Has Rand Paul changed his position on Islamic terror?

Over the weekend, Rand Paul said something entirely out of character for him, and as Aaron Blake of the Washington Post commented, “almost nobody noticed.”

A funny thing happened over the weekend: While President Obama took heat for saying he didn't have a strategy to deal with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS and isil) in Syria, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a pretty remarkable statement.

"If I were president, I would call a joint session of Congress," Paul told the AP. "I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."

The quote didn't really make the rounds and was buried deep in the AP story, but it's a pretty telling little nugget.

Why? Because, to date, it's one of the most hawkish things that any potential 2016 presidential contender has said about the Islamic State. And Paul is supposed to be the non-interventionist in the bunch.

Some who did notice were Kemberlee Kaye of Legal Insurrection and Eliana Johnson of NRO. The latter spoke to Paul foreign affairs advisor Richard Burt, who positioned the Senator’s sudden about-face (“Just days earlier, Paul attacked former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as a ‘war hawk.’”) as a pragmatic response to new information:

Paul, Burt says, “understands that the United States is a global power and that there are occasions where the United States has to use military force.”

“I think this is all based on an approach to foreign policy that thinks in terms of American interests,” he says. “The thing that makes ISIS a particularly serious challenge is that we do have interests” in the Middle East, Burt says — in a thriving Kurdish minority and a stable, successful Iraqi government that integrates the country’s Sunni minority.

Burt tacitly suggests that what differentiates Paul from the neoconservatives who shaped policy at the top echelons of the Bush is his belief that the use of force should be “selective” and that leaders should think through the consequences of using force and have a strategy for bringing it to an end.

This is not a very satisfying explanation for a dramatic and abrupt change in position. Richard Epsetin of the Hoover Institution, himself a libertarian-leaning scholar, has laid out a very thoughtful critique of the underlying premises of what he terms Rand Paul’s “fatal pacifism.”

Senator Paul has been against the use of military force for a long time. Over the summer, he wrote an article entitled “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War,” for the pages of the Wall Street Journal arguing that ISIS did not threaten vital American interests. Just this past week, he doubled down on this position, again in the Journal, arguing that the past interventions of the United States in the Middle East have abetted the rise of ISIS. (snip)

It is instructive to ask why it is that committed libertarians like Paul make such disastrous judgments on these life and death issues. In part it is because libertarians often have the illusion of certainty in political affairs that is congenial to the logical libertarian mind. This mindset has led to their fundamental misapprehension of the justified use of force in international affairs. The applicable principles did not evolve in a vacuum, but are derived from parallel rules surrounding self-defense for ordinary people living in a state of nature. Libertarian theory has always permitted the use and threat of force, including deadly force if need be, to defend one’s self, one’s property, and one’s friends. To be sure, no one is obligated to engage in humanitarian rescue of third persons, so that the decision to intervene is one that is necessarily governed by a mixture of moral and prudential principles. In addition, the justified use of force also raises hard questions of timing. In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal. In all cases, it is necessary to balance the risks of moving too early or too late.

These insights help shape the serious libertarian debates over the use of force. Correctly stated, a theory of limited government means only that state power should be directed exclusively to a few legitimate ends. The wise state husbands its resources to guard against aggression, not to divert its energies by imposing minimum wage laws or agricultural price supports on productive market activities. Quite simply, there are no proper means to pursue these illegitimate ends. (snip)

Senator Paul errs too much on the side of caution. He would clamp down, for example, on the data collection activities of the National Security Agency, which allow for the better deployment of scarce American military resources, even though NSA protocols tightly restrict the use of the collected information. It is wrong to either shut down or sharply restrict an intelligence service that has proved largely free of systematic abuse. The breakdown of world order makes it imperative to deploy our technological advantages to the full. Sensible oversight offers a far better solution.

The same is true in spades about the use of force in Iraq and Syria, where matters have deteriorated sharply since Paul’s misguided plea for non-intervention in June. It was foolish for him to insist (and for President Obama to agree) that the United States should not intervene to help Iraqis because the Iraqis have proved dangerously ill-equipped to help themselves. Lame excuses don’t wash in the face of the heinous aggression that the Islamic State has committed against the Yazidis and everyone else in its path.

Professor Epstein’s analysis does demonstrate there is room for Sen. Paul to justify his change and still be true to Libertarian principles, and be guilty of, at most, bad timing.

I confess to being agnostic, at the moment, on Rand Paul. While I am leaning increasingly in libertarian direction myself, I am worried by what appears to me to be an underweighting of nature of the security threats we face, even as I, too, chafe at the surveillance state that has been created as a supposed remedy to the terror threat (as compared to, say, identifying without apology the nature of the Islamic threat we face and a focus on Islam as a risk factor in assessing security concerns. Calling violent jihad a “perversion of a Great Religion” ignores a lot of history of Islamic conquest and amounts to wishful thinking).

Senator Paul has a way to go before he convinces me he has awoken to the severe security threats we face from Islam, and from other aggressive powers, such as Russia and China, for that matter. But I cannot write him off completely, if only because he has demonstrated an appeal to nontraditional GOP voters, such as students at UC Berkeley. The GOP absolutely has to have a champion who can enlarge the tent, if only because the electorate has been (and continues to be) deliberately engineered in the direction of people dependent on government checks and therefore willing voters for high taxes that they don’t pay in order to fund their receipt of money earned by other people. We have perhaps one or two more presidential election cycles and naturalization ceremonies before we have a permanent majority of dependents, and we need to win over the younger generation who have been so badly betrayed by the president they overwhelmingly voted for.

The ball in now in Rand Paul’s court. I hope he will expand on his views of national security.

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