Rand Paul’s ‘Conservative Realism’ Is Encouraging, But It Lacks A Diplomatic Vision

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Last night, Senator Rand Paul laid out some more details of his “conservative realist” foreign policy vision at the annual dinner of the Center for the National Interest in New York City.

The speech was a modest warm-up to what will almost certainly be a series of foreign policy speeches in the coming months on the campaign trail. Earlier yesterday the Senator gave a short interview with Buzzfeed regarding when he plans to make the announcement of his intent to run for president. While there is no set date yet for such an announcement, Rand is an obvious GOP favorite: at CPAC this past spring, he won the straw poll with 31 percent of the vote and has largely avoided any major public gaffes since.

Last night’s event was a pre-endorsement of sorts, a sign that the productive conversation between Rand Paul and the realist wing of the GOP national security wing, has begun to bear fruit. The distinguished service award he received is in some sense acknowledgment that Paul is best positioned to restore the foreign policy of Nixon and Reagan, which has played second fiddle to the armed Wilsonianism of the neoconservatives during the Bush years.

The Senator’s remarks, while not exactly new in terms of content (they’re somewhat similar to a speech he gave at the Heritage Foundation last year), they are an effort to break from the Bush doctrine that has drawn vigorous condemnation from both sides of the aisle. Paul’s talking points included reluctance for unnecessary conflict, but he emphasized the need to continue to fight for our values in spite of intense hatred for American ideals like freedom and democracy.

“The world does not have an Islam problem; the world has a dignity problem,” the senator said in reference to the uptick of jihadist terrorism that is rapidly destabilizing the Middle East. He suggested that drones in the region could create future jihadists, but argued the fundamental problem was a misinterpretation of religion and misdirected anger at the United States for supporting leaders like Mubarak.

“Some anger is blowback [against us], but some anger originates in an aberrant and an intolerant distortion of religion,” said Senator Paul. “You can’t solve a dignity problem with military force,” Rand said, quoting Secretary Gates’ warning about the hyper-militarized components of foreign policy.

For an example, he cited the current chaos in Libya as a clear testament to Obama’s failure to seek congressional support for a military operation that has turned the country into a haven of subversive activity. To counteract this Paul made a vague call for “leadership” –presumably another swipe at Obama — to resolve the long-term problems of ISIS, relations with Iran, and the precarious situation in Ukraine.

Senator Paul closed his remarks with the grim statement that America’s waning economic strength undermines our reputation as a global example of capitalism and democracy, and argued the United States should take more steps to promote free-trade agreements and reinforce our existing trade relationships.

While Senator Paul, like most would-be candidates, is doing his best to distinguish himself from the Washington consensus, it’s not enough to merely state that perpetual war is not answer. Senator Paul compared war to a hammer while only some civil wars are nails, but the concept of war as a tool is troubling. What distinguished the foreign policy under Nixon was Kissenger’s staunch commitment to skilled diplomacy, and such commitment and skill are long overdue to make a comeback. Military force was always the last resort to defend vital national security interests, not as a preliminary tool in a permanent peace-building strategy.

It goes without saying that terrorism complicates the role of war in the 21st Century, but that does not mean that diplomacy has no place in the new age of conflict; on the contrary, fourth-generation warfare requires the unique combination of military might and political savvy to simultaneously neutralize threats and promote peace.

The current status quo is military occupation by default, to the point where the American public, exhausted by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has become indifferent to it. It’s going to take more than criticizing our past mistakes and making tentative plans for the future to build a new, more modest foreign policy. Hopefully Senator Rand will begin to build this more comprehensive plan that clearly indicates where he would like to guide the American people should he take office in 2016.