Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the Americans for Prosperity gathering on Aug. 29, 2014, in Dallas.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speaks at the Americans for Prosperity gathering on Aug. 29, 2014, in Dallas. LM Otero/AP

Rand Paul Says War Should Be a ‘Last Resort’

The Republican senator and possible 2016 contender warns that ‘intervention has unintended consequences.’ By Shane Goldmacher

Sen. Rand Paul defended his desire to keep America disentangled from international conflagrations Tuesday, casting himself as a reluctant warrior who—as a likely candidate for president in 2016—could tap into a war-weary electorate.

"If I'm ever commander in chief, I will not want to take the country to war," Paul said Tuesday during an appearance at The Wall Street Journal's CEO Council. "It will be a last resort and only when the country says we are united, and we must fight, and we will fight. But it won't be an eagerness on my part."

Paul said intervening, particularly in the volatile Middle East ("It's a mess there," he said) is a risky proposition that he would seek to avoid. "Intervention has unintended consequences," he explained. As an example, he said, "Iraq's worse off now," citing lost stability brought under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

In a suit, white shirt, and a red tie, Paul swiveled back and forth in his chair throughout 30 minutes of intense questioning from Paul Gigot, the editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, one of the most influential conservative platforms in the nation.

Despite repeated questions, Paul refused to promise to increase defense spending if elected president. Paul called defense the "No. 1 priority" of the government but also said, "I truly believe that our No. 1 threat to our national security is our debt."

(Related: The Wars Rand Paul Would Fight)

"It has to be done by cutting other parts of government," he said of funding growing security spending. Unlike some in the Republican Party, Paul later added, "I am not all in, everything no matter what" on increasing the defense budget.

He sought to cast himself as a foreign policy centrist, compared to his more hawkish Republican colleagues, most notably Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. "I want less [war]," Paul said. "McCain wants more. He wants 15 countries more. He wants 15 wars more."

Paul was most at ease discussing civil liberties and the rise of the surveillance state. He did say he had far fewer concerns about companies, not the government, storing mass amounts of consumer information. "Google's not going to put me in jail," he said.

The event, at the Four Seasons hotel in Washington, came only hours after Paul had formally announced that he is running for reelection in Kentucky and signaled how much of his focus is already on the White House.

"He'll make that decision in the early spring," Paul's chief political strategist, Doug Stafford, said about a presidential run in a conference call with reporters earlier in the day.

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