Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has emerged as a leading potential 2016 presidential candidate after years building a brand as a conservative with a libertarian bent who often breaks from his fellow Republicans to criticise foreign military action. However, the rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) has left Paul scrambling to simultaneously express support for military action against the group while also trying to maintain his libertarian credentials and criticise President Barack Obama, who has launched strikes on ISIS.
Juggling these three messages has led to Paul making a series of seemingly contradictory statements have drawn attacks from his critics on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Pete King (R-New York), who has called for aggressive action to confront ISIS, told Business Insider on Monday he believes Paul is changing his position. King cited a pair of potential reasons for these shifts.
“To me, the two most possible conclusions are, one, he’s a total political chameleon or, secondly, he had no idea where he was in the first place,” King said of Paul.
In June, Paul showed his libertarian streak in an interview on NBC’s “Meet The Press” where he criticised to an op-ed written by former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney that said Obama’s decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq helped ISIS grow in that country. Paul argued Obama was not at fault for the current chaos in Iraq. Instead, Paul laid blame for the ongoing violence there on the military operations in the country launched by the administration of Cheney and President George W. Bush.
“What’s going on now — I don’t blame on President Obama. 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,” Paul said.
Cheney subsequently blasted Paul’s comments as “isolationist” and wrong. King similarly described Paul’s comments from June as a “real isolationist rant appealing to the lowest common denominator.”
“The American people understandably are war weary,” said King. “He was appealing to that and didn’t have either the guts or the intelligence to let the American people know that we live in a very dangerous world and we don’t have the luxury of withdrawing.”
Last month, ISIS’ territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, attacks on ethnic minorities, and release of videos showing the execution of American journalists led Obama to begin launching airstrikes on the group in Iraq. Last week, Obama announced plans to expand US military operations against ISIS, including potentially in Syria, where the group first gained power during the fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad that has gripped that country since 2011.
On September 4, Paul responded to Obama’s plans to combat ISIS with an op-ed in Time magazine where he attempted to dismiss the critique he is an “isolationist.” In that piece, Paul also attacked Obama for what he described as a “dereliction of duty” by not more aggressively attacking ISIS in Iraq sooner.
“Our recent foreign policy has allowed radical jihadists to proliferate. Today, there are more terrorists groups than there were before 9/11, most notably ISIS,” Paul wrote. “After all the sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq, why do we find ourselves in a more dangerous world? And why, after six years, does President Obama lack a strategy to deal with threats like ISIS?”
In Time, Paul attempted to argue his attack on the Obama administration didn’t contradict his past criticism of foreign military action.
“This administration’s dereliction of duty has both sins of action and inaction, which is what happens when you are flailing around wildly, without careful strategic thinking,” wrote Paul. “And while my predisposition is to less intervention, I do support intervention when our vital interests are threatened. If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”
Critics immediately identified apparent contradictions in Paul’s position on ISIS — both from his prior calls for non-interventionism and his earlier comments suggesting Obama was not to blame for the situation in Iraq. MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin, for instance, dubbed Paul’s Time op-ed an “epic ISIS flip flop.”
King, who, like Paul, has flirted with a potential 2016 campaign, suggested the coming election may have been a factor in the senator’s changing positions on ISIS.
“To me, it seems timed very much to a presidential race and, in either event, I mean it’s really fortunate that he was not the president the last several years,” King said. “I certainly don’t support very much what President Obama has done, but he’s been more assertive on terrorism than Rand Paul has.”
Business Insider reached out to Paul’s office to ask for their response to King and other critics of the senator’s position on ISIS. The senator’s office referred us to his chief advisor, Doug Stafford, who argued Paul’s critics are actually the ones who have been flip flopping while he “has been consistent.”
“Peter King and others have been on both sides of this war, last year wanting to bomb one side allied with ISIS, this year wanting to bomb the other. They also were for arming rebels affiliated with ISIS, a dangerous idea that has helped usher in the problem we now face,” said Stafford. “Senator Paul has been consistent. He pushed to stop the foolish drive toward war on the side of ISIS last year, recognising the radical jihadists in the region posed the greatest threat to the United States. He opposed arming any rebels.”
Stafford said Paul’s support for military action against ISIS does not represent a shift from his past opposition to foreign military intervention. Rather, Stafford framed it as a reaction to a reality created by bad policies put into place by other officials.
“He believes because of the failures of our foreign policy in recent years, including positions espoused by Congressman King, we now must confront the threat of ISIS, and will vote to authorise strikes on them to destroy their capabilities,” Stafford said of Paul.
Paul personally attempted to clarify his position on ISIS on Monday after he was asked about his seeming shifts in an appearance on “CBS This Morning.” In that interview, Paul again disputed the idea he’s an “isolationist” and instead described himself as reluctant to call for war.
“You know what I think is funny about it is they’re all saying you’ve changed, you’re no longer an isolationist, so you’re on two sides of an issue. And all I’ve been saying for five years of public life is I’m not an isolationist,” Paul said. “I look at every individual instance of whether or not we need to be involved. I look it reluctantly — I don’t want to be involved in war. But I do look and see when American interests are threatened. And I am, like most Americans, I am influenced by the beheading of Americans, now the beheading of a British journalist. I think it’s going to unite the world against ISIS.”
Paul went on to argue his “analysis” of ISIS changed as the situation with the group evolved. He stressed Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enabled ISIS to rise in Syria because they aided some of the other groups who have been fighting the Assad regime there.
“As world events changes, obviously you change your analysis. So five years ago, ISIS wasn’t a threat, but I did say even as much as 2-3 years ago that it was a threat to give arms to them in Syria,” said Paul. “I think had the president had his way, or had Hillary Clinton had her way, we may well have had ISIS in power in Damascus now because they have been arming and creating a safe haven for them. As it is, I think ISIS is more of a threat to us now as because of the arming of the Islamic rebels in Syria.”
King specifically disputed the notion any changes in the situation with ISIS could explain Paul’s evolving views. He argued the only thing that has shifted in terms of ISIS is public opinion, which he described Paul as pandering to.
“There can be a dramatic change of circumstances. Here nothing at all has changed except public perception. … Three or four months ago, the American public was isolationist. Right now, the public is very much interventionist, wants us to get involved and Rand Paul has just followed that completely,” said King. “He has no lasting principles here, no lasting beliefs. I would have had more respect if he had stayed by his initial views. I didn’t agree with them to begin with, but at least I would have thought they were honest.”
For his part, King argued Paul would pay a political cost for changing his mind on ISIS.
“He’s trying to be too much of a political acrobat and he’s going to fall on his face it just doesn’t work the issues are too serious
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