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Rand Paul's epic ISIS flip-flop

After weeks of hedging on his ISIS strategy, Rand Paul boasted that he would have acted even earlier than President Obama in targeting the group.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave a speech at the National Urban League conference in Cincinnati, OH on July 25, 2014.
U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) at the National Urban League conference in Cincinnati, Ohio on July 25, 2014.

After expressing reluctance to intervene against ISIS over the summer, Sen. Rand Paul abruptly shifted gears on Thursday and announced that he supports military action to eliminate the Islamist group. 

"The military means to achieve these goals include airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria," the Kentucky Republican and likely 2016 presidential hopeful wrote in an op-ed in TIME. "Such airstrikes are the best way to suppress ISIS’s operational strength and allow allies such as the Kurds to regain a military advantage."

Paul’s hawkish turn comes after months of hedging and skeptical comments regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria. Yet Paul boasted on Thursday that as president he would have committed to a grand plan to eliminate ISIS earlier and more effectively than President Obama.

“If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS,” Paul said. “I would have called Congress back into session—even during recess.” 

Paul’s new position challenges his longtime reputation as a champion of non-interventionism. His brand of foreign policy generally rests on avoiding conflicts abroad, ending foreign aid, and an intense skepticism toward international institutions. Paul addressed this disconnect in his op-ed. 

“Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily,” he said. “They shouldn’t be. I’ve said since I began public life that I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist. I look at the world, and consider war, realistically and constitutionally.” 

The main reason "pundits" may be surprised, however, is because of Paul’s past statements, many of which seem to contradict the hawkish strategy the hypothetical Paul administration apparently would have implemented years ago to contain ISIS. 

When ISIS initially captured large swaths of Iraqi territory in June, Paul's response was mainly to criticize former President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for enabling ISIS’s rise by launching the US. invasion of Iraq. In fact, Paul specifically argued that Obama didn’t deserve scorn for failing to prevent the insurgent gains as a result. And while his new op-ed criticizes Obama for saying he still hasn’t decided on a strategy to confront ISIS, Paul himself has made similar comments in arguing there might not be a viable strategy to defeat ISIS. 

“What’s going on now, I don’t blame on President Obama,” Paul said in a June 22 interview with NBC’s Meet The Press. “Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution.”

Paul said in that interview he was on the fence about airstrikes, but sounded far less enthusiastic about committing the U.S. to a major campaign against ISIS than he does now.

“Should not the Shiites, the Maliki government, should they not stand up?" he asked in the June 22 interview. "And, if they’re ripping their uniforms off and fleeing, if they don’t think Mosul is worth saving, how am I going to convince my son or your son to die for Mosul?”

He added, "Yes, we should prevent them from exporting terror; but, I’m not so sure where the clear-cut, American interest is.” 

Six weeks later, after Obama announced U.S. forces would take action to rescue Iraqi minorities from sectarian attacks by ISIS and to protect American personnel, Paul waited several days before addressing the issue at a local Chamber of Commerce in Kentucky. There, he again made clear he was unsure about airstrikes.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Paul said. “I'm not saying I'm completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year. Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year. Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We're now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

No one knew for sure whether Paul favored military action to take out ISIS until this week, when a spokesman told the Associated Press Paul would “seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily."

Paul’s newly announced grand plan to stop ISIS doesn't sound too far off from what the White House is already doing. Aside from calling on Obama to seek Congressional authorization for military action more quickly, most of the recommendations Paul lays out in the op-ed are already being pursued by the administration, including arming Kurdish forces in Iraq, attempting to recruit allies in the region as well as NATO to the anti-ISIS cause, and protecting Israel by upgrading its Iron Dome anti-missile system. 

Nor is it clear how the imaginary Paul administration would more effectively entice allies to join his anti-ISIS coalition, especially after the U.S. eliminated all foreign aid and withdrew from the United Nations as Paul has proposed in the past. One of the nice things about bragging about how you would have prevented a foreign crisis is that there’s no way to test the theory in hindsight.

As he noted in the op-ed, he has broken with the White House in the past by opposing military involvement in the Libya civil war and by criticizing aid to non-ISIS rebels in Syria, which he blamed for exacerbating the current crisis. 

"Unfortunately, Obama’s decisions—from disengaging diplomatically in Iraq and the region and fomenting chaos in Libya and Syria—leave few good options," he wrote. "A more realistic and effective foreign policy would protect the vital interests of the nation without the unrealistic notion of nation-building."

Paul’s op-ed does suggest a larger problem, however. When challenged on politically difficult positions Paul has shown a tendency not only to take a new position, but to deny the old one ever existed. Recently, fact checkers excoriated him for inaccurately claiming he had never supported ending aid to Israel. After a controversy arose over his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he went on to claim he had never wavered in supporting it at all. The spotlight on his record and past statements will only be hotter and brighter in a presidential campaign.