Rich Lowry: Rand Paul, situation room or dorm room?

The oil-services company Halliburton is an old obsession of the anti-Bush left, and evidently of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

The libertarian standard-bearer and almost-certain Republican presidential candidate suggested to audiences a few years ago that Vice President Dick Cheney’s views on the Iraq War were influenced by his time as CEO at Halliburton. Cheney had opposed going into Iraq during the Persian Gulf War under the first President George Bush; then, after a stint at Halliburton, he supported going into Iraq under the second President Bush. Q.E.D.

Asked about the Halliburton charge on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Paul softened his accusation by saying he wasn’t questioning Cheney’s motives, but he didn’t recant. In his dark suspicions about Cheney, Paul is effectively to the left of most mainstream Democrats, who may disagree with and even hate the former vice president, but don’t think he supported a major war as a favor to his erstwhile company. Paul’s belief that the Iraq War may have been about padding a corporate bottom line echoes charges of “war profiteering” that have been a staple of the left.

Rand Paul is a good-natured, thoughtful and creative politician, and the GOP benefits from having such a high-profile figure who doesn’t look or feel like a typical Republican. But he will soon be running for an office where your view of the world matters profoundly, and his instincts sometimes seem more appropriate to a dorm-room bull session than the Situation Room.

There is no doubt that the Paulite persuasion on foreign policy has made extraordinary inroads in the Republican Party. Rand’s father, Ron Paul, was a reliable punching bag on national-security issues during presidential debates in 2008. He got a more respectful hearing in 2012. Now, his son’s noninterventionism is closer to the GOP norm that would have seemed possible in, say, 2004.

But there are limits to how far Rand Paul can push it. The default position of the GOP is still toward strength, and the party will instinctively recoil from the distorted view of America implicit in some of Paul’s more impolitic statements.

If we launched the Iraq War for corporate profits, we have a poisonously corrupt government that is a threat to world peace. If we caused Japan to react angrily with ill-considered sanctions prior to Pearl Harbor, as Paul said in 2012, perhaps we were reaping what we sowed in what is usually regarded as one of the most notorious sneak attacks of all time. If we are guilty of tweaking Russia while it secures a traditional sphere of influence, as Paul said when the Crimea crisis first broke out, it’s no wonder that Vladimir Putin lashes out.

You can hear in all this a note of the blame-America-first libertarianism embraced by some Paulite thinkers and writers. Rand Paul himself is more circumspect. After the Japan comments surfaced, one of Paul’s advisers put out a statement in support of World War II, which usually goes without saying. Paul quickly toughened up his rhetoric on Russia as Putin’s Crimea invasion unfolded.

Paul likes to calls his foreign policy “realism,” but his record on Russia suggests the label is inapt. Last year, he thought what was wrong with President Barack Obama’s Syria policy was that we weren’t engaging the Russians enough. Earlier this year, he held out the Syria chemical-weapons deal — a humiliation for the United States that secured Bashar Assad in power — as a model for future diplomacy. He thought the Russians were a partner for peace, right on the cusp of them launching a war.

You don’t have to be a war profiteer to consider this dewy-eyed foolishness. Barack Obama’s can’t-we-all-get-along naivete didn’t hurt him in his primary fight in 2008, but he was running in the other party. Rand Paul is running in a party that, while chastened on foreign policy, still has a hawkish reflex — and not because it is beholden to Halliburton.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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