When Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) arrived in Washington, he came in with a reputation as a critic of neoconservatism and the foreign policy establishment. “Foreign policy can often be a jumble of contradictions. Global enemies of the last decade can be our allies in today’s conflicts. Our friends could be our enemies tomorrow. As a result, we need to evaluate each foreign policy situation on its own merits and be open to new ideas — new approaches to resolve old conflicts,” Paul wrote in a 2013 column for Foreign Policy. This new vision, one that often aligned him on the opposite side of his more hawkish Republican colleagues, made him an unusual ally of the libertarian right and the anti-war left in the pursuit of a reduced global American military footprint. Yet on some of the most contentious foreign policy faced by the Trump Administration, it is Paul’s voting record that has been “a jumble of contradictions” rather than the principled independence he outlined.
It was well-documented that Donald Trump would not be a traditional Republican president in terms of foreign policy. His campaign rested not on the idea that the Obama Administration was “leading from behind,” as the frequent Republican refrain dismissing multilateralism went, but instead on a ruthless, transactional approach to foreign policy that dismissed the value of alliances, democracy and human rights promotion, and foreign aid. It criticized American misadventures in the Middle East while openly pledging to bring back torture. In its ideal form, it was a manifestation of the French realist Charles de Gaulle’s assertion that, “Men can have friends, statesmen cannot.”
Yet the Trump foreign policy, due to both the president’s own inconsistency and the powerful role granted to prominent neocons who served in the Administration like John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams, has not entirely taken the same shape in governing practice. Despite this professed wariness of American intervention in the Middle East, Trump has sent thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is on pace to launch more airstrikes in Afghanistan than ever before, with more of them mistakenly killing civilians than in the past. Just since May, U.S. forces in the Middle East have increased by about 14,000. While Paul’s vision of foreign policy aligned quite well with Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it was not a great fit for the way Trump governed, which presented a dilemma for Paul: stand by his principles or stand by the President and the leader of his party.
In actuality, Paul has done a little bit of both.
Paul’s stances on Iran and Saudi Arabia have traditionally isolated him from the Republican mainstream. In years prior, Paul has opposed the use of military force in Iran and urged negotiations with Tehran as a primary option. This trend has continued into the Trump Administration, even with anti-Iran groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) dominating discourse on the right and Iran hawks appointed to key positions in the National Security Council and Department of State. Though he voted against ratifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama Administration’s agreement with Iran, the P5 countries, and Germany, Paul lobbied Trump not to withdraw from the agreement. Despite his skepticism of the agreement’s provisions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, Paul agreed with the assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was complying with the deal at the time of withdrawal.
As for the Iranians’ chief rivals in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Paul has defied most in his party, including the White House, in arguing for a more heavy handed response to the misdeeds of the regime of Mohammed bin Salman. Paul rightly has characterized the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the war in Yemen as a “slaughter” of innocent people and has bashed the kingdom’s porous human rights record and murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He has supported this rhetoric with genuine action, authoring failed resolutions to halt arms sales to the Saudis and their ally Bahrain under the Arms Export Control Act of 1976. At first glance, Rand Paul appears to be the rare Republican who recognizes the inherent hypocrisy in American policy toward the Middle East: that funding a regional arms race is incompatible with the broader pursuit of Middle East peace.
However, this is where the lauding of Rand Paul’s foreign policy contributions in the Trump era ends. After he started playing golf with Trump, Paul’s fiery independent streak was suddenly extinguished.
Two foreign policy flip-flops made by Paul will long outlive any failed resolutions he authors on Yemen. First, the chief architect of Trump’s foreign policy, Pompeo, was a more controversial selection than any previous Secretary of State. In stark contrast with Obama’s second Secretary of State, John Kerry, who brokered the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement on climate change, Pompeo was a known hardliner on regime change in Iran and North Korea and denier of the science of climate change. In addition, Pompeo has a history of virulent Islamophobia, once calling Muslim leaders “complicit” in the Boston Marathon bombing and receving an award from notoriously Islamophobic ACT for America. Furthermore, and of most concern to Paul, Pompeo was a supporter of the Iraq War and the illegal use of torture. It was on this basis that Paul stated that he would use his spot on the Foreign Relations Committee to, “do everything [he] can to block” the appointment. However, Paul changed his mind and voted for Pompeo in committee, allowing him to proceed to the floor with the approval of the committee by the slimmest of margins (11-9). But that was not enough for Paul, as he also voted for him on the floor. The fact that one of the right’s few critics of neoconservatism abetted a prominent neocon’s nomination after pledging to oppose it all the way fails to lend credence to the idea that there is an organized, coherent voice on the right that has learned from the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Secondly, and most recently, Paul has emerged as one of the few prominent Republican defenders of Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, where they were protecting their Kurdish allies as they fought the Islamic State (ISIS). Paul defended this decision, claiming Trump was fulfilling their shared desire to bring American troops home. But that proved to be false, as Trump did not bring American troops back home, regardless of that course of action’s merits. He merely relocated those troops to northeastern Syria’s oilfields, enabling an attack by Turkey on its Kurdish rivals. Claiming this was equivalent to bringing troops home is just factually incorrect. It is willful ignorance of the facts and represents a triumph of Trump talking points over the reality on the ground. It is a grim reality as well, as the Turkish invasion has already killed 250 Kurds, forced 300,000 to flee to their ancestral homes, and could allow up to 11,000 ISIS prisoners in Kurdish territory to run free.
This decision would not be as confounding or disappointing if it had simply been a triumph of Paul’s sincerely-held belief in dialing back the military role of the United States in the world. But Paul had been on the record as a stalwart supporter of the Kurds, an oft-betrayed American ally in a tough part of the world. In 2015, Paul argued that the U.S. should combat ISIS by arming the Kurds and promising them a country if they “fought like hell.” The Kurds did exactly that, losing over 11,000 of their comrades as they reduced ISIS’s presence in the region. Now Sen. Paul sides with Trump to the detriment of the Kurds.
This decision is confounding, both in light of Paul’s previous stated support for the Kurds and given how it conflicts with his non-interventionist worldview. If one assumes the perspective of a principles non-interventionist, how does withdrawing benefit the American national interest? Non-intervention argues that diplomacy and allies can solve problems and deter enemies. It relies on allies to fight American enemies so that the U.S. national interest is achieved without the U.S. getting bogged down in decade-long wars. Abandoning those allies dismantles American credibility and surely says nothing good to other current and potential allies.
And for what? The approval of a president who, during the 2016 Republican primary, referred to Paul as, “truly weird,” and, “a spoiled brat without a properly functioning brain?” A man Paul called, “a delusional narcissist and an orange-faced windbag,” and less qualified to become president than a speck of dust? In the end, Rand Paul certainly has principles. But if the president is more popular than him with Republican voters, he has other principles that just happen to look more like those of the president.
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