Is Rand Paul a Realist Islamophobe?

So one of this month’s enduring topics of conversation is how to describe Rand Paul’s foreign policy orientation, since “weasel of an opportunist” apparently won’t do. Jason Zingerle has an extensive column on the subject today at TNR, in which he allows as how Paul has zigged and zagged and bobbed and weaved, but accepts he has arrived in a semi-coherent place:

[W]hatever his motivations, Paul, through it all, has arrived at something of a coherent foreign policy philosophy. As he explained it in his biggest foreign policy speech to date, at the Heritage Foundation last year, “I am a realist, not a neoconservative nor an isolationist.” If that sounded Obama-esque in its attempt to find a middle way between competing straw men, the fact is that, in GOP foreign policy debates, those straw men are real people like John McCain and Ron Paul. In the same speech, Paul went on in (in unspoken contrast to his father, who worshipped at the feet of the isolationist Senator Robert Taft) to cast himself as an heir to George Kennan, the foreign policy thinker behind America’s “containment” strategy during the Cold War.

After quoting Paul as continuing to think it’s a bad idea to mess with “secular dictators” in the Middle East, Zengerle equates him to a couple of other “realist” icons:

In this, Paul sounds as much like Kennan as Brent Scowcroft, the realist disciple of Henry Kissinger who served as George H.W. Bush’s national security advisor—and later became a critic of George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy. As Scowcroft told Jeffrey Goldberg in 2005, “I’ve been accused of tolerating autocracies in the Middle East, and there’s some validity in that. It’s easy in the name of stability to be comfortable with the status quo.”

You can almost hear Paul and his staff cheering in the background at this mission-accomplished moment, as a progressive journalist identifies him with a safe if not universally accepted Republican foreign policy tradition.

But if you look at Paul’s own words, it sure looks to me like he’s improvising madly. In a highly sympathetic interview with The Federalist‘s Ben Domenech, Paul spends a lot of time beating up on the I-word straw man:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

Oh, c’mon, Rand, don’t be obtuse. In the history of American foreign policy no one has ever, ever labeled him- or herself as an “isolationist,” so the idea that we’re all supposed to take his word for it that he’s not one is ludicrous. To use the less invidious term, there has not been until recently any reason to doubt that Paul like his father was a “non-interventionist,” someone who only believed in the use of military force when the territorial United States was threatened. What’s happening how is that Paul is not only open to but avid for an intervention involving IS, and while it’s very interesting he wants to do so without discomfiting any “secular dictators” like Assad, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s being a “realist” in that sense. Check out his own explanation for the distinction:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

This doesn’t sound very Kissingerian to me. It sounds (along with a lot of rhetoric blaming “moderate” Sunni countries for indirectly aiding IS) Islamophobic. So again, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Paul’s sudden identification of a situation where he thinks military intervention is essential all too conveniently coincides with a need to court conservative “base” voters spoiling for a fight with those evil Muslims. But in any event, the longer you pay attention to Paul’s rationalization of his foreign policy views, the more you realize he’s not embracing any sort of “doctrine” or “world-view,” but rather a complex series of calculations and rationalizations and provisos and hedges that gives not the United States, but his own self, maximum flexibility.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.