The Federalist: For the past week or so, there has been a flurry of accusations of inconsistency as regards your position on ISIS, Syria, and Iraq. How do you respond to your critics? Do you believe you’ve changed your mind about the proper policy approach in this arena, or is this just a matter of people not making a distinction about the threats involved?
Senator Rand Paul: 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.
From the consistency angle, I’ve consistently said that we have to be very wary of intervention and that there are often unintended consequences. I still believe that. For example, in Libya, we toppled a secular dictator, and we wound up with a chaotic situation with jihadists roaming everywhere, swimming in our embassy pool. It’s a disaster in Libya. Any objective evidence would tell you that our intervention there was the wrong way to go.
In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides, but if you wanted to generalize one statement: I think you could say that the toppling of secular dictators has led typically to chaos and typically to more radical Islam and that radical Islam has been more or less, but at least somewhat focused on attacking America or Americans, where the secular dictators were more concerned with their country and rule in their country. This happened with toppling Gaddafi, it happened with toppling Mubarak, it would happen with toppling Assad, and I think it did happen with toppling Hussein. Half of those have been Democrat initiatives, half of those have been Republican, and some have been mixed, but I’ve been consistent in saying that I think those were all mistaken interventions.
At the same time, I’ve also said all along that I’m not for no interventions. I’m not for saying “we never intervene”, and this is what I’ve spent five years trying to tell people is my policy, I don’t want to be branded as someone who believes in no intervention. In the current situation, I do think this is a judgement call, and I still continue to believe that Congress should vote on it. It’s an imperative that Congress declare war, and I’ve never changed my position on that, but I’ve always said that when we vote then there is a debate, and the debate concerns our vital American interests. And that’s something that even good people can sometimes disagree on. 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.
It kind of surprises me because I don’t see anything inconsistent with that, and people say, “well, two months ago you were less likely to want to be involved in the Iraqi civil war.” Well, five years ago I’d say that also. Obviously if you believe in foreign policy realism, it depends on evaluating the events on the ground as they are. So I’m kind of surprised. The hit piece in the Washington Post was just so full of inaccuracies, I think there was no quote from us in the whole piece – an enormous piece, a hit job on me, and they never quoted us for a response on anything. My position hasn’t changed on foreign aid to Israel, my position has not changed on Medicare. Everything they’d said that my position had changed on, I think, frankly, is untrue.
The Federalist: Do you believe that President Obama’s remarks clouded the issue here? Are we at war with ISIS or Assad?
Rand Paul: Yes, because they’re not just talking about attacking ISIS, they’re talking about arming the so-called moderate opposition in Syria. So they are muddying the waters here. The other problem is, and I think this is an important point, is that had the President, Hillary Clinton, and many of the hawks had their way last year and we had bombed Assad, I frankly think it is not beyond reason to believe that today ISIS would be in Damascus, and possibly ruling all of Syria. If they had had their way, if they had intervened last year and it had been significant enough degradation of Assad that he was toppled, it wouldn’t be moderate Islam, or moderate Syrian rebels, in charge – it would be ISIS in Damascus today.
You know, if you look at the so-called moderate rebels, some of them have recently signed a cease-fire pact with ISIS and have essentially said, “we don’t really care what you’re doing, we just care about Assad and when Assad’s over we’ll decide who gets to rule Syria.” They’re not going to help, they’re not going to fight against ISIS. They’re Sunni Muslims and I think they’re afraid of ISIS and every time they’ve fought with ISIS, ISIS wins and takes their weapons. But I also think that the people who say that there weren’t enough weapons supplied need to go back and count up and make an estimate of what’s been going into Syria for the last three years. I think there have been millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of arms coming from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and to a lesser extent maybe the U.S., but there has been no shortage of arms going through Saudi Arabia. Their argument is that we could have done more and ISIS would have done less – no, I think ISIS is strong precisely because of the arms that have moved into Syria.
The Federalist: This is an ongoing and controversial debate in the midst of an election year. Do you believe that it’s incumbent on those who favor arming the rebels and attacking ISIS to have an up or down vote in Congress?
Rand Paul: Absolutely. I think the decision to go to war is the most important decision that any legislator makes. Frankly, I think that the Democrat leadership, in particular in the Senate, is petrified – not really of ISIS, but petrified of the American voter. Democrat leadership is so frightened of the American voter that they’re unwilling to have this debate. It really should be something that the American voter should say, “you know, if you’re afraid to debate the issues of the day, you really shouldn’t be in charge.”
It does disappoint me. They’re talking about coming back in a couple of months and having a debate and in reality, things could change quite a bit on the ground in the next couple of months.
The Federalist: So if you were in the President’s position, what would you do? What would your strategy be, and what would be your measures for success?
Rand Paul: On December 8th, 1941, FDR came and gave his famous “Day of Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress. The speech the president gave the other night wasn’t that bad, but he should have been doing it though in front of the joint Congress and he should have asked for a resolution of war against ISIS.
To some in this town, they say “oh, it diminishes his power that he has to go ask for authority”. Well first, that’s what the Constitution says, but second, even from a practical point of view, coming to Congress makes the war bi-partisan. It galvanizes the public. You know the Reagan Doctrine or the Weinberger Doctrine or the Powell Doctrine, all of these doctrines say you need to have the overwhelming consensus of the public. A good leader comes to Congress and comes to the people and galvanizes people and creates and encourages a consensus.
That’s what I would have done. Come ask for authority, and then with the authority, the practicalities of how you do it are things I’m not sure that you can summarize in a couple of sentence, because you know they involve military strategy and the information you have from your generals on exactly how to do it.
In general, I do think the war on the ground should be fought by those who live there. It offends me that sixteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis, it offends me that they finance radical Islam, and it offends me that they get rich off of our buying their oil and they don’t fight. So I’d like to see the first several thousands in the front lines attacking ISIS be Iraqis, but I’d also like to see the Saudis up there, Kuwaitis, Qataris. I’d like to see them fight. Ultimately, and this is where I in some ways I agree with the president, this is a long war against radical Islam, but the ultimate victory over radical Islam will have to come from civilized Islam.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a part to play. I think we do have a significant role to play because they do want to attack us, so we have to protect ourselves, we have great military strength and technology that we can use to come to bear. I think our technology, our Air Force, our drones, our intelligence, all that can be used to help, but really I think the coalition needs to be a coalition of Arab and Muslim forces that crush ISIS and send a message to the world that this isn’t Christians killing radical Muslims, this is civilized Islam crushing barbaric Islam.
The Federalist: Polls indicate that the nation has been weary of military action, but many neoconservatives have said this is a temporary condition – that the nation is war weary, but will wake up to a threat, and now are claiming vindication. What’s going on with the way Americans view our military’s role, its actions and purpose, and our overall level of intervention?
Rand Paul: Recent surveys have said that two-thirds of the American people want a strong leader that will stand up to ISIS, but two-thirds of them also say they’re not interested in sending troops back into Iraq. So I think the American public wants a little bit of things in two opposite directions.
Republicans look back and glorify Ronald Reagan – and I’m one who does this – and we understand Ronald Reagan was a strong leader, he wasn’t seen as weak, and he let our enemies know where he stood. One of my favorite quotes from him is, he said: “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve”. Nobody really worried that Reagan wasn’t going to stand up to our enemies if he had to, but he also wasn’t eager to do so. He created a strong defense to deter attack, not to promote attack, and so I think the American people do want that.
I don’t think they want no intervention. I think they want an American leader who will stand up. But I think if we were to poll the question, “do you think the Saudis and the Iraqis ought to be on the front line when you go to war against ISIS?”, that most Americans would agree with that statement. We know we shouldn’t be involved in nation building. We don’t do very well when we stay decade after decade trying to create nations.
The Federalist: One question about domestic politics: Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, recently told a journalist that he may not attend CPAC because the conference is becoming too libertarian. What is your response to that, and why do you think we’re seeing the growth of libertarian views among young people?
Rand Paul: I think the kids at CPAC must be pretty wise, because their survey results seem to be pretty good the last couple of years.
I think the libertarian influence, the libertarian-ish Republican, the libertarian conservatives in many ways is great for the party, because it brings in young people and enthusiasm. Kids aren’t as wedded to party, but I think kids are very open to arguments of liberty, arguments of privacy, arguments of keeping the government out of their lives. I think there is nothing but good that comes from that. It is a good thing to try to get our party bigger.