Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks with David Axelrod during an event at the University of Chicago, on April 22, 2014.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks with David Axelrod during an event at the University of Chicago, on April 22, 2014. // Andrew A. Nelles/AP

Rand Paul’s Iraq Plan: More Obama, Less Cheney

As Iraq’s security has crumbled, the Republican chorus of criticism for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been largely unified, and predictable — save for one unlikely defender: Rand Paul. The senator from Kentucky and likely candidate for his party’s nomination in 2016 has emerged from the rubble of Iraq’s security situation as one of the lone Republican voices echoing the administration’s calculated caution toward the crisis.

“Were they right in their predictions? Were there weapons of mass destruction there?” Paul said Sunday of Bush administration leaders who sold the Iraq War, deeming them responsible for the current chaos in Iraq. “They didn’t really, I think, understand the civil war that would break out. And what’s going on now I don’t blame on President Obama.” 

GOP hawks have continued calls for immediate military action, placing blame on the White House for its eagerness to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, while keeping a duplicitous distance from the Republican administration that invaded in 2003. Other possible contenders for the 2016 GOP nomination have toed the party line.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has called for air strikes, told CBS’s Norah O’Donnell on Sunday that he disagreed with Paul’s assertion that air strikes in Iraq would essentially operate as air force for Iran by effectively supporting the Shiite government’s suppression of Iraq’s Sunni minority, calling it “an exaggeration.”

“To do nothing and allow [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] to establish a base of operation like what al-Qaeda had before Afghanistan, places us in a very dangerous position from a counterterrorism point of view and puts Americans’ lives on the line down the road,” said Rubio, who has attempted this year to strengthen his national security credentials, eying the GOP nomination in 2016.

So far, much of the Republican response to Iraq’s security crisis has been represented by the same neocons who started the war, with former-Bush administration pundits dominating the news shows and former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, Liz Cheney, writing in the Wall Street Journal last week: “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

The current crisis in Iraq also is creating strange bedfellows of some Democrats and conservatives, who traditionally take a hands-off approach to foreign policy, akin to the  “we can’t do it for you” stance Obama has staked out in recent days.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., one of 23 senators who voted against the Iraq War, called the Cheneys’ criticism of Obama’s approach “sick.”

“When you really look back at the record, it was Vice President Cheney and Condi Rice, working for George W. Bush and Rumsfeld and all those folks — it’s just like, you know, a nightmare come back to haunt me, just frankly — who were basically telling us, get right back in there again,” Boxer said on CBS’s “Face The Nation” Sunday. “The American people don’t want it. The president doesn’t want us in. The saner voices in the Senate and House don’t want it.”

While Republicans may be hesitant to be seen as siding with the Democrats on Iraq, Paul has argued that the roots of noninterventionism tie back to the GOP. And the Tea Party’s recent electoral coup indicates it’s not dead yet. Relying on the same national security policy that lost the White House in 2008 is hardly a strategy for 2016, and Republicans looking for electoral opportunities in Iraq’s troubles — as both parties inevitably are – may need to align themselves behind Paul’s libertarian national security strategy, rather than the embattled neo-conservatism of the Cheneys.

“Here’s my point, is that, can one generation bind another generation? Can the people you elected in 2002, who voted to go to war in 2002, does that bind us forever?” Paul asked Sunday, continuing, “If we’re going to go to war … We need to have a consensus that, yes, it is worth dying to regain Mosul even though the Shiites and the people who live there are not willing to fight for it.”