WASHINGTON -- The divisive role that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has played within the Republican Party on matters of foreign policy was amplified on Friday amid ongoing chaos in Iraq.
At a gathering of social conservatives in Washington, D.C., Paul’s call for more measured U.S. engagement -- if not outright restraint -- was criticized by fellow attendees, including a potential rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
In an interview with The Huffington Post outside the Faith and Freedom Conference, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), a 2012 presidential candidate, offered a message “to the Rand Paul types” within his party.
“You can see what happens when America creates a vacuum,” Santorum said. “Other people fill it, and it is not to our security interests.”
Paul's remark that President Barack Obama wasn't to blame for the rise of Sunni militants in Iraq drew even more admonishment from the neoconservative wing of the party, which has begun openly fretting about the possibility that the Kentucky Republican could end up becoming the GOP standard-bearer.
Michael Goldfarb, founder of the unapologetically hawkish Free Beacon, distilled Paul’s message on foreign policy into a simple: “Don’t blame Obama.” After tweeting his disdain, he elaborated in an email to The Huffington Post.
"The hawks in the party well know the dangers of supporting Obama policies out of principle -- the Afghan surge, NSA surveillance, strikes against Assad, all Obama policies that we supported because they were the right thing to do," Goldfarb wrote. "In each case we saw the Republican base recoil at the administration's incompetence and mismanagement. Now Rand, who shares Obama's view of the limits of American power, is supporting Obama's policy of doing nothing in Iraq and Syria. Good luck with that!"
These are not uncharted waters for Paul, who has been unapologetic in his position that U.S. interventions overseas have caused as many (if not more) problems than they’ve solved. His father campaigned on a similar doctrine during his last two presidential runs and earned a healthy following among war-weary conservatives in the process.
The younger Paul has been careful to assure his fellow party members that he’s no isolationist. And in his own speech at the Faith and Freedom Conference, he made sure to assure the crowd that “if attacked, it is our duty to defend your family, to defend your country, or defend our freedom.”
But Paul also spent much of Friday making the case that the Iraq war was a mistake and that similar enterprises needed to be avoided in the future. There is, he said in his speech, “a misguided belief that we should project strength through war.”
“During the Iraq war, think about what happened,” he said. “A quarter of a million Iraqi Christians fled Iraq. They feared the Shiite government that is there now that we helped put in place after Saddam. They fled in droves by the hundreds of thousands.”
Later, during a taping of NBC's "Meet the Press," Paul criticized the president's Republican critics, particularly former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“What’s going on now — I don’t blame on President Obama,” he said. “Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution. But I do blame the Iraq war on the chaos that is in the Middle East.”
Remarks like these have caused advocates of aggressive U.S. militarism to pull out their hair in frustration and prompted critics to accuse Paul of willful naiveté. But the politics aren’t simply defined, and because Paul’s positions poll increasingly well, it’s forced some GOP lawmakers to perform verbal gymnastics.
As he criticized Paul’s worldview, Santorum struggled to grapple with his own support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“Obviously, if I knew what was happening today was going to happen, then I, you know, would have made a different decision,” he told HuffPost. “But I made the decision based upon what I knew at the time and you can’t rework that. I think we’ve learned a lot from this experience and that certainly will affect my decisions going forward.”
Told that it sounded like he regretted his vote to authorize the war, Santorum shot back.
“No,” he said. “I said I wouldn’t change my vote based upon what I knew at the time. I think it was the right thing to do at the time. But I think we have learned a lot from this experience.”
On the stage at the Faith and Freedom Conference, elected officials avoided re-litigating the initial launch to war and largely focused on chastising Obama. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), reflecting the prevailing mood from the podium, said the terrorist group ISIS's march through western Iraq demonstrated the “failure of an American leader to speak clearly, profoundly, and inspirationally about what America’s role is.”
“Whether it is drawing a red line in Syria and then not enforcing it, hurting America’s credibility and allowing the Russian leader to fill the vacuum of leadership in a way that will not be good for the world, and then watching how that movement moves from Syria to now causing the issues they are causing in Iraq,” he said, “all of these things are happening in my opinion because of a lack of clarity and principle in American leadership.”
And yet, if Republican lawmakers were concerned about the rise of Paulism, the crowd itself was decidedly more torn. According to some at the conference, Paul remains blind to modern realities.
“Unfortunately, in today’s world, everybody is within hours of each other,” said Charlie Beatty, an attendee from Pennsylvania. “America has to stand up for its interests throughout the world. It is nice to be able to say, 250 years ago when the country was founded, to stay away from foreign entanglements. That’s great. But you had 3,000 miles of ocean and little ships, there was no way that America was going to be threatened by anybody. It is different now ... The threats are within minutes.”
But to many more, Paul’s notions of foreign policy restraint after years of war are a revelation. As is often the case with these types of gatherings of activists, the senator’s foreign policy comments got loud applause in the hall and kudos outside of it.
“The trend in this country is going away from Rick Santorum and towards Rand Paul,” said Kelly Nigohosian, a Detroit-based lawyer who attended the conference. “In Iraq, there is going to be a war there all the time, whether we are there or not. Should our troops get killed in the process? Should we spend money there that we could use for education here?”