Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to a group of high schoolers at the Josephinum Academy in Chicago, on April 22, 2014.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks to a group of high schoolers at the Josephinum Academy in Chicago, on April 22, 2014. Andrew A. Nelles/AP

Why Rand Paul Loves to Fight Over Foreign Policy

Arguing over military intervention with the GOP is an ideal platform for the libertarian senator's most popular, and disruptive, ideas. By Molly Ball

Rand Paul sure seems to enjoy getting into it with his fellow Republicans. This week, the Kentucky senator has been feuding with Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who decried Paul’s “isolationism” in a weekend op-ed. Paul promptly and tartly fired back, saying of Perry, “Apparently his new glasses haven’t altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly.” (Perry has been wearing the bold, hipsterish frames for about a year now. How rude of Paul not to have noticed.)

A similar dispute unfolded a few months ago, when Texas Senator Ted Cruz depicted his foreign-policy vision as a Reaganesque happy medium between the extremes of Senator John McCain, on one pole, and Paul on the other. Not pleased to be used as a foil, Paul fired back with another op-ed in which he claimed Reagan’s legacy for his own and condemned “politicians who have never seen war talking tough for the sake of their political careers.”

Why is Paul so eager to have these fights? Sure, the others took their shots first, and Paul is only responding. But he’s also clearly seeking to elevate and call attention to his disputes with others in his party. The reason for that is also somewhat obvious: Paul is running for president—and he thinks he’s winning on this issue. 

The Republican Party remains deeply divided over foreign policy. During the George W. Bush administration, the many Americans who turned against the Iraq war included a lot of Republicans. Today, 63 percent of Republicans believe the Iraq war wasn’t worth it, according to a recent poll. But of course, there's still a vocal contingent of hawkish Republicans who strongly disagree. Just as Cruz described it, the party is torn between the McCain wing that wants to see a more muscular posture for America abroad, even if it costs taxpayers money, and the Paul wing that wants to cut back on defense spending and foreign entanglements. 

There has been no reckoning post-Bush between the two sides of this intraparty argument, as Chris Cillizza smartly notes. The party’s presidential nominees since Bush—McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—were both on the McCain end of the spectrum; big donors like Sheldon Adelson and party elites, many of whom are Bush administration veterans, are largely in the hawks’ camp as well. But Paul believes that the base of the party—as the poll on Iraq and others suggest—is increasingly on his side. Perry may be trying to cozy up to the establishment by taking on Paul, aligning himself with those who see themselves as the party’s grown-up wing. But Paul believes he wins with the public, and with Republican primary voters, by articulating his noninterventionist views. 

Paul is not, however, running a purely anti-establishment presidential campaign. Quite the contrary, he’s assiduously courted major donors and party insiders, seeking to reassure them that he’s more grounded than his father, former member of Congress and three-time presidential candidate Ron Paul. That’s why both his Perry and Cruz op-eds have, once you get past the name-calling, sought to emphasize common ground and rebut the "isolationist" charge. “Regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ... there is little difference among most Republicans on what to do,” he wrote in response to Cruz in March. “All of us believe we should stand up to Putin's aggression. Virtually no one believes we should intervene militarily.” Responding to Perry this week, Paul wrote, “Some of Perry’s solutions for the current chaos in Iraq aren’t much different from what I’ve proposed .... Because interestingly enough, there aren’t that many good choices right now in dealing with this situation in Iraq.”

Despite the high-profile spats with fellow Republicans, Paul would surely argue he's trying not to deepen the party's divisions but to unite the GOP around common goals. In both pieces, Paul repeatedly invokes Reagan’s doctrine of “peace through strength” and makes the case that Reagan was less interventionist than many who invoke his name today. (As Peter Beinart notes in this trenchant analysis, Paul is both right and wrong about Reagan, whose foreign policy was quite aggressive even if it didn’t often involve boots on the ground.) He is seizing on every opportunity to clarify and explain a set of views that he sees as nuanced and commonsensical, and to defend them against the critique that they amount to mere withdrawal from the world. 

Perhaps more interesting than this hawks-versus-libertarians dispute, which is an old argument, is who Paul’s antagonists have been. Both Perry and Cruz are politicians who’ve long been associated with the Tea Party, as Paul has. Perry, in his ill-fated 2012 campaign, warned of “military adventurism,” called for withdrawal from Afghanistan, and advocated cutting off aid to Pakistan. Cruz was lumped in with Paul in the category McCain derided as “wacko birds” after Paul’s 2013 drone filibuster. Yet both Perry and Cruz are anxious to differentiate themselves from Paul by turning him into a peacenik caricature. (As Dave Weigel points out, there is personal animosity behind the Perry-Paul spat.) Paul and his allies, for their part, tend to see a neoconservative conspiracy in the way he’s so often used as a punching bag. In an interview last year, Paul described his antagonists to me as “the perpetual war caucus,” and added, “I think much of their chagrin is they see that we’re winning. They’re on the losing side of history.”

Rand Paul is performing an admirable service for the Republican Party: forcing it to have an uncomfortable family conversation—airing an internal dispute that otherwise might get papered over. A confident and opportunistic politician, Paul is eager to take on his critics; by doing so, he believes he can rid the GOP of the stain of Bush’s policies and expand its appeal among voters alienated by Iraq.

On Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney unsurprisingly said he disagreed: “Rand Paul ... is basically an isolationist,” the former vice president said on ABC's "This Week." “That didn't work in the 1930s; it sure as heck won't work in the aftermath of 9/11.” Paul didn’t have to respond to this attack with yet another op-ed, because he already wrote it, a month ago. “Many of those clamoring for military action now are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge and purpose of the Iraq war,” Paul wrote. “They have been so wrong for so long. Why should we listen to them again?” A foreign-policy argument with the likes of Dick Cheney: You can be sure there’s no fight Paul would rather have.