WASHINGTON (AP) — Henry Clay. Henry Cabot Lodge. Robert Taft. William Fulbright. Jesse Helms.
Is Rand Paul the next generation-defining senator on American foreign policy?
In just half a term, the Kentucky Republican has shaken up Congress and in some ways the country with his brand of libertarian populism, filibustering President Barack Obama’s CIA director earlier this year and leading the fight against authorizing U.S. military action in Syria.
Even in some of his defeats, Paul has been vindicated. The Obama administration’s decision this month to suspend much of its $1.5 billion annual assistance package to Egypt is a course Paul unsuccessfully championed only 10 weeks earlier.
“It’s presumptuous to say you’re driving the debate,” Paul said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. Still, he suggested his proximity to voters gives him a better understanding of what Americans are looking for right now in their government’s foreign policy.
“I think people are always ahead of their legislature, maybe 10 years or so,” he said. “Let’s say you’re elected for the first time in 1978. That is still who is electing you every time, the people who elected you then, because you perceive that as that was your big hard race and you won. And you still perceive you’re representing those people from 1978. … But you’re not really familiar with the wants and desires of 2013, because you still represent then.”
For a freshman senator with presidential ambitions, Paul has racked up an impressive list of public relations coups despite few legislative victories.
His 13-hour filibuster failed to prevent John Brennan’s confirmation to lead the CIA in March, but it shined a light on some of the unsavory elements of Obama’s drone attacks on U.S. terrorism targets overseas — including the deaths of four American citizens. The filibuster helped spark a nationwide conversation. Two months later, Obama revamped his drone policy to set tougher standards for when the U.S. can target and kill al-Qaeda or other terrorists who pose “a continuing, imminent threat” to Americans.
Syria was a similar case. After a large-scale chemical weapons attack in August killed hundreds outside Damascus, Obama asked Congress to approve a limited U.S. military intervention against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.
Paul rejected the administration’s case that intervening was in America’s national interest. He lost as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 in favor of authorization, but ultimately won the argument as public opposition and skittishness among members of both parties in Congress prompted Obama to drop his effort and seek a diplomatic solution.
Egypt represents perhaps the most dramatic reversal.
In July, Paul was resoundingly defeated by an 86-13 vote when he proposed stripping the Egyptian military of the annual U.S. aid package it has enjoyed since the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, and redirecting the money into bridge-building projects in the United States. An impressive alliance of GOP and Democratic elder statesmen opposed him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham said adopting Paul’s amendment would be a “huge mistake”; Sen. John McCain called it a “terrific mistake.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the party’s leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it “terrible public policy.” The committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said Paul’s proposal “may be good politics but it is bad policy.”
As Egypt’s military crackdown continued, the debate quickly shifted, culminating in the State Department’s announcement earlier this month of a dramatic scale-back of U.S. support for the Arab world’s biggest country.
Although it fell short of Paul’s call for a complete suspension, the withheld aid includes $260 million in cash assistance to the government as well as 10 Apache helicopters, at a cost of more than $500 million, M1A1 tank kits and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The U.S. had already suspended the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets and canceled biennial U.S.-Egyptian military exercises.
“There are a lot of established interests that have opposed me on every one of these foreign aid votes,” Paul said. “My own party, the other party — not one Democrat voted for any of these things, although they’re down there changing their minds on some of them.”
Paul’s objection toward much of what represents consensus U.S. foreign policy thinking is philosophical. A Tea Party favorite who has taken sometimes radical positions on spending and the role of government, he has gone so far as to suggest cutting foreign aid in half and completely excluding countries, primarily in the Muslim world, that don’t share American values. He has won little support beyond hardcore isolationists and fiscal conservatives who place blame for America’s economic woes on foreign aid, even if it only accounts for 1 percent of the federal budget.
Yet for a legislator who may be planning a White House bid, Paul is clearly making his mark. U.S. drone strikes continue to be a significant focus of congressional examination in large part because of Paul’s gadfly questions, such as whether any Americans might be targeted by the unmanned aerial aircraft as part of domestic law enforcement efforts. The administration ruled out such strikes inside the U.S. after Paul’s questioning.
Paul’s willingness to take risks sets him apart from another freshman Republican readying a potential presidential campaign: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a fellow foreign relations committee member.
Membership on the committee is no surefire way to the presidency. Obama was on the committee during his Senate tenure but stirred little controversy. He didn’t emerge as an influential or defining voice on foreign policy such as Clay, who helped drive the nation into the War of 1812 against Britain, or 20th century luminaries like the imperialist Lodge, non-interventionist Taft, multilateralist Fulbright and anti-communist Helms.
Paul may be emerging as that type of defining figure, frequently serving as the foil to hawks in his own party such as McCain and Graham. Beyond Syria, he has opposed talk of military action against Iran.
With the economy far outweighing foreign affairs as the top issue for voters, it’s unclear if Paul’s more iconoclastic positions will help or hurt him if he runs for president.
He has tried to present himself as pro-Israel even after talking about ending “welfare” to the Jewish state. He has propagated a theory about last year’s deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic installation in Libya, linking it to a purported CIA gun-running scheme for Syrian rebels. He has accused Obama of plotting with “anti-American globalists” to undermine the Constitution. Two weeks ago, told a conservative gathering that the administration was aiding a global “war on Christianity.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another Republican weighing a presidential bid, calls Paul’s brand of libertarianism “dangerous.” McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008, has branded Paul a “wacko bird.”
The 50-year-old ophthalmologist says he simply argues and votes for what he believes in.
“I had a good job before I came here and I’m willing to go back anytime,” Paul said.
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