When Republicans still gleeful over their November election wins accused President Obama of waging an unauthorized war against the Islamic State, Sen. Rand Paul marched to a different beat and introduced legislation to give congressional consent to the latest front in the war on terrorism.
When Mr. Obama surprised the world over the holidays by warming relations with the Castro regime, most Republicans howled about communist appeasement. But Mr. Paul declared that he supported normalizing relations with Cuba.
When the Democratic president gave a defiant State of the Union address last week filled with veto threats and unilateral policy actions, Republican congressional leaders accused Mr. Obama of conducting an imperial presidency. But Mr. Paul said he wanted to find ways to work with Mr. Obama.
And when Mr. Paul found himself on a California stage a few days ago with several Republican presidential rivals advocating for additional sanctions on Iran, the Kentucky Republican argued against slamming Tehran to the ground and for giving the president more time to persuade Iran to put the brakes on its nuclear enrichment program in return for relief from sanctions that have crippled its economy.
“I think diplomacy is better than war, and we should give diplomacy a chance,” the senator declared.
To Mr. Paul, son of former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and a favorite of the Republican Party’s libertarian and anti-war factions, his positions seemed perfectly consistent with his view that political conflict and military intervention too often have been first solutions when they should be last resorts.
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His rivals for the presidential nomination see things differently and say Mr. Paul sounds like an Obama apologist.
“I am a little cautious, I would say, perhaps skeptical about negotiating with someone who has openly said he wants to force all of us to either be like him or die,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, snapping back at Mr. Paul’s position Sunday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas added his own hyperbolic assessment of the Obama-Iran diplomacy that Mr. Paul supported: “This is the worst negotiation in the history of mankind.”
Mr. Paul’s views on foreign policy and national security set him apart from the other Republicans hungering for the presidency. They can be expected to slam him as an isolationist, blind to the harsh realities of the international jungle. But his views of how the U.S. should deal with the world will offer a unique opening to voters who haven’t always leaned right.
“Voters say that intervention for the sake of intervention is a bad idea,” explained pollster John McLaughlin, a strategist and adviser to Republican campaigns for more than 30 years. “However, Republicans want a strong, secure America.”
Mr. McLaughlin’s polling suggests that voters abhor what they regard as President Obama’s weakness on the world stage. At the same time, “for Americans, military action is a last resort.”
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“But when used, they want it used decisively, swiftly and with all the strength required to assure our national security,” he said.
It has long been an axiom of American politics that elections are about economics, not foreign policy, but Mr. McLaughlin said that oversimplifies the dynamic.
“Security issues actually delivered the Republican margins for Congress last November,” he said, rattling off a bevy of statistics to back his finding.
Mr. McLaughlin predicted that when Americans vote for president next year, “the security-issue voter-segment will be even larger. For Republicans, there remain fond memories of Ronald Reagan. Peace through strength still fits.”
By that he means it was once a point of pride for Republicans that Mr. Reagan managed to get through eight prosperous years as president without taking the nation to sustained war, declared or undeclared.
So where does that leave Mr. Paul and his rivals after the Sunday night debate sponsored by an organization founded by Republican powerhouses Charles and David Koch?
“Rand helped himself,” said Craig Robinson, editor-in-chief of the Iowa Republican. “Opposing new sanctions against Iran during current negotiations is a position the libertarian-leaning Republicans he has to have will embrace.
“While most people believe Iran’s nuclear program and growing dominance in the region is a big problem, people get nervous when you start talking about taking military actions against a country like that,” Mr. Robinson said. “The hawks in the GOP will never side with Rand. They will always have their doubts. So there’s no reason for him to try and satisfy them.”
In theory, if Republicans — and in some states independents — who vote in the presidential nomination contests beginning in February 2016 are more in the mood for a negotiator in chief than for a warrior in chief, Mr. Paul could coalesce the anti-interventionist vote behind him while the others divide the interventionist vote.
One wild card is the extent of Americans’ appetite for putting more of their uniformed sons and daughters in harm’s way after 13 years of sustained ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no hints of success in sight.
Polling suggests the idea of boots on the ground isn’t popular with voters in general, nor with self-described conservatives and not with evangelical Christians.
Almost all the potential candidates have waved their swords at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and at Tehran while assuring the American public that they don’t want U.S. boots on foreign ground anywhere.
If it sounds like a neat trick, it is. Bringing the Islamic State, Iran or any other antagonist to its knees with air power alone is wishful thinking, America’s top military leaders have warned repeatedly.
Further blocking attempts to peer into the near future is the ambivalence of key constituencies such as the religious right and the tea party, which will influence the outcome of the Republican nomination contest.
“Many conservatives are less war-minded than others may suppose, especially after two theaters of recent conflict,” said philanthropist Joe Gregory, a born-again Christian and former pharmaceutical company chief. He said conservatives’ lack of enthusiasm for war rises further if they have family members who will be sent to the battlefield.
The tea party movement blurs the foreign policy narrative by shifting views, sometimes revealing in polls a tilt toward military intervention and at other times a tilt toward nonintervention.
“As Americans, we cannot always keep getting involved in other countries’ business,” Ohio tea party leader Ralph King said. “While we embrace our American ideals, it is because we are American and we fought for these liberties & freedoms. Nobody gave it to us.”
But the temptation to go to war for what are perceived as the right reasons is almost irresistible for any nation, especially when the pride of the one remaining superpower in the world is thought to be at stake.
“If at any time we go to war, it should be to support people actually willing to fight for change in their own countries,” Mr. King said. We can’t make other countries democratic if their people aren’t willing to fight for it themselves.”
He acknowledged that providing advanced weaponry to what appears at the time to be forces committed to democracy can backfire, either because the U.S. misjudged those forces’ goals or those forces lost the weapons to enemies.
Rob McCoy, the pastor of an evangelical church a few miles from the Reagan library in Southern California, knows something about the battlefield of politics, having run in November for an open state Assembly seat as a conservative Republican.
“Christians are tired of war, especially wars being fought that we never intended to win,” Mr. McCoy said. “I like Rand’s position on not spending money we don’t have to aid nations that don’t like us. He says, ‘Cut foreign aid and start with the nations that are burning our flag and funding our enemies.’ I agree.”
“Our soldiers died for ground we give away,” he said of the Iraq War. “Everybody is tired of the schizophrenic foreign policy that results in our soldiers dying and Islam winning.”
Mr. McCoy argues that because U.S. leaders “won’t define the enemy at home or abroad, we can’t win. So let’s keep the troops home and get back to building our nation’s foundation.”
Mr. Paul must walk a fine line of not appearing to be isolationist or too hawkish to retain the affection of the noninterventionist and the libertarian wings of his party.
The challenge came into full focus in November when Mr. Paul sponsored a resolution to require Congress to follow the Constitution by formally declaring war on the Islamic State but barring the commitment of ground troops and setting a termination date for the war.
Some found it absurd that Mr. Paul thought he should try to persuade his fellow lawmakers to declare war on a religious movement and not a state.
“For Rand Paul to suddenly decide that this ‘war on ISIS’ is his fight is naive at a policy level and shows either an ignorance or a crassness that I had not expected,” said California conservative activist Larry Eastland, a self-described admirer of Mr. Paul’s.
A more sympathetic view came from Merrill Matthews, resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.
“What’s happening right now, it seems to me, is that the war hawks paint anyone who isn’t a John McCain-style war hawk as an isolationist,” said Mr. Matthews. “That’s pure crap, but the hawks get away with it.”
He said politicians believe that the “isolationist” label is a death knell among conservatives, so instead of laying out principles of engagement they try to do something dramatic to counter the narrative.”
“Rand is trying to fight hyperbole with hyperbole,” Mr. Matthews said. “It may be the best, or only, weapon he has.”