Senator and Republican presidential prospect Rand Paul gave a highly anticipated speech today at the Heritage Foundation, asking his fellow Republicans and citizens to fundamentally rethink American foreign policy. Appealing to the theory of George Kennan and the practice of Ronald Reagan, the junior senator from Kentucky advocated a thoughtful but firm policy of containment to balance legitimate concerns about foreign threats posed by radical jihad in particular with conservative ideas. In his words, "I'd argue that a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy, as it includes two basic tenets of true conservatism: respect for the Constitution and fiscal discipline."
Politically, this stance could be interpreted as part of Paul’s larger project to simultaneously win over ideological conservatives, who feel they lack a voice in Republican leadership, and woo younger and independent voters, who do not see a place for themselves under the GOP tent.
Senator Paul’s remarks began with a specific focus on the threat of radical Islam, but gradually expanded to a discussion of containment policy, famously outlined in Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow, which Paul proffered as the foundation for a new American foreign policy. The invocation of Reagan, made on his 102nd birthday, was thoughtful in tone but tactically aggressive, a challenge to the neo-conservative claim on his legacy:
Jack Matlock, one of Reagan's national security advisors, wrote, "Reagan's Soviet policy had more in common with Kennan’s thinking than the policy of any of Reagan's predecessors." … Reagan's foreign policy was much closer to what I am advocating than what we have today. The former chairman of the American Conservative Union [and current President of the National Rifle Association*] David Keene noted that Reagan's policy was much less interventionist than the presidents of both parties who came right before him and after him.
The rub of Senator Paul’s speech, however, was an outline of concrete, albeit broad, policy changes he would make to move America toward prudent containment grounded in conservative principle:
Since the Korean War, Congress has ignored its responsibility to restrain the president. Congress has abdicated its role in declaring war.
What would a foreign policy look like that tried to strike a balance? First, it would have less soldiers stationed overseas and less bases. Instead of large, limitless land wars in multiple theaters, we would target our enemy and strike with lethal force.
We would not presume that we build nations nor would we presume that we have the resources to build nations. Many of the countries formed after WWI are collections of tribal regions that have never been governed by a central government and may, in fact, be ungovernable.
When we must intervene with force, we should attempt to intervene in cooperation with the host government.
Intervention against the will of another nation such as Afghanistan or Libya would require a declaration of war by Congress. Such constitutional obstacles purposefully make it more difficult to go to war. That was the Founders’ intention: To make war less likely.
We did not declare war or authorize force to begin war with Libya. This is a dangerous precedent. In our foreign policy, Congress has become not even a rubber stamp but an irrelevancy. With Libya, the president sought permission from the UN… from NATO… from the Arab League - everyone but the U.S. Congress! And how did Congress react? Congress let him get away with it.
The looming debt crisis will force us to reassess our role in the world.
Although the political ramifications of this daunting philosophical discussion are easy to take for granted – for everything in Washington is political – the ultimate success or failure of Senator Paul's new vision hinges on its reception by Americans of all stations, from the small business around the corner to the marble halls of power.
*Transcript updated to reflect remarks as delivered.