In an interview with The Federalist, Rand Paul previewed his foreign policy address tonight, in which he plans to make the case for “conservative realism” as a consistent and wise policy approach.
Rand Paul: We’ll be talking about basically the theme of conservative realism. The concept is that there is a position of foreign policy that I think is very much attractive to Conservatives. There hasn’t been a leader filling that spot as well because there are two views, basically, espoused in foreign policy.
One is that we’re nowhere any time. That would be isolationism, but there’s another extreme that we’re everywhere all the time. That would be interventionism. I think conservative realism is the more moderate position which says that: you follow the Constitution. If we have to become involved in war, enmeshed in conflict, you have to involve the Congress to accomplish what the Constitution has intended.
Then there’s also there’s the second part of the debate. The debate is over whether or not there’s a national security interest, whether it’s a vital American interest, which is needed before we go to war. I think often, too often, that those debates really never occur. We just have a conclusion – we’ll stand up, say it’s in our national security interest. In theory, that needs to be a debate. Like last year, there was a big debate over Syria and I was one of the loudest voices saying that it’s a mistake to give weapons to the Syrian rebels, because one day we’ll have to fight those weapons. A year later it turns out that I was accurate.
We now, I think, are forced to become involved. In part because of our previous involvement, we allowed ISIS to become stronger, we allowed them a safe haven. We are now essentially fighting against our own weapons. The one thing about it, though, is I think I was at least part of the efforts to stop this from decimating Assad. Had we bombed Assad into oblivion, I think ISIS would be even stronger now, and I think ISIS would be in Damascus.
There is a real debate about foreign policy. I think there is a position that is very much a score for a Republican position. I mean it’s really a position that’s occupied by Eisenhower, a position occupied by Reagan, a position occupied by the first George H.W. Bush. This is a position that sees the world as it is, recognizes that we’re not going to recreate the world in our own image, that there is a threat of terrorism, there is a threat of a radical Islam, but that every intervention is not always advisable.
One of the most consistent things, in our foreign policy in the last couple of decades, has been that when we topple secular dictators we’ve had chaos ensue. We’ve had, really, the rise of radical Islam which many of us think is a greater threat than the previous secular dictator.
Some of this will be restated, but some of it will be a big foreign policy speech bringing everything together. I think it will be a conservative realist take on foreign policy as it’s developed for the last several months to a year.
The Federalist: President Obama is president in large part because of his position on foreign policy, at least that was how he got the nomination originally. Why do you think that the conversation about foreign policy, particularly on the right, doesn’t have more of an embrace of the ideas you’re espousing, if they are as central to the party’s history as you claim? Why do you think is left out of the conversation, and instead everyone’s ping-ponging back and forth between the extremes as you frame it?
Rand Paul: I think it depends on who you talk to, whether or not they are embraced to the Republican Party. If you talk to Washington, a very small percentage of them are foreign policy realists. If you ask how many of them are neoconservative, a huge percentage of them, on the right and the left, are basically neoconservatives.
If you go to Wyoming, or Idaho, or Iowa, or Kentucky, you ask a Republican if they think we should have a strong national defense, but be wary of entangling alliances, wary of intervention. To them war should be the last resort, not the first resort. I think you’ll find the opposite of the Washington experience if you get out to the grassroots – the grassroots is not as eager for war as those in Washington.
Also you’ll find if you were to interview soldiers, I have young soldiers at every event that I go to, and they come up to me and thank me for saying it up. “I’ve spent six tours in Iraq, and I can’t get out there publicly on this but I’m not excited about another Iraq.”
I think that popularity of ideas is much bigger in Washington than it is out in the countryside. I think it’s the same as many issues. It’s probably one of the reasons why Congress has a ten percent approval rating. Congress keeps blindly going on, doing whatever the hell they think is right, but many people in Congress should remember when they were elected, whether it was 1978 or 1982, they still ran for that election. It’s a real propensity to elect and re-elect incumbents, but they become increasingly disconnected from the public – they are still able to win, but increasingly disconnected.
I think on almost any serious policy issue of the day, there’s a disconnect between the grassroots and Washington. I’ll give you a couple of quick examples. Balanced budget amendment: huge support among the public, but that never can pass in Congress. Term limits: 75, 80 percent of the public supports, never passes in Congress. If you were to ask the public, “When it comes to countries that imprison Christians or Jews or any other minority religion for blasphemy or inter-faith marriage or apostasy, should we give money to countries who do that?” I bet you 10 percent of the public says, “Yes,” but I’ll bet you 90 percent of Congress says, “Continue.”
In fact I have that very amendment in the Foreign Relations Committee and I got only 2 votes to attach that condition to foreign aid, that you couldn’t get it if you had laws to put people to death for inter-faith marriage.
The Federalist: In terms of your own positioning, there is obviously a wealth of criticism from the Washington elites for your perspective. There’s also a lot of people who may be open to your message but skeptical either because of things that your father has said, or because of things that others have said about you or your views that may or may not be inaccurate. When it comes to convincing those people that your perspective of “conservative realism” is the right one, what would you say to someone who just wants to say, “How can I trust the views you’re espousing when it comes to protecting America?”
Rand Paul: I think the main thing that people want in a Commander-in-Chief or in a leader of a party, or as a philosophy for the party, is to believe that protecting the country and National Defense is the most important thing that the federal government does. Without question, that is my belief and has been what I have professed since I entered into public life, that there is nothing more important that the federal government does than defend its country.
That being said, the question is that there’s a range a possibilities about how we intervene and when we intervene. When it comes to how we intervene, most Conservatives already agree with me, I say it everywhere I go, “Congress should vote on this.” I don’t get any pushback in any audience in saying, “Oh we already knew the candidate I’m campaigning for that we should vote on this Congress.” In fact I think the majority of Republicans even in Congress believe that. I know not all of them, but there are quite a few in the House would tell you that the Conservative position regarding the Constitution is that Congress must vote on going to war.
As far as the actual policy of when we go to war, I really think that many people, the vast majority of the country right now, if you look at surveys, would say, “You know what, we have to do something about ISIS now. They’re a threat to our entities and a threat to our consulates,” but the vast majority of the country still is not for putting American the troops on the ground. I think that’s the position I occupy, and I think it’s where the vast majority of America is.
The Federalist: In terms of your speech tomorrow, I assume you’re going to lay out your own policy perspective, and how you came to it. You obviously are someone who only recently entered public life. You were previously working within a community as a physician. What has helped you in thinking about foreign policy, who have you looked to, what have you read and what have you seen that has informed your perspective on “conservative realism”?
Rand Paul: Five years ago, as a physician in a small town, I didn’t really have a foreign policy. I thought we needed, and I’ve always believed, that we need more leaders who are reasonable, who aren’t rash, who are reluctant to go to war, that have the resolve to takes to defend the country, but do it in a way that shows maturity and wisdom.
I think most Americans do also. If you look at who do we choose to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal, do you want someone who is trigger-happy or eager to begin a nuclear war? Or do you want someone who believes that, “My goodness that would be a terrible thing!” Listen to Ronald Reagan in interviews, and hearing him talk of nuclear war, he’s horrified by the concept. Even though some thought he was a cowboy that was reckless, in reality I think Ronald Reagan was actually a very reasoned person that most of the country believed would act responsibly and not irrationally.
I think some of these are heartfelt beliefs that come with temperament and also with the review of history. I do know I consider that my beliefs on when we get involved, how we get involved, are really right in the middle of the Republican tradition.