Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy Speech Addresses Conservatives

There was more in Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday than can be adequately reviewed here, but most of it pointed in the right direction if the Republican Party is going to be viable again as stewards of the nation’s defenses.

It’s tempting to pronounce this as a major sea change in the history of the GOP and the liberty movement’s place within it. That restraint in the conduct of foreign policy was permitted a hearing at a mainstream conservative think tank like Heritage is indeed significant and it’s a testament to the way Paul has used the vehicles of the party and the party’s pantheon of heroes to advance his message. However, it’s only a beginning.

Paul started out by declaring himself, “I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist” and continued on, “I’d argue that a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy, as it includes two basic tenets of true conservatism: respect for the constitution, and fiscal discipline.”

This is an important line in the speech because at Heritage, Paul is talking to conservatives who are more likely to favor the militaristic approach to foreign policy that occurred during the Bush administration. In the era of Obama, when fiscal discipline is back in fashion with the GOP, Paul is encouraging conservatives to evaluate foreign affairs according to their new-found principles.

While the overarching message of the address was that Rand Paul was trying to stake out a middle ground, he also indulged in some cliches of conservative foreign policy thinking. This is perhaps to be expected, but it’s also what makes Paul a talented politician: his clever use of language is designed to reach conservatives who have been conditioned to support a more militaristic foreign policy and exchange it for one more restrained.

A good example of this was his invocation of Reagan and American Conservative Union President David Keane’s quote about the fortieth president, “Reagan’s policy was much less interventionist than the presidents of both parties who came right before him and after him.”

This much is true and today’s Republicans should be reminded that Reagan was not the first coming of George W. Bush. Reagan intervened directly much less frequently than his immediate successors and, like Obama, tended more to arm proxies instead.

Also, Paul had a quote that should speak directly to the heart of the Republican base he is trying to reach:

“Likewise, today’s ‘Truman’ caucus wants boots on the ground and weapons in the hands of freedom fighters everywhere, including Syrian rebels. Perhaps we might want to ask the opinion of the 1 million Syrian Christians, many of whom fled Iraq when our Shiite allies were installed.”

Paul’s reference to Jack Matlock, a national security advisor to Reagan, should not go unnoticed. This is interesting because Matlock is one of several Republican foreign policy figures who now identify with the Democrats. Colin Powell, Lawrence Korb, and now Chuck Hagel are other Republicans who are basically exiles because the supremacy of the neoconservatives has left no room for any dissent on foreign policy.

The obvious subcontext of the speech was for Paul to separate himself from his father, Ron Paul. In a way, he did that by mentioning his support for sanctions and his embrace of overly-vague terms like “radical Islam.” But the point of this speech was to speak to the unconverted, not preach to the choir. Quoting the less-interventionist Reagan is powerful and mentioning the unpleasant plight awaiting Middle Eastern Christians may be one of the only ways a party that is increasingly seen as the “white Christian party” to understand the consequences of US foreign policy.

It is perhaps unsurprising that on the same day Paul gave this speech it was announced that Florida US Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the Republican response to next week’s State of the Union Address. Also mentioned as a presidential candidate, Rubio is one of the younger GOP pols who has preached the activist foreign policy Rand Paul was cleverly condemning on Wednesday.

It would be in the best interests for those of us hoping to see a reformation of the Right that foreign policy prudence prevail. Rand Paul’s agenda, as he articulated it at Heritage has a few issues that I won’t delve into here, but it is a good place for mainstream, movement conservatives to start listening.