Drawing a contrast between himself and Capitol Hill Republicans whom he tied to a longtime "war caucus," Sen. Rand Paul called Wednesday for a "saner, more balanced" approach to foreign policy that strikes a balance between neoconservative and isolationist thinking.
Mr. Paul, a tea party hero and possible 2016 presidential candidate, likened his "realist" vision of the nation's role on the global stage to the "robust but also restrained" approach that President Reagan employed during the Cold War.
The remarks were made in an address to the conservative Heritage Foundation as the Kentucky Republican seeks to inject his libertarian-fueled brand of conservatism into foreign policy talks on Capitol Hill.
"What the United States needs now is a policy that finds that middle path," Mr. Paul said. "A policy that is not rash or reckless. A foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by constitutional checks and balances but does not appease. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of radical Islam but also the inherent weaknesses of radical Islam. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on the pretext of what they might someday do."
In his address, the freshman senator embraced the "containment" theories of American Cold War strategist George Kennan and argued that war is not the only option in confronting Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
Like his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, he challenged his colleagues on the Hill who have championed a more robust role for America on the world stage.
Many of those lawmakers derided Mr. Paul's father, a libertarian icon who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination, as an isolationist.
Mr. Paul, in many ways, picked up Wednesday where his father left off.
"I would 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," he said.
"I am convinced that what we need is a foreign policy that works within these two constraints, a foreign policy that works within the confines of the Constitution and the realities of our fiscal crisis. Today in Congress, there is no such nuance, no such moderation of dollars or of executive power."
Matt Welch, editor of Reason magazine and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America," described the younger Mr. Paul's address as "politically savvy."
"He is getting to the same place, and conclusions, for the most part, as his father did, but his sales job is totally different," Mr. Welch said. "If implemented, his vision would place more restraints on the executive, and it would involve a much more drastic drawdown from the world than anyone really has contemplated in a major party political life for a long time.
"So he is doing this very interesting dance right now in trying to kind of mainstream these ideas to a skeptical Republican, conservative crowd."
Sounding the same warning notes on military spending that drew fiscal hawks by the thousands to his father's cause, Mr. Paul on Wednesday called for fewer soldiers and fewer bases overseas.
If military force is necessary, the 50-year-old eye surgeon said, the United States should "intervene in cooperation with the host government" or require Congress to issue a formal declaration of war, as called for in the Constitution.
James Jay Carafano, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said he saw Mr. Paul's speech as part of the senator's "conversion to being a statesman" and applauded him for trying to do more than slap a "bumper sticker" on complex foreign policy issues, such as how to deal with Iran's disputed nuclear program.
Mr. Carafano, though, said Mr. Paul left unanswered questions, such as which foreign bases to close.
"You can say, 'I don't like foreign bases.' That sounds great in a hypothetical basis," he said. "But foreign bases are how you project power. Your ability to get to the bad guy before he gets to you is greatly diminished."
Mr. Paul rode into office in 2010, quickly establishing himself as a thorn in the side of Democrats and Republicans. In his maiden speech on the Senate floor, Mr. Paul said conservatives must acknowledge that "we can cut military spending" and liberals must acknowledge "we can cut domestic spending."
He went on to offer plans to balance the federal budget within five years — in part by repealing President Obama's health care law, cutting defense spending and eliminating several federal agencies, such as the departments of Education and Energy.
Mr. Paul has accused Mr. Obama of overstepping his constitutional authority — and his congressional colleagues of abdicating theirs — after the president unilaterally approved military involvement in Libya.
Mr. Paul has criticized foreign aid for the governments of Egypt, Pakistan and Libya, which all have at least some Islamist elements. He also questioned calls from within the Republican Party to start arming the opposition forces in Syria — warning that history shows such efforts could come back to haunt the nation.
"In the 1980s, the war caucus in Congress armed [Osama] bin Laden and the mujahedeen in their fight with the Soviet Union. In fact, it was the official position of the State Department to support radical jihad against the Soviets. We all know how well that worked out," Mr. Paul said Wednesday.
After being appointed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, he grilled Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, telling her that she should have been fired for the way the Obama administration handled the Sept. 11 attacks that led to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Still, he supported the confirmation of John F. Kerry as Mrs. Clinton's successor, saying the president has the right to pick his Cabinet.
The speech, coming on the heels of a high-profile trip to Israel and the senator's ramped-up media presence, further fuels speculation that Mr. Paul is lining himself up for a 2016 White House bid.
In a conference call with reporters after his speech, Mr. Paul said that as a new member of the Foreign Relations Committee, he wants to share his global worldview. "Whether that becomes part of a national campaign, I think time will tell," he said.
Mr. Paul, though, said he is confident that most Americans will support his ideas, including his calls to bar the sale of arms to the new Egyptian government under President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also said he has a proven record of bridging the partisan divide on civil liberties and foreign policy.
"Some of these ideas can cross over and appeal to independents, to moderates and to areas where we are not doing very well — like in New England and the West Coast," he said. "I think libertarian-Republican ideas may well have some sway."
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