Remarkably Unremarkable: Rand Paul Foreign Policy Speech
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) recently gave a speech on foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest. This comes at a time where the American public are, rightly or wrongly, deeply insecure and confused on their country’s role in the world. A clear articulation of a foreign policy vision is seen as a prerequisite for any politician hoping to obtain high office.
As an aspiring GOP presidential nominee, Paul has often straddled an uneasy middle ground between his party’s orthodoxy of a policy of bomb today, bomb tomorrow and the Paul family brand exemplified by his father’s anti-intervention pseudo-isolationism. The younger Paul has taken advantage of that ambiguity to criticize the Obama Administration as either too hawkish or too dovish on a given issue, but it has also not done anything to assuage fears among the hawkish establishment of Rand Paul’s GOP bona fides. The announcement that he would be outlining his foreign policy vision in a speech stirred up anticipation: Would Rand Paul lay out a bold new plan for the country?
In a word: No.
The vision advocated by Rand Paul was remarkable only when compared to the radical militarism in foreign policy advocated by his party’s fellow-travelers. In fact, despite the stylistic need to attack the current administration, the substance of Rand Paul’s policy prescriptions sound remarkably like a continuation of Obama’s “don’t do stupid stuff” brand of realism.
Rhetorically, the speech is a paean to the cult of Ronald Reagan. It liberally quotes Reagan and Eisenhower, but in policy terms you don’t see a lot of Reaganism. For example, Paul comes out decisively against arming moderate armed groups in Syria. This contrasts with Reagan’s aggressive support of anti-communist guerrilla forces globally, particularly in Latin America.
The broad contours of the foreign policy bullet points laid out by Paul are as follows:
1) Force remains an indispensable tool in the foreign policy toolkit.
2) Congressional authorization should be obtained for use of force.
3) Diplomacy and leadership are important elements of US foreign policy.
4) Economic security underpins American hard power.
None of the points in isolation or taken together is particularly controversial. Replace a few names and quotes and you could put this same speech in the mouth of a Democrat circa 2007. Indeed most of the talking points sound remarkably like the foreign policy advocated by then-Senator Obama in the lead up to the 2008 primaries. While there are peripheral criticisms and nods to popular Republican talking points on Libya and “failure to lead” in the international system, the policy proposals ranging from accelerating the time-table of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, negotiating with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, and coordinating an international response to issues ranging from Ukraine to ISIS are all, in effect, Obama Administration policies.
Essentially the speech’s criticism of Obama Administration policy is more upon optics (or perhaps optics according to the narrative pushed by the GOP) than in practical policy. Even the section about congressional authorization would likely be subject to revision within the realities of an actual Paul Presidency, and likely as not that, too, would involve an acceptance of making legal justifications rather than actually giving up presidential war making prerogatives.
Overall the speech is perhaps remarkable in that it sets Paul apart from the most vocal and hawkish members of his party. That fact shows more that the GOP remains the party of the neoconservative hawk, at least insofar as its frontrunners seem inclined to push for an aggressive posture on the world stage. It shows the remarkable staying power of hawkish elites in the political conversation around Washington.
(Featured Photo: Rand Paul’s official portrait for the 113th congression, source – US Government Printing Office, via Wikimedia Commons)