WASHINGTON -- "Nation-builder" probably isn't a term Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would use to describe himself. The libertarian-leaning senator has built a reputation on his reluctance to intervene abroad, a point he emphasizes as he travels the country ahead of a likely White House bid in 2016.
But on Wednesday, two weeks after telling a crowd of conservatives that Republicans should give up the concept of nation building abroad, Paul called on the United States to ship arms to the Kurds with a promise to build them a nation: Kurdistan.
“Part of the problem is the Kurds aren’t getting enough arms,” Paul told Breitbart News. “The Kurds are the best fighters. The arms are going through Baghdad to get to the Kurds and they’re being siphoned off and they’re not getting what they need. I think any arms coming from us or coming from any European countries ought to go directly to the Kurds.”
He then endorsed redrawing the borders of Iraq and Syria to form a new country, exposing as he did the gaps in his understanding of the region.
"I would draw new lines for Kurdistan and I would promise them a country," Paul said.
“I think [the Kurds] would fight like hell if we promised them a country. It’s a little easier to say than it is to actually make it happen, because in order to actually draw a new country, you’d have to have the complicity of Turkey and probably Iraq a little bit as well,” the senator added. “There really is no Syria to be complicit with, but there is just a little piece of Syria -- Kobani, and in there is predominantly Kurdish. I think if you did that and could get peace between the Kurds and the Turks, and then the Turks would actually fight if the Kurds would give up any claim to Turkish territory.”
This proposal is, as Paul noted, easier said than done. In reality, it would make little sense for either of the two Kurdish groups who have fought the Islamic State with U.S. support: the Iraqi Kurds, who pushed the extremist group out of their autonomous region last year, or the Syrian Kurds, who withstood a months-long Islamic State assault on their town of Kobani.
The Iraqi Kurds have harbored dreams of independence for decades. They came closer to that goal when the U.S. imposed a no-fly zone over their part of Iraq in 1991 to protect them from then-President Saddam Hussein. They solidified control over their autonomous region after the U.S. toppled Hussein's government in 2003. But they remain keenly aware that Washington has not endorsed full independence for their region. So instead of seeking statehood, they have moved, with strong U.S. backing, to settle their differences with the central Iraqi government -- at least for now.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Iraqi Kurdish region's representative to the U.S., told reporters at a late February briefing that her government does not plan to pursue independence in the midst of the war against the Islamic State. It remains a long-term goal, she said.
Abdul Rahman called for the U.S. to directly arm the Kurds, much as Paul has done. But she did not suggest, as the senator controversially did, that the central Iraqi government has "siphoned off" arms intended for the Kurds.
The Obama administration on Wednesday argued that speaking of an independent Kurdistan would actually harm the fight against the Islamic State, which it refers to as ISIL. "We believe a unified Iraq is a stronger Iraq," a State Department official told HuffPost in an email. "Iraq’s sovereign territory remains under threat from ISIL and the only way to address this threat is for all Iraqis -- Sunni, Shia, and Kurd -- to work together.”
The Syrian Kurds, whom Paul included in his proposal, also hold views very different from the senator's. Their Kurdish region of Rojava -- which is actually significantly larger than just Kobani -- more closely reflects U.S. anarchist ideals than the more tribal politics of the Iraqi Kurdish area. The two groups of Kurds have historically been at loggerheads. The Iraqi Kurds have expressed concern over the Syrian Kurds' growing autonomy, as has Turkey, a longtime enemy of Syrian and Turkish Kurds.
Most importantly, the Syrian Kurds maintain that they want to remain part of a future decentralized and peaceful Syria. Sinam Mohamad, Rojava's representative to Europe and a member of the region's High Council, confirmed that position to HuffPost on Wednesday.
The Syrian Kurds would also probably dislike Paul's vision because it would require that Kurds "give up any claim to Turkish territory." The chief political party in Rojava, the PYD, is closely linked to the PKK, a movement of Turkish Kurds that has been battling the Turkish state for decades over its rights within that country. It would be difficult for these groups to suddenly embrace the idea that Kurds have no claim to Turkish territory -- particularly because 18 percent of Turkey's population is Kurdish. Under the plan Paul suggested, more than 15 million Kurds in Turkey would have to renounce their claim to the land where they have lived for generations.
The senator's proposal comes in a week when he and other GOP senators are already taking flak for their letter to Iran's leadership, which aimed to undermine President Barack Obama. Critics who have pointed out flaws in that tactic include Vice President Joe Biden, other Republicans and Iran's U.S.-educated foreign minister.
It also follows his remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative and party activists near Washington, where he argued against nation building abroad.
"As conservatives, we should not succumb to the notion that a government inept at home will somehow become successful abroad. That a government that can't even deliver mail will somehow be able to create nations abroad," Paul told his mostly younger, more libertarian audience at CPAC. "Without question we must be strong. Without question we must defend ourselves. I envision an America with a national defense unparalleled, undefeatable and unencumbered by nation building."
That message has become muddled in recent months, as Paul spars with more-hawkish potential rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.).
The Kentucky senator initially opposed intervening in Iraq last summer, when Islamic State militants stormed into that country from Syria. He came around to supporting a U.S. airstrike campaign as the situation deteriorated, and even endorsed an authorization for military force that would allow U.S. ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State. Paul’s latest desire to create an independent Kurdistan -- even if not done directly through military action -- is just another step in his slow-walking transformation on intervention in the Middle East.
In February, GOP mega-donor Foster Friess publicly rebuked Paul for not doing enough for the Kurds. He urged the senator via email to “educate your libertarian followers that the Kurds are willing to be our surrogate boots on the ground.” To make matters worse, Friess copied the email to two of Paul’s potential rivals for 2016 campaign cash, Cruz and Graham.
Sergio Gor, a spokesman for Paul, later denied the notion that the senator had been at all reluctant to aid the Kurds. "Senator Rand Paul has publicly called and continues to believe in the importance of arming the Kurds," he said.