Droning on: Paul’s daylong filibuster in March protesting U.S. drone policy earned him both fame and infamy among his fellow Republicans. Credit:

Shortly before noon on Wednesday, March 6, Rand Paul, the fifty-year-old senator from Kentucky, took the floor of the Senate. “I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan’s nomination for the CIA,” Paul said. “I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court. That Americans could be killed in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is an abomination.”

Ever since 2011, when two Predator drones in the Yemeni sky assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, a jihadist cleric born in New Mexico, critics have alleged that the Obama administration, by not releasing evidence of the cleric’s guilt, had violated the due process rights of a U.S. citizen. Beginning this January, Paul sent letters to the White House requesting information about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA)drone program, including whether the administration had the authority to launch a drone strike against an American on U.S. soil. But he had not been satisfied with the Justice Department’s response: that although the president had no intention of ever carrying out such a strike, it was possible to imagine a situation, like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, where he might have no other choice.

As the hours of the filibuster wore on, Paul steadily earned the attention of the public and the support of his Tea Party compatriots in the Senate. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas joined in, and then so did Jerry Moran of Kansas. Even Marco Rubio, who as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had voted in favor of Brennan, lent his support to Paul, eating up time by quoting Wiz Khalifa and Jay-Z. Well after midnight, Paul wrapped up, saying, “There are some limits to filibustering, and I am going to have to go take care of one of those here.” In just twelve hours and fifty-two minutes, the junior senator from Kentucky had gone national.

Even though Paul had found an eye-catching way to attack the Obama administration, not everyone in the Republican Party approved of his choice of cudgel. “Calm down, Senator,” huffed the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Lindsey Graham brought to the Senate floor a sign comparing the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil by al-Qaeda (2,958) and those killed there by drones (zero). John McCain labeled Paul and his congressional allies “wacko birds.” To these critics, Paul’s protest was absurd, implying that the U.S. government might start hunting Americans with drones just for the fun of it. In June, after Paul called the just-leaked news of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) digital surveillance program “an extraordinary invasion of privacy,” McCain questioned his credibility. McCain noted that just before the April 15 Boston Bombings, Paul had rejected the idea that America was a battlefield in the war on terrorism.

John Tate, who heads the Campaign for Liberty, a grassroots lobbying group founded by Rand Paul’s father, Ron, dismissed the party’s foreign policy establishment as nervous about new competition. “Why would they be reacting so strongly and forcefully and negatively if they weren’t scared?” he asked. But the Paul phenomenon is largely the party’s own doing, the consequence of the GOP’s hawkish wing having long ago displaced its moderate one. For decades, moderates ruled the party’s foreign policy establishment, from President Dwight Eisenhower, who was unafraid to issue nuclear threats to end the Korean War yet inveighed against the military-industrial complex, to President George H. W. Bush, who called for a “new world order” yet resisted the temptation to depose Saddam Hussein in the final days of the Persian Gulf War.

As the GOP turned right on domestic issues, however, the moderates got squeezed out. (Their last elected ally, Senator Richard Lugar, lost his Indiana primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate in 2012.) Taking their place after 9/11 was a new group of Republican foreign policy hands: the neoconservatives, idealists who saw the application of U.S. military power as the answer to many of the world’s problems. Yet as their project ran aground in Iraq and Afghanistan, they lost the trust of the American public. Strangely, though, neoconservatism never lost its grip on Republican politicians. During the 2012 Republican presidential primary, the candidates tried to outdo each other on keeping troops in Afghanistan and confronting Iran.

With a war-weary public concerned more about unemployment and debt than foreign affairs, the Republican elite’s hawkish consensus has created an opening for someone offering a more restrained alternative, and Paul has seized the opportunity. More than any other Republican politician in recent memory, he is challenging the party’s foreign policy elite. Where most Republicans have called for military intervention, Paul has advocated noninterference; where they have defended increases in military spending, he has proposed cuts.

His message of prioritizing nation building at home is reverberating so deeply, in fact, that Paul is being treated as a viable 2016 presidential candidate. And he is acting like one, filling his schedule with stops in states with early primaries and starting his own leadership political action committee. In other words, by making himself impossible to ignore, Paul is forcing a conversation that the Republican Party doesn’t want to have—and with an interlocutor much of it considers to be a foreign policy lightweight.

Just four years ago, Paul was removing cataracts and performing corneal transplants in southern Kentucky. “I don’t think that as a physician in Bowling Green practicing ophthalmology I was really carrying around a foreign policy,” he said to me one Wednesday afternoon in May. We were speaking in his Senate office, a hushed space decorated with equestrian prints. With his tired eyes and permanent bedhead, Paul looked like the sleep-deprived collegiate swimmer he once was. Before coming to Washington, his involvement in politics had been limited to campaigning on behalf of his father, and founding a group that graded state legislators on taxes. In 2009, when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell shoved his Kentucky counterpart Jim Bunning from his seat, Paul leaped into the race to succeed him.

McConnell and the Republican establishment had a different successor in mind: Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s secretary of state, the Harvard-educated son of a banker. Paul was, however, the clear choice of the newly formed Tea Party movement. Even though the race centered on economic issues, the Grayson campaign, backed by internal polls of likely Republican voters showing 75-25 splits in its favor on national security positions, sought to make foreign policy an issue. “When his father ran for president in 2008, for the vast majority of Republican voters his foreign policy views made him a nonstarter. So we thought, ‘Wow, here’s his son,’” Grayson told me. “We’re going to assert that he has similar views, even when it’s not clear on specific issues whether he’s in fact exactly the same … and that will disqualify him in the minds of voters.”

The campaign seized on comments Paul had made about sending prisoners from Guantánamo Bay back to the battlefield—just another issue on which Paul, as his opponents put it, was “too kooky for Kentucky.” In a debate broadcast on Kentucky Educational Television, Grayson demanded that Paul explain why he was in favor of allowing detainees to return to war zones. “And don’t talk about Chinese Uighurs,” Grayson warned. (Paul had claimed that his comments about release were made in reference to the Uighur prisoners the Bush administration had already decided to free, marking perhaps the first time the plight of Chinese Muslims had figured in Kentucky politics.) Paul weathered the debate well, making Grayson’s footnoted attacks look desperate.

During the campaign, Paul tapped into his father’s national fund-raising network, gathering small pledges from libertarian donors across the country. Among them were the millions of listeners to the radio show hosted by Alex Jones, America’s most prominent conspiracy theorist; they were so eager to contribute that once when Paul was on the air, they crashed his Web site. In one 2009 appearance, Jones asked Paul if he thought the new world order was going to succeed. Paul replied, “Thirty years ago, nobody thought there’d be one currency in Europe. Right now, most people don’t think there could be one currency in our [continent], and yet the talk of the amero is out there.” The what? Paul seemed to be referring to a short-lived uproar that started when conspiracy theorists encountered images of a fictional unified North American currency created by a designer of novelty coins.

Grayson, by contrast, lined up endorsements from the GOP establishment, including Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom implied that Paul was soft on terrorism. But their support, Grayson told me, “played right into Rand’s hands. The voters didn’t care so much about the foreign policy stuff, and they saw the establishment trying to protect one of its own.” Paul won the primary by twenty-three points and cruised through the general election.

Paul was sworn into the Senate in January 2011, and he wasted no time in proving his Tea Party credentials. That same month, he introduced legislation to cut $500 billion over the eight months left in that fiscal year. His budget for the next fiscal year eliminated the Departments of Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and Commerce. It froze foreign aid, scaled back defense spending, and privatized the Smithsonian Institution. The Senate rejected it 90 to 7.

Paul’s budget constituted early proof that his thinking on foreign policy deviated from the party line. Just as Washington should stop fostering dependency through generous entitlement programs at home, he argued, it also needs to stop subsidizing the security of governments in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East—foreign welfare queens that can afford to pay for their own needs. In practice, that would mean closing down some U.S. military bases and shrinking the number of troops stationed at others. “The neocons want to characterize this as ‘Oh, he wants to disengage, he doesn’t want to be involved anywhere,’” Paul told me, but he said that overstates his position. “If Germany wants to have their joint base with us and we want to have it, we could do it. Maybe we do it with, instead of fifty thousand troops, five thousand troops.” In South Korea, he said, U.S. forces could leave as part of a deal in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program and allowed inspections to verify that it had done so.

When Obama directed the U.S. military to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya in March 2011, the emerging split on foreign policy within the Republican side of the Senate spilled out into the open. John McCain took to Fox News Sunday to defend the intervention as necessary to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi and support democracy after the Arab Spring. Invoking the United States’s “unique moral responsibilities,” Marco Rubio endorsed the campaign and urged the administration to openly embrace the goal of removing Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from power.

Paul, meanwhile, recorded a video response to Obama’s address on Libya, condemning the president for failing to seek approval from Congress “before hastily involving ourselves in yet another Middle Eastern conflict.” Along with Senators Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, and John Cornyn, all of whom lean to the right within the GOP, he sent a letter to Obama challenging the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution. The law, passed in 1973 over the veto of Richard Nixon and in response to the Vietnam War, requires presidents to obtain congressional authorization for military campaigns lasting longer than sixty days, but no president since has accepted its constitutionality.

Paul’s opposition to the Libya campaign went beyond questions of procedure. “In Libya, unless there’s something that I don’t know that wasn’t reported in the media, I’m not sure what our national security interest was,” he told me. “I’m a little skeptical, because the neoconservatives in my party the year before wanted to fund Qaddafi and sell arms to Qaddafi.” Paul was referring to a 2009 meeting, revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, in which Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, and Susan Collins discussed the sale of military equipment with the Libyan government. “The next year they want to send boots on the ground and can’t get in there quick enough to topple Qaddafi,” Paul said. While McCain and others had not called for ground troops, Paul’s point remains: “The only thing that seems to be consistent in their position is being involved.”

In February 2012, after Egypt charged nineteen American nongovernmental organization workers with illegally funding pro-democracy groups and prevented six from leaving the country, Paul found a peg on which he could hang his long-standing opposition to foreign assistance, and he proposed an amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Egypt until the Americans were freed. “Dependency often leads to indolence, lethargy, a sense of entitlement, and ultimately to a state of insolence,” he said on the floor of the Senate. “Egypt has been receiving welfare from the United States for nearly forty years.” The measure failed, but the Egyptian government allowed the NGO workers to leave, and Paul took credit for playing the bad-cop role. He later introduced a bill proposing that the government end all aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan; it failed 81 to 10.

Notably absent from that list was Israel. Ron Paul never got along with the pro-Israel crowd. (The Republican Jewish Coalition, for example, did not invite him to a presidential candidates’ forum in 2011.) Fearing that the son had inherited the father’s views, supporters of Israel rallied around Trey Grayson during the 2010 primary.

After Paul won, their fears appeared to be confirmed. In September 2012, Paul was the Senate’s sole “nay” vote on a nonbinding resolution endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred redline for military action: Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. (The Obama administration has said it will support military action only if Iran actually develops nuclear weapons.) He has refused to rule out the option of containing a nuclear Iran, for fear that doing so will commit the United States to war if Iran were to go nuclear despite the international community’s best efforts.

But aside from his stance on Iran, Paul has gone out of his way to woo the pro-Israel crowd, distancing himself from his father on the topic. “He pretty much threw his father under the bus, very early on, to try to make it clear that he didn’t share all of his father’s views,” said one Republican foreign policy adviser who met with Paul privately. Another adviser who has spoken with Paul privately told me that Paul criticized his father’s stance on Israel, pointing out that Ron Paul’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policies was inconsistent with his stated preference for the United States to mind its own business. “He had clearly thought through where his father’s foreign policy broke down,” the adviser said.

This past January, Paul traveled to Israel, effectively making public the sentiment he had conveyed in private. He had just received a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he spent the first part of his trip meeting with politicians including Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke at a lunch hosted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and told an audience at a free market think tank in Jerusalem that he favored only a “gradual” reduction of U.S. aid to Israel.

The trip was designed not only to reassure the pro-Israel crowd but also to win over Christian supporters. For seven days, Paul and his wife, Kelley, rolled around the Holy Land on a bus full of American evangelical leaders. The fifty-three-person tour was organized by David Lane, a born-again political activist from California. Owing to their belief that the second coming of Jesus requires a state for God’s chosen people, American evangelicals have a special attachment to Israel. “It’s the Abrahamic covenant,” Lane explained. “God said to Abraham, ‘I’m going to give you the land and that’s my word, that’s my covenant.’ And so there’s never going to be peace because if you go over there, all the key places of the Jews, the Muslims have put a mosque on top of it.”

Paul and the others bathed in the Dead Sea and held a church service on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. They visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the Sermon on the Mount; the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed before his crucifixion; the Mount of Olives, from which he ascended into heaven; and the ruins of Megiddo, where Armageddon is supposed to take place. “What happened to Rand Paul was spiritual,” Lane said. Afterward, Lane said, Paul sent him a handwritten note confiding that his first night home, he woke up in a dream singing the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”

If the trip to Israel was the first step of Paul’s move to make himself more acceptable to the conservative mainstream, the second took the form of a speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank led by former Senator Jim DeMint, who had endorsed Paul in the primary. Branding himself a “realist,” Paul urged “a foreign policy that is reluctant” but not isolationist. Indeed, “there are times, such as existed in Afghanistan with the bin Laden terrorist camps, that do require intervention.” Paul’s advisers had also approached the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations as possible venues, but in part because Paul was not interested in holding a question-and-answer session, he ended up at Heritage. And so, with Paul taking no questions after the thirty-minute speech was over, attendees started eating lunch at 11:30 in the morning.

In making the case for restraint, Paul invoked the diplomat George Kennan, quoting liberally from a biography written by the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. Kennan was a foreign policy realist who was most famous for drafting the United States’s containment policy, a path that avoided both appeasement and war. Yet he also believed that grand strategy belonged in the hands of unelected wise men, making him an odd hero for a Tea Party populist. When I pointed out this seeming contradiction to Paul, he said that after reading the Kennan biography, “you kind of thought of him as a snob and an elitist.” (Gaddis, reached by telephone in New Haven, responded that Kennan “was certainly an elitist. I don’t think he was a snob.”) But citing Kennan allowed Paul to claim the threadbare mantle of Republicans’ favorite dead president, Ronald Reagan. As Paul explained, in attempting to contain the Soviet Union through limited means Reagan was arguably the most Kennanesque of any Cold War president.

Not everyone, however, bought Paul’s portrait of a restrained Reagan. The day after the speech, Robert Kagan spent an entire Washington Post column criticizing it, pointing out that Reagan ramped up military spending, armed rebels around the world, and attacked Grenada and Libya. “Well, you didn’t see us in a major land war with Iraq,” Paul retorted to me. “You didn’t see us in a twelve-year war that we’ve been involved with in Afghanistan.” He had a point. In negotiating with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan overruled the neoconservatives within his administration who were pushing for a harder line, and every military action he authorized was indirect or small-scale. “When it comes to using force, Reagan was very, very cautious, and he did not like to expose our people to unnecessary danger,” said Jack Matlock, one of Reagan’s foreign policy advisers.

On the other hand, Reagan was more of an internationalist; he was willing to bind the United States into arms-reduction deals with the Soviets. When Paul was asked just after his election whether he would vote in favor of the New START Treaty, an agreement between the United States and Russia on joint nuclear weapons reductions, he said, “It doesn’t sound like I’m probably going to be in favor of that.” The Senate ended up ratifying the treaty before he was sworn in. “The fact that twenty-six senators, all Republicans, voted against the New START Treaty must have sent Reagan twirling in his grave,” Matlock said.

Paul’s self-proclaimed realism also fits uneasily with his libertarianism. Traditionally, realpolitik is the school favored by statists—people like Otto von Bismarck and Henry Kissinger—who believe that grand strategy is best left to a strong executive. Paul’s opposition to drones reveals this contradiction most. The CIA’s drone program allows the United States to fight terrorism by joystick from Nevada, without having to engage in the messy business of nation building. As the foreign policy commentator and former Ron Paul adviser Leon Hadar told me, one would think that drones would be “the weapon that realists would fall in love with.” Yet for Paul, they represent the very embodiment of unchecked government power.

In fixating on the possibility that the federal government could use a drone to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, Paul made it look like his opposition to drones owed more to conservative chain emails than to studied Human Rights Watch reports. Reasonable critics have questioned the Obama administration’s drone policy over the secrecy surrounding the targeting process and the possibility that collateral damage from strikes helps terrorist recruitment. (Both were problems Obama attempted to address in his speech at National Defense University in May.) The idea that a Hellfire missile could interrupt a barbecue, however, does not top their list of concerns. When I suggested to John Tate that the filibuster had to be symbolic, he said it probably was—but only partly so. “There’s a certain segment of the people that aren’t so sure about what you said, that we’re not going to do drone strikes on American soil,” he said.

Speaking to me in his office, Paul argued that the drone program’s lack of geographical limits means that the same problems it poses in, say, Yemen could affect the United States too. “We have circumstances overseas where you and I are talking, and they think you’re a terrorist, and they blow us both up,” he said, trying to lend some immediacy to a hypothetical scenario. While the two of us may be terrorists, he continued, the only person who gets to see the evidence is the president. “He flips through flash cards, and they do a Power-Point, and he decides who he’s going to kill,” Paul said. He added, “Let’s say you are a bad person and you may be plotting. Maybe it is a good thing to kill you. But then”—he began gesturing successively to the three silent staffers beside us—“Moira sits in your chair next, and we kill her, and then Rachel sits in your chair, and then Sergio sits in your chair. Is there an end to it?”

As his imagined bloodbath demonstrated, Paul’s anti-drone crusade pivots between principled opposition to executive power and fantastical scenes of robotic doom. John McCain told me that Paul’s filibuster proved so popular because “it feeds into the conspiracy theories of Americans—the government, the black helicopters going around taking unilateral actions that can trample on individual liberties.”

Yet as out-there as the filibuster may have been, it received the support of the thirteen sitting GOP senators (and one Democrat, Ron Wyden) who formally joined it. McCain said that upon seeing his fellow Republicans flock to the floor, he was “both entertained and dismayed, because it certainly showed, one, the herd instinct around here, but second of all, the influence and inordinate fear of primary challenges.” For Republicans with foreign policy views like McCain’s, it’s bad enough that a noninterventionist coalition is forming around Paul, Cruz, and Lee; what’s worse is that members of their own faction have to pay obeisance to it.

For many in the Republican foreign policy establishment, Paul’s positions are naive, even dangerous. His floating of the idea that the United States might be willing to live with a nuclear Iran—a stance that puts Paul more in line with realist scholars of international relations than the Republican base—startles those who believe that such a state would upset the delicate balance of power in the Middle East and threaten Israel. Clifford May, the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that containment “is an option that should be considered, but having been considered, it should be rejected because there is no way to contain a nuclear jihadist Iran.”

Paul’s proposals to sever foreign aid, meanwhile, have been met with allegations that he just doesn’t get it. Military assistance, the argument runs, buys the United States influence abroad and promotes stability where it is needed most. “Rand Paul is one nice fellow, but I bet you he’s never talked with CIA Director General Petraeus about what would happen if we cut our aid off to Pakistan,” Lindsey Graham said last year.

Most of Paul’s 2012 book, Government Bullies, is dedicated to singling out federal regulators—Environmental Protection Agency officials who arrest a homeowner for spreading topsoil, Department of Agriculture administrators who levy multimillion-dollar fines on a teenage rabbit breeder, and so on. But in a chapter on “foreign bullies,” Paul recounts his crusade against aid to Egypt. “I do not have forty years of foreign policy experience,” he writes. “But I do know that if you want [to] take on a bully, you can’t be meek. You don’t pull punches, but swing as hard as you can, preferably with a blunt object.”

Swinging at Egypt, however, would seem to send exactly the wrong message to the new government: that while a military dictatorship can receive billions of unconditional dollars from the United States for thirty years, as soon as it is replaced with an electoral democracy the funding will dry up. Cutting off aid would also disempower one of the few stabilizing forces in the chaotic country. “I’m not sure what exactly we would achieve by doing that,” said Richard Fontaine, a former McCain adviser who is now president of the Center for a New American Security.

While the Republican foreign policy establishment dismisses the substance of Paul’s views, it recognizes their appeal. In March, the American Enterprise Institute, admitting that “fiscal constraints, weariness with war and isolationism are eroding the American will to lead,” launched the American Internationalism Project, led by former Senators Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl. Dan Senor, who advised Mitt Romney on foreign policy during his 2012 campaign, has begun organizing a network of donors to back internationalist candidates in Republican congressional primaries.

Even as the neoconservatives are busy trying to stamp out Paul’s brand of foreign policy, however, Paul is engaging in a concerted outreach to them. After Paul won his primary, he spoke with a group of GOP foreign policy hands at a meeting organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative that included Senor, Bill Kristol, Jamie Fly, and Tom Donnelly. Senor met with Paul again before the Israel trip, and the two discussed Senor’s book on the Israeli economy. Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has met with Paul twice, forty-five minutes each time, talking mostly about the Middle East. He found Paul willing to listen and argue. There are two possible explanations for Paul’s discussions with neoconservatives, Abrams said. “One is purely political—that is, like the trip to Israel, it is a part of creating a better image of himself as someone who listens to everyone and who is just seeking as many opinions as he can get. The other theory is that he’s actually interested in seeing what we think.”

By putting out feelers to the foreign policy establishment, Paul is fueling chatter about his presidential ambitions—speculation he openly embraces. Part of this effort involves distancing himself from his father. During the presidential debates of 2007, Ron Paul, spasmodic in voice and animated in eyebrow, alienated voters with his argument that 9/11 was backlash against the United States’s meddling in the Middle East. “Ron saw himself as a truth teller,” said a senior Republican aide with ties to Rand Paul. “Rand sees things a little differently. Rand believes that the best way to effect change is to win and then be able to make policy.” In April, the elder Paul founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and named Slobodan Milosevic apologists and 9/11 truthers to its board. Rand did not attend the think tank’s opening.

There is plenty more distancing left to do. This May, the National Association for Gun Rights, a group that sits to the right of the National Rifle Association, sent a fund-raising letter under Paul’s name raising alarm about the Obama administration’s support for the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, which would supposedly allow UN bureaucrats to confiscate Americans’ guns. “I don’t know about you,” the letter said, “but watching anti-American globalists plot against our Constitution makes me sick.” The allegation played to populist suspicions about international institutions. (As Paul’s long-shot primary opponent Gurley Martin said during one debate to much applause, the UN needed to be “sent back to France or wherever in the hell it came from.”) But it was wholly untrue: the treaty in question explicitly affirms the right for countries to set their own domestic gun policies.

In June, Paul issued a call to arms concerning the NSA’s electronic surveillance program. As he had done before, Paul bypassed the measured criticism he could have summoned and instead embraced the paranoid style. “How long until these spying capabilities suffer some ‘mission creep’ and they start using the GPS feature in your phone to track whether or not you go to gun shows?” he asked in a mass email. The dispatch requested that supporters join Paul’s class-action lawsuit against the federal government (something legal experts say has no chance of succeeding) and that they donate to his leadership PAC.

The domestic market for American activism abroad is soft. Part of the fault for that lies with the economic recession. At a time of high unemployment, ambitious programs of international engagement are a tough sell. Take foreign aid, which by definition has no domestic constituency. According to one 2010 poll, Americans on average believe that their government spends 27 percent of its budget on international assistance but should spend 13 percent; the actual fraction is 1 percent. “Foreign aid—just those two words have taken on a negative connotation with a lot of our Republican base,” McCain told me.

But neoconservatives cannot heap all the blame for the erosion of their foreign policy monopoly on the economy. “One word, two syllables: it’s Iraq more than anything else,” the conservative Washington Post columnist George Will said when I asked what explained the growing popularity of Paul’s foreign policy. In Iraq, the Bush administration attempted to transform the Middle East unilaterally and cheaply. When the experiment failed—when it became clear that the reformation of Iraq could only be had at great cost, if at all—the contradictions in the administration’s worldview were laid bare. To a lesser extent, this was true in Afghanistan, too, where achieving even the limited goal of denying al-Qaeda a safe haven has proved frustratingly elusive. “Conservatives have been eloquent and correct for forty years on how hard it is to fix Cleveland,” Will said. “They seemed to neglect what they knew about Cleveland when it turned to Afghanistan.”

With Iraq having “thoroughly shattered the Republican Party’s brand on foreign policy,” as the Cato Institute scholar Christopher Preble put it, some Republicans began searching for alternatives to the neoconservative ideology that had dominated their party’s thinking. In another era, they would have bumped into something called the Republican realist, a category that last had influence during the George H. W. Bush administration in the figures of Colin Powell, James Baker, and Brent Scowcroft.

But sometime in the 1990s, that species began to go extinct. After Bush lost his reelection, the realists never could transcend technocracy to achieve real political influence, and never could offer a message that competed with that of the neoconservatives. Today, Republican realists face the added disadvantage of having a president from the opposite party who, generally speaking, has adopted just the type of limited foreign policy they prescribe. Agreeing with the incumbent Democrat gets you nowhere in the Republican Party.

And so the non-neoconservative Republicans are left with Paul, who, in the words of the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “can sometimes sound like a libertarian purist, sometimes like a realist in the Brent Scowcroft mode and sometimes like—well, like a man who was an ophthalmologist in Bowling Green, Ky., just a few short years ago.” Paul’s perceived extremism has prevented the old-school realists from claiming him as their own. As one former official who identifies as a realist told me, “While some (but not all, to say the least) of what Rand Paul says makes sense, he is much too outside the mainstream on all sorts of economic, domestic, and foreign policy questions to be the heir to Bush 41, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, etc.” The isolationist wing of the GOP is long gone, so it is impossible to know what they would make of Paul, but, Trey Grayson said, “Robert Taft wouldn’t be hanging around the equivalent of Alex Jones.”

Republican foreign policy experts are quick to question Paul’s credentials—anonymously, at least. One Capitol Hill staffer I talked to said, “I have yet to see any evidence that this guy’s anything more than someone who’s read up on a handful of issues as opposed to someone who’s traveled widely and thought deeply about the world.” Whereas Rubio has added Jamie Fly, the former director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, to his team, Paul has made no equivalent national security hire. On foreign policy, Paul listens to a group of political advisers that includes Doug Stafford, his former chief of staff who now works on his reelection campaign; Trygve Olson, a consultant who has worked on democracy promotion efforts in eastern Europe and who described himself to me as “a political guy who ended up doing a lot of foreign policy”; and Jack Hunter, a radio talk show host now working for Paul who calls himself “the southern avenger.” “I think this is a work in progress,” Elliott Abrams said of Paul’s foreign policy.

Nonetheless, as his ideological opponents readily admit, Paul is a skilled politician with a viable future. Yet he is popular not only because he is young, savvy, and articulate but also because he has exploited a long-standing gap between American citizens and their political leaders on foreign policy. When pollsters from Rasmussen asked likely voters this January, “Should the United States be the world’s policeman?” only 11 percent answered yes. No wonder Paul’s message of restraint has found such a warm reception.

The brashest of Paul’s positions—the immediate cutting off of aid, the major downsizing of military bases, the imposition of significant congressional authority—will likely never become U.S. foreign policy. But his effect on the rhetorical landscape could prove more lasting. Paul, George Will said, has “expanded the range of what is discussable.” The challenge he poses to advocates of military intervention is particularly potent, and particularly useful at a time when Washington is debating our intervention in Syria.

On the day Paul and I spoke, Rasmussen polled likely voters about the conflict in Syria. Seventy-three percent thought the United States should stay out. The Senate, meanwhile, was coming to its own consensus on Syria. The chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, had just introduced legislation that would provide arms and training to the opposition, and McCain and Democratic Senator Carl Levin would soon take to the Senate floor and demand missile strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Rubio had staked out his position on Syria well before, arguing for stronger actions against the regime back in 2011.

Paul was skeptical. He wondered which side the rebels were on, what would happen to Syria’s two million Christians, and whether a post-Assad state would be any better than the one that preceded it. “I’m not saying it’s not America’s problem; I’m just saying I’m not sure what the solution is, and I’m not sure anybody knows,” he said. “People who say they know, I think, are being presumptuous.” Two days later, Paul was off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to speak before a sold-out crowd at the GOP’s Lincoln Day Dinner. The Iowa caucuses were more than two and a half years away, but Paul was already polling well among Iowans. He was leading Rubio by nineteen points.

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Stuart A. Reid

Stuart A. Reid is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.