What Rand Paul Thinks About Defense Spending

Rand Paul
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (C) is flanked by reporters as he arrives for a Republican Senate caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, October 16, 2013. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

There's no question that Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is one of the few bright spots in American politics, bringing a libertarianish policy orientation to questions about the size, scope and spending of the federal government. That's one of the reasons he's been widely hailed as "the most interesting man in..." the Senate, politics, the country, you name it, by a wide host of folks (including Reason).

Alone among leading GOP candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination, Paul has criticized the wild defense spending and demonstrably failed foreign policy initiatives of interventionists in both parties. That's earned him the ire of characters at the war-drum-beaters at places such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and from many of his fellow Republicans.

To Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who never met a country he didn't want to arm, bomb or protect with U.S. troops (depending on his blood sugar levels, it could be the same country in any given month), Paul was one of those "wacko birds," folks who questioned the military-surveillance-industrial complex.

Not only did Paul want to cut defense spending, he wanted Congress to declare war when we, you know, went to war! What a kook!

Back in 2011, Paul introduced a budget plan that would have reduced military spending and troop size, eliminated many overseas bases and, most importantly, started a long-overdue conversation about what the U.S. military should look like and act like in a post-Cold War world where the major dangers to U.S. security came less from state actors and more from non-state provocateurs and terrorists.

Among his recommendations in that budget:

Office of Rand Paulcredit: Office of Rand Paul

In a country still on a mad spending spree and one in which both Democrats and Republicans considered the Pentagon budget as untouchable—despite massive, across-the-board increases and two major failed wars—Paul presented a bracing alternative to a status quo that had led to thousands of American deaths, ruinous heaps of debt and a diminished U.S. reputation around the globe.

Well, that was then. As Time reports, the Kentucky senator:

introduced a budget amendment [on March 25 2015] calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years—a roughly 16 percent increase.

Paul’s amendment brings him in line with his likely presidential primary rivals, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who introduced a measure calling for nearly the same level of increases.

Other declared and potential candidates such as Rubio, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham have never pretended that they want to curb Pentagon spending or, for that matter, spending that in any way might discomfit their favored constituencies.

Paul was distinct from such churlishness and it's precisely his principled commitment to reducing the size, scope and spending of government that made him stand out.

Time again:

Under Paul’s original [2012 budget] proposal, defense spending would have dropped from $553 billion in the 2011 fiscal year to $542 billion in 2016. War funding would have plummeted from $159 billion to zero. He called it the “draw-down and restructuring of the Department of Defense.”

But under Paul’s new plan, the Pentagon will see its budget authority swell by $76.5 billion to $696,776,000,000 in fiscal year 2016.

The boost would be offset by a two-year combined $212 billion cut to funding for aid to foreign governments, climate change research and crippling reductions in to the budgets of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Commerce and Education.

(Read the Full Time article here.)

Given Paul's stances on other issues such as the drug war and sentencing reform and his clearly heart-felt calls for the GOP to become a "live and let live" party, this conversion to big spending on the Pentagon probably won't assuage conservatives who say "Any Republicans who vote against higher defense spending should be fired."

But it will certainly temper the enthusiasm of younger voters who #StandWithRand and moderates who are desperate for fresh blood and ideas that are different not just from the failed policies of Bush conservatism but also of Obama liberals and Democrats.

And let's be clear: It ain't gonna help at all with libertarians who see in Paul their best hope for a major party politician whom they would vote for in a presidential race. Paul toys with lower-case libertarians at his own peril, as it's this group that could well provide the difference not just in Republican primaries but a general election.

If he can energize libertarian-leaning Republicans and younger voters who otherwise would never think twice about the GOP, he could definitely blow past the genuinely uninspiring lot of Central Casting governors and senators who likely even have trouble rousing their paid employees to show up to work each Monday.

Last fall, Matt Welch posted exchanges between him and Paul on the subject of defense spending and foreign policy. The term Welch used to define the senator on this score was strategic slipperiness and it's an apt description. With that in mind, consider what Paul told Welch:

Q: What's your ideal military budget?

A: Yeah, I think that it’s a mistake [to say], “Oh it should be X percentage of GDP,” or “It should be X dollars.” I don’t know what it should be. I do know that we should have the strongest defense possible, that we should be able to deter attacks, we should have the most advanced weaponry and that we shouldn’t have weapons based on jobs programs. We shouldn’t build a weapon just because it’s built in one particular state or another. And so I think that it’s unknown what it should be....

It’s also a disagreement that I’ve had with some other Republicans, is that they think sort of constitutional conservatives or libertarian Republicans are a danger to national defense. And I think it’s the opposite. I think big-government Republicans are a danger to national defense, because they want to spend money on everything and defense. But you can’t have enough money to defend the country if you spend it on everything else.

If you’re part of this gimme gimme culture, that you want to just, “Here, give me the federal money, I want it all now, I don’t want any strings attached, I don’t want any limits, gimme my money”—if you’re part of that group of Republicans then there won’t be enough left for national defense, and that’s what will bankrupt us. And I do agree with Admiral Mullen and others who’ve said, our biggest threat to our national security now is our debt.”

If his March 25 amendment is any indication of what Candidate Paul is going for, expect to hear less and less about the need to fundamentally rethink America's armed forces and our approach to foreign policy and engagement through trade and cultural exchange (what a great speech Paul gave on"Islam and Containment" back in 2013).

To the extent that Paul starts talking like, say, Marco Rubio, he will become far less interesting as a candidate and far less influential as a much-needed counterweight to a resurgent neo-con mentality that has a hold on not just most of the Republican Party but Hillary Clinton as well. This sort of evolution comes even as diehard conservatives are finally calling bullshit on automatic approval of unnecessary Pentagon requests for more and more money.

As a country, we've needed a strong, principled critique of the warfare state for a very long time. The military-industrial-surveillance complex isn't just a waste of money, it's a direct affront to moral principles upon which this country is built. It's a rejection of limited government and respect for the dignity of the individual, both here and abroad.

Ironically, given the manifest failure of the past 15 years of foreign policy, the nation's horrible finances and the pressing need to restrain both spending and spastic interventions all over the world, Paul's thoughtful non-interventionist stance has never been more relevant and attractive among a wide swath of the electorate, especially among the millennials who will soon control much of American life.

Postcript: In response to this article, Doug Stafford, senior adviser to Rand Paul, emailed:

[Paul’s March 25 amendment] is done in response to others in both chambers who are attempting to add to defense spending—some way more than Senator Paul's amendment—without paying for it. Senator Paul believes national defense should be our priority. He also believes our debt is out of control.  

This amendment is to lay down a marker that if you believe we need more funding for national defense, you should show how you would pay for it. We can't just keep borrowing more money from China to send to Pakistan.  And we can't keep paying for even vital things like national defense on a credit card.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV and the co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. This article first appeared on Reason.com. Watch Nick Gillespie interview Rand Paul.