The letter to Iran masterminded by uber-hawk Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by 47 Republican Senators, including most surprisingly Rand Paul, has caused quite a stir. The letter basically states that any agreement the President makes will be subject to Congressional approval and should not be considered binding until then. Some Leftists have accused those who signed it of treason, and claim they are in violation of the Logan Act. Hawkish interventionists, on the other hand, have praised the signers as heroes.
For the purpose of this essay, I am most interested in how conservative and libertarian non-interventionists who were/are inclined to support Rand Paul view his signing of the letter. My reading is that there is widespread disappointment. Justin Raimondo, who runs the website AntiWar.com and is a significant figure on the antiwar right, had been generally supportive of Paul, but this move has caused Raimondo to essentially throw Paul under the bus. He calls it Rand Paul’s “Munich” and claims it proves Paul lacks the “character” necessary to be president.
Matt Purple, a contributor at Rare.us, calls it a “step too far” for Rand. This is significant because Rare, which is edited by former Rand Paul staffer Jack Hunter, generally fawns over Rand Paul.
Also at Rare, paleoish writer James Antle, clearly sensing a backlash, attempts to make the case that Paul’s signature is not that big of a deal. Unfortunately for Antle and Paul, the article feels like some fairly desperate spin. I think Antle and Hunter, based on some comments he made on Facebook, realize this is a big problem for Rand Paul with his base of non-interventionists.
I was a big supporter of Rand’s father, Ron Paul, in ’08 and ’12 generally because he is a Constitutionalist. Non-intervention flows naturally from serious Constitutionalism (and was famously prescribed by George Washington in his farewell address), so it cannot be written off as some eccentric position. But because non-intervention is where the elder Paul differed the most starkly from the mainstream “Right”, foreign policy took on an outsized importance in his campaign and became an essential part of the identity his supporters took for themselves.
From the beginning of Rand’s candidacy for the Senate and now likely campaign for President, it has generally been accepted by Ron Paul supporters that Rand was not going to give us the red meat non-interventionism that his father served up. Rather, he would play the pragmatic political game necessary to get elected and not scare the masses, while working to keep us out of any more disastrous wars. In other words, we just assumed his overtures to mainstream “conservative” interventionists were insincere and a necessary evil. When I expressed something like this in a different venue, one reader was appalled. “You mean you believe Rand is being deliberately insincere?” Well of course I do. I always assumed this was understood.
For what it’s worth, I still believe Rand Paul’s actual beliefs are closer to his father’s than he lets on. Why wouldn’t they be? Rand campaigned hard for his father in ’08 and has a history of supporting his father’s Texas Senate campaign, his 1988 Libertarian presidential campaign and his 1996 Congressional comeback campaign. I saw Rand speak at a rally in ’08, and he hit the same notes about the Fed and sound money that his dad hits.
That said, I was never totally on the Rand bandwagon, and got off a long time ago. I understand the argument that he can work behind the scenes for the good, which is basically the argument James Antle makes in his article linked to above, but I have always been very sensitive about the rhetoric. Non-intervention is based on the assumption that the US has no special or oversized role to play on the world stage and should therefore not behave as if we do. So I’m OK with pragmatism and playing the political game as long as it doesn’t undermine the basic premise of non-interventionism and reinforce the premise of the other side. In my opinion, Rand has been conceding way too much in the rhetoric department from the start, although he has often tried to engage in a kind of double speak, attempting to keep both sides happy, where he doesn’t technically violate non-interventionist principles while saying something the other side wants to hear.
To help the reader unfamiliar with non-interventionist esoterica understand what I’m talking about, a fundamental principle of non-interventionism is that we should abolish all foreign aid. So when Paul came out with his proposal to defund certain entities in the Middle East, he wasn’t technically in violation of a fundamental non-interventionist principle, he just wasn’t stating it maximally. The problem that non-interventionists like me had with it was not that he wanted to cut foreign aid, which we obviously support, but that by suggesting it be cut to the enemies of Israel but not Israel, he was pandering to the pro-Israel interventionist base and reinforcing the idea that the US is under some mystical obligation to protect Israel.
One man’s clever politics is another’s abandonment of the cause. For many, Paul crossed that line with his signing of the obnoxious Cotton letter. For those familiar with Rand-speak, you can see his mind working. As per James Antle, he could argue that he was just restating the Constitutional principle of Senatorial consent for treaties, but it is not at all clear that whatever agreement the US may come back with would actually be a treaty. (This will be the subject of a separate essay.) But the problem for Paul is that this letter is not benign. It is a blatant attempt to undermine negotiations that may keep us out of a surely disastrous and unnecessary war with Iran, negotiations that from a non-interventionist standpoint we shouldn’t even be engaging in in the first place. And it comes in the wake of his shameful panderfest following the Netanyahu address, where Paul had already obsequiously praised Netanyahu and Israel and signed onto Sen. Bob Corker’s attempt to scuttle the negotiations.
It’s a long time until the first caucus and a lot can change between now and then, but I think Rand may have squandered his opportunity to rally the non-interventionist coalition behind him with his pandering behavior following the Netanyahu address. If it isn’t totally squandered, he certainly has a lot of work to do to build back up some seriously fractured trust.