Rand Paul wants you to know he’s pro-Israel.
“I want people to understand is that in some ways I’m more pro-Israel than any of them are in the sense that I’m for an independent, strong Israel that is not a client state and not a reliant state, a state that is able to defend itself and has a strong defense industry,” the Kentucky Republican said during a conference call Wednesday with reporters after he returned from a weeklong trip to Israel and Jordan.
Paul, who recently joined the Senate foreign relations committee and has openly stated he is considering a presidential run in 2016, has every reason to want to demonstrate his pro-Israel bona fides. Americans like Israel and Republicans love Israel.
But on the issue of Israel, Paul knows he has some hurdles to overcome. For starters, he opposes aid to every foreign country, including Israel, when one of the most central policy goals of the American pro-Israel community is maintaining aid to Israel. Two, he is the son of former congressman and presidential contender Ron Paul — the same Ron Paul whose eponymous newsletter once suggested Israel’s Mossad might have been responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and who once went on Iranian state television and suggested Gaza was a concentration camp.
While the younger Paul shouldn’t be judged for the “sins” of his father, he shares much of the same ideology of Papa Paul, and therefore it is only natural that questions arise over where he stands on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Hence, the trip to the Holy Land.
“I went there for two main reasons,” Paul said.
“One, to learn more about the problems in the Middle East, to meet the actors and leaders that are involved with these problems, and hopefully learn more about what it would take to help to solve these problems.”
“I also went there,” he continued, “with the intention of letting people know that I am very conscious and appreciative of the long time alliance and friendship that we’ve had with Israel and to make sure people knew that I was appreciative of that and that in any debate or discussions going forward that that appreciation for our alliance will be noted.”
But given his libertarian tendencies, Paul’s pro-Israel sentiments manifest themselves differently than many in Congress. In many ways he takes the same positions his father had on Israel and the Israeli-Arab conflict, and just frames them differently. Actually, sometimes the framing and the rhetoric are the same, but it doesn’t come with the detectible hostility.
So, for example, while Rand Paul opposes aid to Israel, he says he believes it should only be cut off gradually, and not before aid is cut off to countries whose populations are virulently anti-American. What’s more, he argues that American aid to Israel is actually detrimental to the Jewish state.
He said, for instance, that he told Israeli leaders that it’s not the United States’ business where the Israeli government decides to build roads and houses in Jerusalem — referring to the most recent controversy over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank — but that if U.S. aid to Israel were discontinued, American interference would be less troublesome for Israel.
“I think that’s also — if you’re in Israel — a reason why you should want to become more and more independent and not dependent on aid from the United States,” he said.
But if Paul went over to Israel “to learn more about what it would take to help to solve” the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, yet doesn’t think American pols should be commenting on the sovereign decisions of Israelis, what exactly does he believe America’s role should be in the conflict?
“While I don’t think we should dictate the terms of peace, America is a major player on the world stage and a major world power,” he said.
“So, if for example, both parties say they would like the U.S. to be involved in mediation and part of peace talks, then I think it’s reasonable. So I’m not against U.S. participation. But what I am against is, I guess sort of this flippant arrogance where U.S. politicians stroll through Jerusalem and in an off hand way tell them what to do with their own local government and I think that’s a mistake.”
At the very least, Paul is signaling that he wants to take Israel off the able as an issue of concern for his potential presidential candidacy; that he has no desire to alter the strong U.S.-Israel relationship during his time in the Senate or, should he run and be elected, the White House.
This is good. But conservatives need to know what his views are more broadly on America’s role in the world.
One of the reasons Paul says he opposes foreign aid is because we are going broke. He has said he favors cutting the defense budget for the same reason.
“Adm. Michael Mullen stated earlier this year that the biggest threat to our national security is our debt,” Paul wrote in a column on CNN last year.
“If debt is our gravest threat, adding to the debt by expanding military spending further threatens our national security.”
But as Paul surely knows, it is entitlement spending that is the main threat to our long-term fiscal health. Defense spending and especially foreign aid are far less significant by comparison. And besides, is he really saying that if we were in better financial shape he would support foreign aid and increased defense spending? I don’t think so.
So I am less concerned about Paul’s position on Israel than I am with what he believes America’s role in the world should be. Wanting to significantly cut defense and eliminate foreign aid are legitimate positions — but only if you explain how you would scale back America’s international position. His father wanted to dismantle many of America’s military bases around the world. Does Paul the Younger share his father’s “come home America” foreign policy? Or is his vision of America in the world less radical?
My suggestion for Rand Paul is to give a major foreign policy address — like Marco Rubio has done — laying out his vision for America’s role in the world. Paul is smart and a good debater. He should be both specific and comprehensive, and forcefully make his case.
And if he decides to run in 2016, Republicans can decide for themselves if his vision for America in the world is something they can get behind.