Senator Rand Paul wants to set the record straight on an issue that the foreign policy community in Washington considers one of the biggest priorities on its docket: the Iranian nuclear program. He is not... repeat, not... for containment of Iran. But by the same token, that doesn't mean that the United States should forget about containment as an option.
To be against a 'we will never contain Iran' resolution is not the same as being for containment of a nuclear Iran. Rather, it means that foreign policy is complicated and doesn't fit neatly within a bumper sticker, headline or tweet. Those who reduce it to such do a disservice to their reporting and, potentially, to the security of our nation.
For foreign policy realists everywhere, this is a principled and logical stand to take. No president should ever take an option off the table when dealing with such an important issue of such global proportions -- especially as monumental as nuclear proliferation.
Yet unfortunately for Paul, even saying the word containment in the same sentence as Iran is a politically dangerous position for a politician in Washington to have -- particularly when that same politician is widely expected to take a stab at being a presidential nominee in 2016. In fact, in refusing to bat the containment option away, Paul has refuted the largely unified position of most of his Senate colleagues, 90 of whom passed a resolution in September 2012 rejecting "any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran." To his credit, Paul has remained remarkably consistent on this issue, being the only senator to stand up and vote "nay" instead of taking the easy way out by not registering a vote at all.
For someone who supposedly wants to be the presidential nominee of his party, however, consistency may get him in trouble with big Republican donors and the segment of the Republican Party that politicos like to call "the establishment." If Paul does in fact decide to run in 2016, he will have to combat the litany of attacks from more traditional and hawkish Republicans that he is a younger incarnation of his father, Rand Paul. Others candidates will try to pit him in a corner and label him either insufficiently muscular on the Iran issue or, even worse, dangerously amateurish. Indeed, those attacks are already in full bloom: Representative Peter King, a vocal critic of what he terms Paul's isolationist streak, jumped on television to retort his op-ed almost immediately. More worrisome for a potential 2016 Rand Paul bid are the actions of some Republican donors of the Sheldon Adelson variety that appear ready to spend money against a Paul Republican nomination. Noah Pollak, a member of that camp, recently told Time that, "at his core, he [Paul] is more or less an isolationist," an extension of the Ron Paul tent. As 2015 gets closer, you can bet that these types of attack lines will grow more prescient within the RJC, and Weekly Standard crowd of the party.
Granted, this is not the first time that Rand Paul has battled others within his own party or taken a different line from his Republican colleagues on a matter of foreign policy. There was the famous Breitbart op-ed seemingly directed at Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another 2016 contender for the Republican nomination, for casting himself in the mold of the great Ronald Reagan. He voted against authorizing the U.S. military to conduct limited air strikes on Syrian targets in September 2013, arguing that doing so would not change Bashar al-Assad's calculus the way the Obama administration hoped it would. And he has also expressed opposition to issuing more economic sanctions on Iran when Tehran is talking with the P5+1 powers, telling CNN immediately after President Obama's 2014 State of the Union speech that "I don't think it's a good idea to pass sanctions while we're in the midst of negotiations."
Can Rand Paul finesse these issues when he is competing for big donors in 2016? I'm not entirely sure that it's possible, given the other candidates rumored to be in the Republican field and those within the neoconservative faction of the party that view Paul's view of the world as a replica of 1930s isolationism. Yet at the same time, I can't deny that Paul sounded presidential in his Washington Post op-ed, in which he elevated restraint and diplomatic agility on the same level as the use of economic and military power.