Remarkably Unremarkable: Rand Paul Foreign Policy Speech

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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75 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    So we’ve compared him to Obama, Eisenhower, and Reagan and he didn’t do too badly, it seems.

    How does he compare to Hillary?Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      Potentially to the left of her personally.
      Most likely to the right of her if you factor in their respective administrations.Report

      • j r in reply to North says:

        Most likely to the right of her if you factor in their respective administrations.

        Maybe, maybe not. An HRC administration would most likely be filled with many of the same folks that staffed the Clinton and Obama administrations and their proteges. And that group is full of liberal hawks.

        If Paul were to go to the usual Republican suspects, then his administration would be to the right of HRC, but if he eschewed the neo-cons, then maybe not.Report

      • North in reply to North says:

        It depends primarily on how Paul campaigns and wins but the GOP has a very shallow bench of noninterventionists and the Dems have a relatively deep one.
        To my own mind the only way Paul wins is if he goes doctrinaire GOP candidate in which case I’d expect him to end up to the right of a Dem administration. Now one can say “what if Paul runs as a libertarian noninterventionist candidate?” to which I reply cynically “What and wins?”Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to North says:

        For starters, though, he could certainly re-nominate Hagel. Also, I’ve long gotten the impression that there is a surprisingly large contingent of people in the uniformed services and perhaps even some elements of the CIA and diplomatic corps that pretty much subscribes to these views.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to North says:

        “the GOP has a very shallow bench of noninterventionists and the Dems have a relatively deep one.”

        Though what’s notable is that in 8 of the the last 10 years of Democratic presidential administrations, a lifelong Republican has been Secretary of Defense.

        If there’s one major political party who doesn’t have – or, more accurately but even worse – doesn’t trust their bench strength on military matters, it’s the Democrats.Report

      • j r in reply to North says:

        It depends primarily on how Paul campaigns and wins but the GOP has a very shallow bench of noninterventionists and the Dems have a relatively deep one.

        Assuming that is true, do you have any suggestions as to why Obama has not called on that bench more often or any reason to think that HRC would do the same?Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to North says:

        If there’s one major political party who doesn’t have – or, more accurately but even worse – doesn’t trust their bench strength on military matters, it’s the Democrats.

        Part of it I think is that they’re constrained insofar as the public still oddly thinks Republicans are well suited to handling security matters.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to North says:

        The criticism ‘why won’t Obama lead’ is apt here. Keeping around Gates was a fair call, as Gates was already largely implementing Candidate Obama’s policies by the time Jan 2009 rolled around. (but nobody would have objected to a cleaner break with the Bush administration – it was the mandate of both the 08 election and the 06 midterms) And Panetta’s a Democrat’s Democrat.

        But there was really no excuse for Obama not to nominate another Democrat – a second term president who admitted in conversation that he was looking forward to the freer hand his lame duck status would provide him. Ashton Carter was qualified and available, as was Michèle Flournoy. Webb might have been up for doing the job. Hell, the administration could have brought in Lieberman, and trolled *everybody*.

        Nominating Hagel, no matter how out of sync he was then or now to GOP orthodoxy, just fed into that public (really beltway press and thinkpiece authors) perception that when you put a Democrat in the White House, one of the Big 4 Cabinet positions will still be a RepublicanReport

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

      On social welfare and employee rights and the voting rights of minorities and abortion and environmental protection?


  2. Mike Dwyer says:

    “Overall the speech is perhaps remarkable in that it sets Paul apart from the most vocal and hawkish members of his party.”

    What I find far more interesting is that this speech puts Paul to the left of Hillary Clinton. I’m not surprised by this, considering he comes to the Right with a healthy dose of libertarianism, however what remains to be seen for me is whether he is willing to take a more nuanced view of each of the required planks in a presidential run or if he will begin to look like a party man as Iowa gets closer.Report

    • North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      My inexpert take is that he’ll have to regress to the party mean. GOP primary voters are a doctrinaire bunch.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to North says:

        It’s interesting though because by the time he really has to get out there as a candidate we could be looking at gay marriage in nearly all 50 states, marijuana legalization in more and more places, potentially less and less appetite for war. If ever there was a chance to redefine the planks of the Republican party, that would be the time.Report

      • North in reply to North says:

        From your lips to God(ess?)’s ear Mike. But I fear the GOP is sliding back into their old groove.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I dunno, the populist line that wins right now in the Republican party is to continue to spend money on the military, but don’t actually use it anywhere. (called by one conservative commentator ‘the “hell with them” hawks.) Paul Junior splits this difference better than any prominent name in the party right now.Report

  3. Thanks for this, Nob! I need to digest, but in my own way, I’m not sure I disagree very strongly with anything you’ve written here. My only critique would be that I think you probably underestimate the potential import of this vision for steering the GOP towards a sane foreign policy. While a lot of the criticism of the Administration does seem to be on optics, I don’t have any problem with that given that his intended audience was Republicans, and it would be very difficult to attempt to move the GOP without differentiating himself from Obama.

    But beyond that, I think I pretty much agree.Report

  4. greginak says:

    I agree with what you have here. His speech is getting a bit hype only because of the differences with the rest of the R’s. Paul ends up agreeing with O, for better or worse, more then he disagrees.

    I found his bit about Syria really weak. He is for bombing but not arming the “good guy” rebels. That sounds like he is reaching to find a criticism of O while agreeing with doing something. If we are going to intervene, not that i’m saying we should, just bombing isn’t actually going to do much. If we are trying to stop ISIL then we need to at least have a proxy force to push them back, which is of course where things get really really dicey. Faced with the choice to intervene in Syria Paul is for it then would have the reality of how to actually intervene explained to him then end up doing with O is doing. And the other thing, i can see people being against intervention in both Syria and Libya; that make sense. i can also see being for going in to both places; that makes sense. But just picking one as the “good” place to blow up, seems logically inconsistent.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to greginak says:

      just bombing isn’t actually going to do much

      I said the same thing back in the ’90s about the Yugoslav civil war. To my continuing surprise, it did. So while I’m inclined to agree, there’s at least that data point against us.Report

      • The degree to which bombing “worked” during the Yugoslav conflict is open to some dispute. Bob Pape wrote a fantastic book on the subject back in 96 which analyzed just how little the NATO bombing campaign did to the Serbian armed forces:

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Thank you for paying attention to that so I don’t have to.

        No, more seriously, it’s not that I think it did great damage to the Serbian forces, but it did seem to make them decide that continuing with that particular military effort wasn’t worthwhile. Their action, rather than their losses, are what ultimately matters, right?Report

      • Yes, but the Serbian government, was in itself an actual governing authority. The case in Syria’s a bit more complicated, especially given that it’s not easily divided into sectarian or ethnic lines.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        There’s no doubt about that. Again, I’m generally in agreement with greginak. I’m just sounding a cautionary note about overconfidence in our beliefs. I’m certainly not arguing that bombing alone will be successful.Report

      • A question on the ISIS campaign – at this point, it doesn’t seem we’re doing much more than bombing them, but so far it looks like that’s largely working, slowly perhaps, but still largely working. ISIS is still strong, but it seems like particularly in Iraq their advance has stalled and has even started to be reversed ever so slightly, while they’re having a much more difficult time in Kobani than was generally expected, and may even wind up losing there.

        I’m very much thinking aloud here, but in Syria, is it also possible that the convoluted situation makes ground forces less useful? It seems like it would make it harder to get them in and out in any kind of significant numbers, and would potentially serve as a rallying point that could unite ISIS, al-Nusra, and even Assad. By more or less sticking with an air campaign, it seems to me like we’re maybe better positioned to limit our mission to just “stop fishing around with the Kurds, but kill each other all you want.”Report

    • greginak in reply to greginak says:

      Bombing can certainly slow a force, especially a semi-organized/ quasi military force like ISIS. However if they aren’t pushed back they will just grow into an occupation force in their conquered lands. It takes infantry to push them out. It hasn’t, won’t and shouldn’t be our infantry, but it will be up to the various and uncoordinated and often mutually antagonistic groups in the area to do that.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to greginak says:

        And may well continue to spread by slower less-conventional means. It is my understanding that mixed Shiite/Sunni neighborhoods have largely disappeared in Baghdad. Enough targeted assassinations and suicide bombings can eventually force out the people who will actively oppose ISIS in smaller border cities. There’s a catch-22 in there — if the only means of controlling the ISIS assassins and bombers is to strong-arm everyone, you end up alienating the the people that you’re trying to save.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to greginak says:

      “But just picking one as the “good” place to blow up, seems logically inconsistent.”

      not if you base on it, as Paul did, ‘vital national interest’. The Libyan Arab Spring civil war, due to location and population numbers, is at the periphery of US national interest. Syria, in contrast, is more populous, and right next to Israel, Turkey, and Kurdish Iraq (all long-standing US allies for various reasons, even if they hate each other), thus making it closer to a vital interest than a peripheral interest. And particularly when the forces in notional Syrian territory begin to be a clear and present danger to those allies, the case for action becomes greater.

      To support that interest, it can be sufficient to just use air strikes to roll back ISIS from threatening Kurdish Iraq (and Turkey) now, and from time to time in the future. It’s how we managed Iraq from 1991 to 2003; occasional airstrikes to roll back forces from (internationally) declared no-go zones. No ground forces, nor even arming anti-Sadam groups was required (or was done). Things started traveling around in hand baskets when we decided to deviate from that policy of containment.

      And there’s a separate argument (also made by Paul) that Odyssey Dawn had zero in the way of congressional approval, committing forces under authority of a half-assed UN resolution, while the current operations against ISIS still have a chance (because they’re still ongoing and haven’t necessarily reached their full scope) for allowing Congress to set the terms and conditions. Which Paul has made clear what those are.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

        I think part of the problem is that there’s a very strange mix of national interests at play in the Levant, and in North Africa.

        And not to be too pithy, but Odyssey Dawn wasn’t really all that different from El-Dorado Canyon, which the Saint Ronald of Reagan conducted back in 1986.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        the significant difference was the the Libyan strikes of 1986 were a direct response to a attack by Libyan agents on US interests and US persons (in West Berlin). (and had the ongoing freedom of navigation battle over the Gulf of Sidra in the background). Odyssey Dawn/Unified Protector was a response to (at the time) a strictly intramural affair between factions within Libyan government and society.

        The more analogous operation to what we did in Libya in 1986 are the ongoing air strikes against Al Qaeda affiliates, well, pretty much anywhere. And Paul’s criticism of those isn’t their legality, it’s their efficacy and potential long term effects. And that’s only insofar as making recurring endless drone strikes the only way the local population knows that the US exists.Report

      • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

        I’m not really sure if Odyssey Dawn is comparable to say drone-strikes on Al Qaeda operatives elsewhere, if only because, in the broadest sense, the 2001 AUMF authorizes the sort of kinetic action undertaken.

        But the main reason I brought up El-Dorado Canyon is this particular quote (emphasis added):

        A second principle is that Congress, the people’s representative, must authorize the decision to intervene.

        Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, outlined a systematic approach to sending American troops to war.

        A critical component of this doctrine is support from the American public.

        The Libyan war was fought without the approval of Congress or the American people.

        The fact of the matter is, regardless of whether or not Gaddhaffi was in fact guilty of the West Berlin disco attacks (and the Gulf of Sidra incidents), Operation El-Dorado Canyon was conducted without congressional approval. The same could be said of Urgent Fury, which was also conducted by under Weinberger’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, and THAT in particular was essentially an intervention in a domestic military coup.

        Mr. Weinberger as SecDef was also at least nominally in the loop over the entire incident of arming radical groups in Latin America, funding said activities by selling arms to Iran.

        We can debate the efficacy of those policies and their morality, but if you’re going to bring up references to both Reagan AND his specific secretary of defense and holding them up to be a model in comparison to the Obama Administration, it’s more than fair to bring up the policies that the Reagan Administration pursued from 1981 – 1987. And in that there’s a massive gap between Paul’s revisionism and the reality of history.

        As for the efficacy of drone strikes in AfPak, I’m not sure Paul’s criticism is particularly coherent there, either.given that he makes the security situation in Afghanistan sound like the result of Obama policies rather than the latter being driven by the situation on the ground. What if Obama had in fact pulled troops out of Afghanistan in 2011, for example? I’d imagine the trenchant critique there would have been “by prematurely withdrawing from Afghanistan President Obama allowed the Taliban to resurface and regain power”.Report

  5. j r says:

    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.

    What exactly does the term “pseudo-isolationism” mean in that context?Report

    • North in reply to j r says:

      Genuine isolationism is generally closed borders, suspiscious of free trade AND strictly uninvolved when it comes to foreign affairs in general. Paul espouses only the latter most of those policies- thus pseudo-isolationism.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to j r says:

      Basically it’s the brand of isolationism that calls for complete withdrawal of the US government from anything to do with foreign policy, while leaving open borders and free trade. It’s only pseudo-isolationism because it doesn’t call for closing off the country from the world, just closing the government off from it.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        That aspect of the isolationism is real, so I don’t think pseudo is the correct adjective. I imagine we’re stuck with it now, and I’m not criticizing you. I’m just grumbling that whoever popularized the term didn’t come up with something more accurately descriptive.Report

      • State-isolationism? Foreign policy privatization?Report

      • Trumwill in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        I’ve heard at least a couple adherents to this set of positions, objecting to the isolationist tag, simply refer to it as non-interventionist.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        I’d be inclined toward just “political isolation,” but there’s that sticky wicket that free trade always seems to involve treaties (even though it theoretically doesn’t need them at all).Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        Trumwill –

        “Avoid invading/attacking other countries” is non-interventionism, and shouldn’t be termed isolationism. Ron Paul goes substantially beyond that – he wants to completely end the US foreign aid program and withdraw from the United Nations. North Korea’s a hermit state and even it’s part of the UN. That is isolationism, pseudo- or otherwise.Report

      • j r in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        North Korea’s a hermit state and even it’s part of the UN. That is isolationism, pseudo- or otherwise.

        Of all the things that North Korea does, it is a bit odd to hone in on UN membership as some defining facet of what makes a country isolationist or not.

        A country that facilitated free and easy movement of migrants and visitors across its border, that allowed the movement of goods and services in and out of the country and whose diplomats maintained relationships with other countries, but which did not belong to the United Nations would not be isolationist.

        I am not a huge supporter of Ron Paul’s foreign policy, but there is no point to calling it “pseudo-isolationist” other than to label it with a pejorative.Report

      • Cutting off all foreign aid, withdrawing from treaty obligations and declaring you’re not going to participate in free trade agreements (all of these of which Ron Paul has stated) is pretty close to isolationist, but only by the government.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to j r says:

      What exactly does the term “pseudo-isolationism” mean in that context?

      Engage in commerce with people without shooting them.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to Jaybird says:

        Repeating what I said above – not shooting people is non-interventionism. Wanting the government to withdraw from the United Nations, end foreign aid, and essentially stop interacting diplomatically on a multilateral basis with the rest of the world is isolationism.Report

  6. James Hanley says:


    Thank you for paying attention so I don’t have to.Report

  7. Nob Akimoto says:

    I think I should probably clarify why I’m rather more negative on Paul’s speech despite the fact that it’s certainly an improvement over mainline Republicans. The speech, and his generally more hawkish turn in the last year or so suggest to me that Paul’s very much more willing to compromise in this area than perhaps others.

    Given that the areas he seems to care about, at least based on his professional affiliations are things like the AAPS and Alex Jones stories, I’m not sure I’m particularly relieved. I would much rather see someone whose affiliation is say the editorial board of The National Interest, or the Reinhold Niebuhr Fan Club, or the American Political Science Association or something.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

      If I may play devil’s advocate…

      This is an area where maybe it’s safer to skew toward the party line because if elected party members in Congress will have less capacity to hold him to it. If he takes a stance on a domestic policy issue, they may send him a bill they expect him to sign. On foreign policy they can’t do that, and he can always try to spin why this insurgency in Berzerkistan is so importantly different than the one in Syria was.

      Real James agrees with your OP that his nod toward congressional authority in military action wouldn’t last if he actually became president. As a congressmember, it’s a claim of power, whereas as a president it would be a relinquishing of power. He–as I think it was with Obama–may not even realize this yet, and only after stepping into the role of president would feel the great pull of independent authority in military action.Report

  8. notme says:


    This speech sounds better than the current admin’s foreign policy of “don’t do stupid stuff” and “lead from behind.”Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Karen Finley did it better.Report

      • notme in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        Is that really the best response you can muster? I guess you can’t deny that Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Do slogans without actual examples and critiques actually count as something that requires a substantive reply? I mean, what does “Lead from behind,” actually mean in concrete terms?Report

      • It means not actually leading, but going along with what other countries want to do.

        That wasn’t what it was supposed to mean when the White House advisor initially used it, but it was latched on to.Report

      • Well, I suppose “don’t do stupid stuff” only seems like a bad slogan if you’re dedicated to being disastrously wrong about everything. Sometimes I feel like the Neocon slogan should be “STUPID WITH CONVICTION!”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I am so glad that we finally have an alternative to the people who are dedicated to being disastrously wrong about everything.Report

      • notme in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        You really want a list of Obama’s foreign policy failures? The easier and much shorter list would be his successes.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Not that you manage to list any, I notice.Report

      • notme in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        Russia, Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Ukraine, Iran, Libya all Obama failures to name a few.Report

      • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        The schedule of a run-by troll is far too busy to flesh out any real arguments. Too many other sites to post open ended one-liners to bother engaging here. Godspeed.Report

      • notme in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        Nice try at changing the subject since I guess you can’t deny that those are all Obama failures. Maybe you could name a foreign policy success?Report

      • Listing off country names doesn’t actually indicate what policy you thought was a failure.

        What was the failure with regard to Russia? The sanctions and trade restrictions put against the Russian government in light of its Ukraine adventures have hit the Russian economy pretty hard. That Putin’s willing to put up with that economic pain says more about his choices than President Obama’s policy. Further, the fact that despite those tensions and problems the US had concluded an arms reduction treaty with Russia should be counted as a policy success.

        What failure has the Obama Administration conducted via Iran? The fact that they haven’t dragged the US into another unnecessary and counter productive Middle Eastern war? The fact that they’re actually negotiating with Iran over their nuclear program? There’s nothing that’s actually a “failure” here, unless you count guaranteeing Iran goes nuclear with a pointless airstrike to be a “success”.

        Syria? What should the Obama Administration have done differently? Iraq? ISIS? The Status of Forces Agreement that the Administration used to get out of Iraq was negotiated ahead of time, and the US public certainly had no stomach to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq. Further, given that the situation on the ground in Syria was sufficiently complex with relations with Russia and Iran (the Assad regime’s major backers) being delicate enough that recklessly moving in and bombing targets in the initial leadup to the chemical weapons agreement would have been stupid.

        The simple fact of the matter is, the ability to parrot talking points pushed by neoconservative chickenhawks doesn’t a critique make.Report

      • notme in reply to Mark Thompson says:


        Take Russia for example. What happened to the much publicized Russian “reset” of great Sec state Hillary, nothing. Obama canceled the Poland missile defense site for his Russian friends. Putin invades and Obama settles for sanctions, once again “leading from behind.” He won’t even give the Ukrainians lethal weapons. Obama is naive to think a few sanctions are going to get Putin or do much of anything. Our diplomats are being harassed, Russians hack the white houses website and Obama does nothing.Report

  9. Damon says:

    Based upon what you said Nob. He ain’t no libertarian.Report

  10. KatherineMW says:

    So his proposed foreign policy is basically Obama’s.

    That’s not even close to far enough from Hillary’s probable foreign policy to make up for all the other issues where I entirely disagree with him and his party (read: everything involving economics and government services). He’s not looking like the lesser of two evils.Report

  11. trizzlor says:

    I don’t see how it’s possible to reconcile Paul’s non-interventionist claims with his broad support of airstrikes against ISIS: “I would vote yes and I would do it in a heart beat. Radical Islam is a threat to the United States, our embassies, our journalists“. It’s easy to demagogue the sitting president on “leadership” or on decisions that are already long unpopular with the party, but it’s hard to resist intervention when the public is calling for it; and I haven’t seen any of the latter from Paul.

    Legislatively, I think it’s important to note that Paul has sponsored a number of impressive bills, including repeal of the Iraq AUMF, curtailing of drones, limiting the NSA, civil rights restoration, etc. But all of those bills have gone nowhere (some are over a year old) and don’t get mentioned by Paul once the issue is out of the spotlight. At this point, I can’t tell which Rand Paul will be president – the one that sponsors non-interventionist bills or the one that pivots to interventionist rhetoric whenever it’s politically convenient.Report

    • trizzlor in reply to trizzlor says:

      Looking further at the stats, here are the stats on sponsored bills by each candidate:

      Barack Obama: 136 introduced / 18 (13%) out of committee / 2 became laws
      Hillary Clinton: 415 introduced / 67 (16%) considered / 3 became laws
      Rand Paul: 98 introduced / 6 (6%) considered / 0 laws

      Obama’s laws: “Mercury Export Ban Act of 2008” ; “Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006”
      Hilary’s laws: “A bill to designate a portion of United States Route 20A, located in Orchard Park, New York, as the “Timothy J. Russert Highway”” ; “A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2951 New York Highway 43 in Averill Park, New York, as the “Major George Quamo Post Office Building”” ; “Kate Mullany National Historic Site Act”

      So if we’re going into a Paul/Clinton election, we’re deciding between a candidate who can’t get anything done and a candidate who can get a bunch of pointless stuff done.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to trizzlor says:

        It’s a libertarian’s fantasy election.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to trizzlor says:

        Meaningful bills come out of a handful of committees and almost always have the chairperson’s name on them. It takes decades to achieve the necessary seniority in the Senate to get your name on bills that (a) make meaningful policy changes and (b) pass out of committee.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to trizzlor says:

        Obama had less seniority than Clinton, and his bills seem more significant than hers.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to trizzlor says:

        I think if we’re being honest here, we all kind of know Hillary only went to the Senate because she knew she couldn’t become POTUS just by being First Lady Hillary Clinton. The fact she was one term some change and out proves that. Even if she hadn’t been chosen as SecState by Obama, I have zero doubt she wouldn’t have run for reelection to the Senate in 2012.Report