed as nut-jobs and “Paultards” by mainstream Republicans. His views – especially against the ongoing military operations abroad – were sneered at and dismissed as too fringe for the RNC platform. Meanwhile, “momma grizzly” Sarah Palin was crowned queen of the ball, sashaying through a convention speech with a lust for the Global War on Terror matched that night only by Rudy “9/11” Giuliani himself.

How things have changed – sort of. Today, Paul’s son Rand is one step closer to becoming a U.S. senator, giving him a platform exceeding that of his libertarian father’s on Capitol Hill. This development should be a major boon for antiwar activists and civil libertarians who have long relied on the elder Paul and his “revolution” as a reasonable voice for non-intervention. It is especially poignant as the military will have no less than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by the 2010 election, and growing signs indicate that there may be more than 50,000 soldiers in Iraq beyond the imposed withdrawal deadline of August.

Congress – which has ignored the issue of war for months – will no doubt soon be called on to act, if not directly on policy, on the budget (which has already exceeded $1.3 trillion since 2001).

But after months of a grueling primary, it is not yet clear where the younger Paul’s savvy campaigning ends and his true ideological impulses begin, particularly on national security and foreign policy. No one is entirely sure how to reconcile his more blistering critiques of the war during his father’s campaign with his more hawkish pronouncements – particularly on Iran as “a dangerous threat to the Middle East” and against closing the Guantanamo Bay prison – during his own campaign.

“All and all I think it is a positive improvement to keep electing more and more pro-liberty candidates, but those who trumpet Rand as a real liberty candidate might be disappointed when he actually gets in office,” offers Tarrin Lupo, who publishes the LCL Report Web site. He joins other libertarians in their skepticism of Paul’s embrace of the Tea Party movement, including his courting of Sarah Palin’s endorsement several months ago.

“At a time when libertarian ideas are becoming discussed more in the mainstream, the last thing we need is to become identified with another right-wing conservative with stances so anti-freedom,” shares writer Christine Smith, who ran unsuccessfully for the Libertarian Party nomination for president in 2008.

But Paul’s identification with the Tea Party movement is unabashed and certainly justified, at least politically. First, the Ron Paul Revolution, AKA the liberty movement, AKA Campaign for Liberty, was identifying itself with the Boston Tea Party years before it came a haven for disaffected Republicans in the wake the Democratic takeover of Washington. In a way, the Paul libertarians see these neo-patriots as finally coming over to their way of thinking, not the other way around.

But more importantly, Paul knew he needed the extraordinary momentum and muscle (not to mention contributions) of the Tea Party to win the closed Kentucky Republican primary (only those registered as Republicans as of Jan. 1 were able to vote in the May 18 contest). He guessed early on that some 75 percent of the current Tea Party movement did not support his father during the 2008 Republican primary. So he’s careful to call himself not a libertarian, but a “constitutional conservative.” His frank acknowledgment that his campaign courted – and happily received – Sarah Palin’s endorsement like a blessing from on high indicates how important it is he identify with her faction, despite their differences on war and civil liberties.

This was especially true given that he was running against the establishment Republican, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who had the approbation of not only Kentucky’s senior Sen. Mitch McConnell, but also heavyweights like Dick Cheney and plainly nervous national neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, all poised to condemn Rand for his “neo-isolationist” pedigree. Indeed, Grayson and his surrogates went on the attack early last fall, leading to some surprisingly hawkish responses from Paul.

“Foreign terrorists do not deserve the protections of our Constitution,” Paul said in a Nov. 19 release. “These thugs should stand before military tribunals and be kept off American soil. I will always fight to keep Kentucky safe, and that starts with cracking down on our enemies.”

It cannot be stressed enough how far this rhetoric diverges from the liberty movement’s sustained view of the Global War on Terror. Just the mention of “foreign terrorists” – when Paul should know by now that the majority of prisoners at Gitmo today have not been charged with any crime, much less convicted – smacks of gratuitous right-wing demagoguery. Not to mention that the tribunals have been criticized by a growing line of respected military lawyers – not just “kooky” libertarians and the ACLU – on ethical, moral, and constitutional grounds. And the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that “foreign terrorists” being held on American soil do have some rights – including habeas corpus, the right to question their detention in court.

Not surprisingly, Paul’s comments and the tone of his muscular campaign ads are right in line with the Tea Party, and nowhere was this more evident than at the big Tea Party confabs earlier this year, including the National Tea Party Convention in Tennessee, where Palin brought down the roof when she said terrorists don’t deserve constitutional rights and mocked President Obama: “We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.”

In fact, if the Campaign for Liberty hadn’t bussed in all those college libertarians into the Tea Party-friendly Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February, Ron Paul might have lost the straw poll, and he certainly wouldn’t have gotten the applause he did when he said during his own address that fighting wars “so carelessly” and telling the rest of the world what to do are “neoconservatism, but not true conservatism.” The only “national security” this crowd wanted to talk about otherwise was the stuff Liz Cheney was dishing out: thanking the CIA for waterboarding, criticizing Obama for not waterboarding enough, and insisting the administration wants to “bring terrorists into the United States.”

Referring to the response of regular CPAC-goers to her group’s antiwar stance at the three-day event, Tracey Harmon of the libertarian Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA), said, “I’ve been called unpatriotic.” It makes sense that Rand Paul would want to avoid a similar response in Kentucky, whose Republicans hail from a Jacksonian conservative, proud military tradition.

But Paul’s refusal to outright repudiate or neutralize the overheated rhetoric, while indulging in it himself when it comes to right-wing hobgoblins like Iran and Guantanamo Bay, has set off some alarms. More recently, he publicly chose sides with Israel on the politically explosive issue of Middle East peace. This seems so oddly forced and out of place that it might only be explained as more pandering to the right wing:

“I would never vote to place trade restrictions on Israel, and I would filibuster any attempts to place sanctions on Israel or tariffs on any Israeli goods.

“The issue of Palestine is incredibly difficult and complex. The entire world wishes for peace in the region, but any arrangement or treaty must come from Israel, when she is ready and when her conditions have been met.

“I strongly object to the arrogant approach of Obama administration, itself a continuation of the failures of past U.S. administrations, as they push Israel to make security concessions behind thinly veiled threats.

“Only Israel can decide what is in her security interest, not America and certainly not the United Nations. Friends do not coerce friends to trade land for peace, or to give up the vital security interests of their people.”

It all sounds too much like the last administration for some of his early supporters to bear. Here’s a comment from cfountain72 on a Rand Paul-related post I put up on the Antiwar.com blog May 19:

“As someone who did make some small contributions to Rand’s campaign, I am torn as to what the man really stands for. Is he indeed a non-interventionist like his father, and making some calculated moves to focus attention on areas of agreement to garner broader Tea Party support? Or perhaps ‘being his own man’ means (unlike his father) that he regards American intervention a necessity after all? While, in any case, I think he’ll be a better Senator than his November opponent, I certainly wouldn’t continue to send donations to out-of-state candidates that hew to the neo-clown mold. I pray Rand deosn’t (sic) fall into that trap.”

In his favor, Paul has said repeatedly that he would cut away at the bloated military- industrial complex, including the federal procurement system, which fosters an insider racket in which behemoths like Halliburton send battalions of lobbyists and consultants to Capitol Hill each year to mold and drive defense policy and budgets. The companies are then rewarded billions in defense contracts each year, despite, as in the case of Halliburton, numerous accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer funds.

Like his father, Rand doesn’t believe “we have to have troops in 130 countries and 750 bases.” He says there should have been a “declaration of war” for the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he says he would not have voted in favor of such a declaration for Iraq, he would have for Afghanistan, because “I felt that we were attacked, and we were attacked by people [on 9/11] who were organizing and plotting against us in Afghanistan.”

But Rand doesn’t talk much about the current counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, other than to say he “has questions” and there must be a “debate” on the course of our national security interests in Afghanistan moving forward.

Daniel McCarthy, a Campaign for Liberty scribe and senior editor at The American Conservative, hardly a nest of hawks, nonetheless cautions against a libertarian backlash against Rand solely on the basis of his primary campaign rhetoric:

“Rand is able communicate with the quite large segment of the GOP that is not anti-interventionist, but that is anti-nation-building – the segment of the GOP that could have become dominant in the 1990s but that went dormant after 9/11. I think Rand himself is halfway between his father’s views and those of the semi-non-interventionist Right of the 1990s. … It’s hard to say how he will vote as a senator if he wins in November – but the fact that he has made any criticisms at all of America’s ongoing wars and has said he would not have voted for the Iraq War already distinguishes him from all the other GOP senators.

“I think the odds are that he’ll be better than his colleagues: if he wanted to be perfectly safe and unobjectionable to GOP voters, he would never have said anything critical about U.S. foreign policy. No group of voters ever gets 100 percent of what it wants from any political candidate. The question is, if you can get 80 or 90 percent, should you try to achieve that? If not, you aren’t in politics.

“For my part, speaking personally and not for TAC or anyone else, I’m willing to give Rand Paul a chance. He won’t vote the way I want on every issue, but he’ll counter-balance some of the more ideologically imperialist forces in Washington. There’s a pressing need for that.”

Interestingly, the biggest howl to come out about Rand Paul’s national security positions in the wake of his stunning 25-point win last Tuesday – aside from spirited discussions on libertarian Facebook pages and assorted blogs – were from neoconservatives who still view Paul as a threat, despite his steroidal pro-military campaign ads and his special new friends like Palin (whose own foreign policy gurus include the likes of Bill Kristol and Randy Scheunemann).

“Rand Paul’s victory in the Kentucky Republican primary is obviously a depressing event for those who support strong national defense and rational conservative politics. In another year, such a victory would be a prelude to a Republican defeat in the general election,” wrote conservative pundit David Frum last week.

Through gritted teeth, Kristol said the GOP was a “big tent” that could allow an energizing candidate like Rand Paul into it – but not before he took a few swipes, including one at papa Paul.

“Paul ran a good campaign,” Kristol told David Weigel at the Washington Post. “He did a good job of being less like his dad – seeming less ‘out there’ – so if you were a normal Kentucky voter you thought you were voting for a Sarah Palin-like, anti-Washington figure, not someone who bought into the whole Ron Paul agenda.”

Comments like this could easily be dismissed as the bitter last throes of the Borg-like neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party post-9/11. Kristol and his pals did their best to thwart both Ron and Rand Paul, so far to no avail. But the fact that Rand Paul has identified so sharply with the Tea Party movement, stating unequivocally that he shares a “kinship” with Sarah Palin and that she is qualified to be commander in chief, naturally raises questions for those so dedicated to changing the course of our current foreign policy.

Everyone is talking today about Paul’s position on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I argue that the ongoing military operations of 2001 and 2003 are much more critical to the present and future health of this country. We’re not only talking budgets here – billions a year on defense, homeland security, and related federal expenses – but also the wars’ larger impact on the economy, our relationship to the world, the creeping government overreach on the homefront, the tens of thousands of veterans coming home injured and ill and requiring lifetime care and benefits, the burden on our communities and families, and the vulnerability we have felt since 9/11 that never seems to go away.

Questioning where Rand Paul stands on all this is not suggesting we throw out the “constitutional conservative” with the bathwater. While writer Daniel Larison insists that Paul “is a refreshing exception to the conventional Republican attitudes on national security and war that predominate in the Tea Party,” others would argue that his full embrace of the Tea Party (as evidenced in his victory speech) has effectively muddied the waters. Will his non-interventionist impulses prevail, or will the Tea Party demand certain reciprocities for its help in winning the seat? In a body of 100 polarized members, will he ever be allowed to forge alliances with senators like Democrat Russ Feingold when it comes to defending liberty against warrantless wiretapping and more aggressive military action abroad – or will he be expected to lock arms with Republican hawks and anointed Tea Party leaders when such critical votes arise?

Kentuckians deserve to know, as do all of Rand’s outside donors, who contributed 77 percent of his campaign treasury. If the waters are muddy, it is his responsibility to clear them up before November.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.