Already mentioned as a 2016 presidential hopeful, Kentucky US Senator Rand Paul is planning a trip to Israel and Jordan. According to the UK Telegraph‘s Tim Stanley, Senator Paul is also preparing to give a foreign policy address in the near future.
The trip and speech may suggest a few things. The most obvious is that Paul is seriously thinking about a presidential run and the trip to Israel is almost obligatory when the strongest base of support for his party comes from evangelical Christians. Also, as a presidential contender, Paul is trying to show that he is not a clone of his father, retiring Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), and that he is willing to take positions aligned with the more hawkish elements of the Republican Party.
One example of this is Paul’s position on foreign aid. Although comprising less than one percent of the budget, Paul came into office opposing all foreign aid, including to Israel. His position has since morphed into tolerating foreign aid for friendly regimes while keeping the spigot flowing to Israel. An issue of relatively small importance, the attitude shift appears to be a nod to the real power players in the GOP.
During an interview with Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, Paul was asked what the biggest misconception about him was. He answered, “That I am unfriendly to Israel.” In a statement designed to appear both pro-Israel and friendly to Ron Paul’s position that Israel has a right to defend herself, Sen. Paul added, “Israel shouldn’t be dictated to by the U.S. They are a sovereign country.”
Rubin quotes influential Christians United for Israel leader, David Brog, on Paul’s upcoming trip:
“We’ve seen such trips work complete transformations in the past, most notably when Senator Jesse Helms flew to Israel in 1984 as a vocal critic of the Jewish state and returned home to be among Israel’s staunchest supporters. . . .
“If Senator Paul returns from his visit and demonstrates that he has become a true friend to Israel – in both word and in deed – then Christians United for Israel will be among the first to congratulate him and welcome him ‘home.'”
Despite his gestures towards Israel and the foreign policy consensus, GOP foreign policy hawks don’t seem to be in Paul’s corner. A recent essay in Commentary by Jonathan Tobin illustrates what support for Israel really means with that wing of the party:
“The signal being given here is that the senator wants to be seen by the Republican base as a mainstream conservative and not a libertarian outlier.”
“Given his opposition to military assistance and his worldview that calls for a weaker U.S. presence in the world, that won’t be easy. . . . But the outreach here isn’t to AIPAC and its donors, who rightly regard the younger Paul as just a more presentable version of a father who remains an implacable foe of the U.S.-Israeli alliance. . . .
“[Pro-Israel Christians] will judge him on his record, not mere symbolism. Unless he truly changes his views on the subject, he is not likely to make much headway in a community that will judge him harshly for being a false friend to Israel.”
The question Paul is attempting to address is how to appeal to a wider swath of voters since the Ron Paul base was not enough to win a single primary state. However, further conceding to a constituency that demands more than he is currently offering also risks losing the base that made Paul a viable officeholder in the first place.
The GOP is currently undergoing some soul-searching that is largely confined to its stances on taxes and immigration. Foreign policy has been largely neglected during the GOP’s exile, but if the party’s latest standard-bearer is any indication, a challenge to the status quo is unlikely.
Paul’s position on interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya mirror his father’s and distinguishes the son within the party. The Rand Paul foreign policy speech and trip to Israel may reveal where he intends to stand within the GOP foreign policy consensus.