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Rand Paul’s Incoherent Foreign Policy Mess

His worldview can't sell in a GOP primary and he knows it -- so here's the hacky sweet spot he's going for instead.

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It’s hard to imagine how one person could be an adviser to both the über hawk McCain — who has literally never seen a foreign crisis he doesn’t think could be best solved with massive military intervention — and the alleged isolationist libertarian Rand Paul. Since there is no reason to believe that McCain isn’t utterly sincere in his thirst for war, one can only assume that it’s Paul who is trying to figure out a way to become a more genuinely mainstream Republican without losing his fanboy base.

Unfortunately, whatever advice he’s getting is only making him incomprehensible. Kirchik recites a list of the dizzying twists and turns he’s taken recently on various foreign policy issues. For instance, he has also hired Richard Burt, a former Reagan adviser who describes Paul not as an isolationist, but as a “realist,” presumably in the mode of the old hands like Brent Skowcroft and George H. W. Bush, the former of whom famously broke with George W. and Cheney on Iraq. Yet in a speech for the realist Center for the National Interest Paul simultaneously decried “the menace of worldwide jihad” while criticizing neoconservatives as inveterate warmongers. (Not that those two things cannot both be true, but among Republicans one thing inevitably leads to the other.)

Paul’s proposal to cut off 1.3 billion in aid to Egypt sounds as if it was actually a nice little piece of political theater that both excited the rubes who hate foreign aid while acting on behalf of the hawks who felt they needed the administration to work harder on the release of some well-connected VIPs who had been arrested by the Egyptian government. Whether Paul was participating in a sophisticated ploy or was being his handler Craner’s useful idiot is unknown. And perhaps it doesn’t matter — the end result was that Egypt got the aid and the VIPs were released. Hawks 2, Rand 0. (He did try to strip the aid again the next year, for what it’s worth.)

It’s on the Russia-Ukraine situation where Paul has been most incoherent. From one week to the other he’s alternately been demanding more respect for the Putin government and then turning around and proposing that the U.S. restore the missile shield money pit in Poland to deter the Russian horde. To Time magazine he roughly declares that if he were in charge he wouldn’t let Vladimir Putin “get away with it” and on the same day he tells Brietbart.com that now is not the time for chest beating and weirdly seems to call out John McCain as a chicken hawk. It’s all very confusing.

But the bottom line is that whether you call it “non-interventionism” or “realism,” Rand Paul’s isolationism is simply not a mainstream GOP position. Sure, the GOP is often reflexively hostile to a Democratic president’s foreign policy even when they would support such actions undertaken by one of their own. (And, yes, the same thing can be said when the shoe is on the other foot.) But Paul’s worldview would never sell among the party faithful in a presidential election and he knows it. So he’s trying to find a sweet spot between the hardcore hawks and the libertarian doves. One day  he’s pimping the Benghazi scandal and the next he’s calling for the release of  the so-called drone memos. Both of those are criticisms of the president’s foreign policy but they come from totally opposite ideological directions. It’s going to be hard to smooth out that dissonance.

Kirchik’s piece is headlined: “Is Rand Paul a closet hawk?” I don’t think he answers that question. But one thing is clear. Underneath it all, the great man of principle Rand Paul is a closet hack.

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