As potential presidential candidates begin to stake out their positions ahead of the 2016 election, Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, is taking a page out of Obama’s playbook.
In the Democratic primaries ahead of the 2008 presidential election, then-Senator Barack Obama took the Democratic presidential nomination from the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, largely due to his opposition to the Iraq War in 2002. The war was unpopular among Democrats, and Obama boasted he knew it was a bad idea all along.
Now Paul is trying the same tactic. As the Al-Qaeda offshoot known as the Islamic State (the group better known as ISIS) wreaks havoc on Iraq, many in both parties believe the moment calls for a more interventionist approach. But Paul is using the current crisis in the Middle East to tell a cautionary tale about how United States interventions in the past are coming back to haunt us—the same “I told you so” narrative that landed Obama the Democratic nomination.
“Any actions we take today must be informed by what we've already done in the past, and how effective our actions have been,” Paul wrote Thursday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
Citing the American response to the civil war in Syria as an example, Paul takes on both the president’s foreign policy and the hawks in his own party. His argument is that the Obama administration’s attempt to counter Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical warfare against his own people, has added to the insecurity of the Middle East and allowed the ISIS terrorists to expand their territory, while the urgings of some in his own party—such as senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona—to become even more involved in the rebels’ anti-Assad campaign would have made the situation even worse.
“A reasonable degree of foresight should be a prerequisite for holding high office. So should basic hindsight. This administration has neither,” Paul wrote.
“But the same is true of hawkish members of my own party. Some said it would be ‘catastrophic’ if we failed to strike Syria. What they were advocating for then—striking down Assad's regime—would have made our current situation even worse, as it would have eliminated the only regional counterweight to the ISIS threat.”
Paul is not only staking out a more isolationist view than other Republicans jockeying for the Republican nomination—senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas have both taken more interventionist positions—but he is also contrasting himself against the Democrats’ likely choice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while exploiting a potential weakness she has with the anti-war base of the Democratic Party.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats will embrace Clinton’s more interventionist stance—which she recently aired when she told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that she had argued for more intervention in Syria as secretary of state—or whether they will reject it—and her—as they did in 2008.
“To interventionists like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we would caution that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria created a haven for [ISIS],” Paul wrote in his op-ed. “We are lucky Mrs. Clinton didn't get her way and the Obama administration did not bring about regime change in Syria.”
Paul is careful not to characterize his own positions as an ideological devotion to isolationism, but rather as a thoughtful, pragmatic alternative to what he described as “shooting first and asking questions later.”
“A more realistic foreign policy would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe. Only after recognizing the practical limits of our foreign policy can we pursue policies that are in the best interest of the U.S.,” he wrote. “[ISIS] represents a threat that should be taken seriously. But we should also recall how recent foreign-policy decisions have helped these extremists so that we don't make the same mistake of potentially aiding our enemies again.”
Many read the wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine as a reason to become more involved in the world’s affairs, not back off. It’s unclear whether Republicans in 2016, like Democrats in 2008, are looking for an alternative to George W. Bush’s interventionist approach. Paul, it seems, is determined to find out.
Correction: An earlier headline on this story stated that Rand Paul opposes U.S. airstrikes against ISIS. He is open to them.