The great unveiling of Rand Paul’s “conservative realism” foreign policy last night went about how you’d expect: Paul offered his usual confused mishmash of contradictions and platitudes, carefully designed to maximize his 2016 appeal to Republican primary voters without sacrificing his more non-interventionist cred with the general electorate. I had a few thoughts that I decided to put on Medium (please go read them):
Hours before the speech, the media was already in hype mode, with Olivia Nuzzi at The Daily Beast declaring that Paul would “use the words of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai to attack President Obama” (frankly, Malala doesn’t need Senator Paul’s help). But somewhere in all the grand strategy that Paul’s speech was supposed to unveil, nobody bothered to fix the single biggest problem with his foreign policy vision, the fact that it is an incoherent grab-bag of contradictory suggestions and non-specific platitudes.
The reason nobody bothered fixing that “problem” is because it’s not actually a problem for Paul, who wants to avoid specifics as much as he can so as to appeal to the unrepentantly neoconservative Republican primary electorate and then turn around and play to a much less war-minded general electorate. He wants to show you that he’s not an isolationist, unless that’s actually what you like, in which case he’s totally there with you. Paul calls this vision “conservative realism,” though its realism seems to come less from a sense of how the world works than of how the American political system operates. The bottom line is that, until somebody actually holds Paul’s feet to the fire, his foreign policy platform will continue to boil down to Burger King’s old slogan: “have it your way.”
Plenty of other people have noted the Paul’s foreign policy pronouncements are often lacking any sort of consistency (and, heck, that’s not just limited to his foreign policy; note how, at one time or another, he’s held a whole a la carte menu of positions on the Civil Rights Act). But I would be remiss in failing to point out that Paul also has his fans:
Where I see a Rand Paul who is so afraid of alienating Republican primary voters that he won’t even directly mention the Iraq War in his grand foreign policy roll-out address, Zack Beauchamp (who, I want to be clear, I actually like, generally speaking, though we definitely disagree on this particular issue) sees a Rand Paul who is about to take “a battering ram” to the Republican Party’s foreign policy consensus, which is clearly shown by his refusal to directly mention the Iraq War in his grand foreign policy roll-out address. If that doesn’t make sense, then you’re probably, like me, not attuned to the special Rand Paul Subtext that apparently underlies so much of what he says. Put in terms of my favorite subject, Islamic history, Beauchamp is able to tell you the batin (“hidden meaning,” the “true” interpretation based on secret knowledge of the intent behind the words) of Paul’s address, while I’m over here relying on its zahir (“apparent meaning,” based on taking its words at face value).
The subtextual view is that Rand is playing 11 dimensional chess with everybody by casting Barack Obama as a neoconservative, I guess, which will then allow him to run against neoconservatives without having to run against neoconservatives, by running against Obama:
His tactic for selling this argument is innovative. He’s reframed arguments with neoconservatives as arguments with Obama, banking on the idea that he can get everyday Republicans to abandon hawkishness altogether if they see Obama as a hawk. “After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war,” Paul said, clearly linking his critique of Obama to an attack on the Bush legacy.
Note that the above mention of Iraq is the only mention of Iraq in the entire speech that could even possibly be taken as a swipe at the Iraq War, and even at that it’s ambiguous at best. The others are all clearly talking about the current conflict with Daesh, except for one call-back to the OG Iraq War, Bush I’s Gulf War. Obviously it’s not ambiguous for Beauchamp, but again he’s working off of the decoder ring and I’m just going by the actual text of the speech.
Call me crazy, but after 6 years and counting of Republicans calling Obama a candy-ass lightweight at every possible turn, it’s going to be hard for Paul to convince Republican voters that Obama is actually a war-monger. Of course, Paul actually agrees with Obama on a lot of stuff, but he criticizes him on everything because that way Republicans can learn how to be hippies without being Democrats:
Paul’s agenda has a lot more in common with Barack Obama’s view of the world than it does with, say, John McCain’s. But his speech very cleverly played up the criticisms of Obama, and minimized the points of agreement. That’s because the basic goal of the speech was to teach conservatives that they can oppose foreign wars and Democrats at the same time.
If this is still not making sense to you, rap yourself upside the head with a heavy blunt object and I’m sure it will become clearer.
The thing is, there’s nothing about Paul’s speech that speaks to a bold foreign policy agenda because he can’t even manage to articulate a foreign policy that doesn’t contradict itself from place to place and moment to moment. We have to negotiate with Russia, but we also need to put more NATO hardware in Eastern Europe, which is about as provocative as we can be toward Moscow short of starting an actual shooting war. We have to negotiate with Iran, but we can’t let them have The Bomb, which (since Iran isn’t actually pursuing The Bomb) is hawk code for “no enrichment” (and, thus, “no deal”). We have to bomb Daesh, but bombing Daesh isn’t going to achieve anything. We shouldn’t be drone bombing people, except when we should.
Paul can’t even decide whether he thinks authoritarian dictators are good or bad; he decries Hosni Mubarak’s regime and laments Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster within the confines of the very same speech. You know what would represent a bold foreign policy vision, one that could reasonably fill “one of the most important foreign policy speeches in decades”? Actually making up your mind on this issue. American foreign policy is in part a total mess because we’ve never, as a nation, picked a side on the question of dictatorial regimes. We like the ones that work with us and don’t like the ones that work against us, and those categories are constantly subject to change.
A visionary foreign policy might say that America ought to commit to backing democracy movements everywhere, even in countries whose dictators are allied with us, even if it means sacrificing some short-term stability, because in the long-run our interests are better served when people all around the world are free to choose their own leaders and participate in civic society, laying the groundwork for real development. But Rand Paul won’t say that. A consistent, at least, foreign policy, like the one articulated by former Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher yesterday at the Wilson Center (my write-up is available at LobeLog!), would say, effectively, “fuck democracy, fuck human rights, fuck the long-term, we’re in this for peace and quiet in the here and now, and we’ll work with or tolerate anybody, no matter how repugnant, as long as they help us achieve it.” But Rand Paul won’t say that either. This is not brave talk, it’s the usual political double-speak.