Rand Paul: If it was wrong not to protect the Benghazi consulate, it's wrong not to protect the one in Kurdistan

A good line aimed at libertarians who used to hammer Obama for his negligence in Benghazi and who are hammering Rand now for wanting to flex a little U.S. muscle in Iraq.

While the beheadings of U.S. citizens James Foley and Steven Sotloff are a factor, he says, Paul is especially insistent that protecting the U.S. consulate in Erbil, Iraq is a major cause for ongoing concern. Erbil is near Mosul, a city overrun by ISIS with relative ease, he says, and it’s of paramount importance that the United States protect its diplomatic personnel in Iraq.

“If it was wrong not to protect the consulate in Benghazi, then it’s wrong not to protect the consulate in Erbil,” he says…

“People will draw different lines,” he says, which is “precisely why these things need to be discussed and voted on publicly in Congress.” Some people might say that military action is only called for when the homeland is directly threatened or attacked, he notes, while others would make cases for the need to protect American ships, properties, embassies, and legitimate presences in foreign countries.

I’m not the target audience here but since when does protecting a consulate require an air offensive against a large jihadi army? Americans never demanded U.S. airstrikes against jihadis in Benghazi to preemptively protect American diplomatic outposts; they wanted a contingent of Marines deployed to each embassy and consulate so that the enemy could be kept at bay while staffers were evacuated if things got hairy on the ground. When in doubt, get out. That’s what we did in Tripoli, no? The city got too dangerous so we removed our diplomats for their own safety. You could do the same thing for the consulate in Erbil. Send 300 Marines there and have planes on standby to airlift everyone if ISIS starts to overrun Kurdistan. In fact, if you want to get really Ron-Paul-ish about this, you could argue that our imperial outpost in Erbil is egging the ISIS boys on and should probably be removed altogether in the name of peace. If an air offensive is potentially justified everywhere American diplomats are working in the shadow of danger, there could be a lot of airstrikes in a Rand administration.

That’s not the only interview he gave over the last few days to try to rebut the accusations that he’s flip-flopped on Iraq and ISIS. Here’s what he told Ben Domenech:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

But that’s not really what he’s been accused of. Broadly he’s been accused of shifting from isolationism to interventionism, but he’s been accused lately specifically of shifting on ISIS. Read this if you haven’t already and you’ll see how. What he said about ISIS three months ago doesn’t line up with what he said about ISIS two weeks ago (as libertarians have also noticed), and it’s really no defense for him to say “well, the facts on the ground changed.” Rand was still taking a dovish line in June after ISIS had seized Mosul, which endangered Erbil and signaled that the group would be a long-term strategic threat to the U.S. The only sensational development after that was ISIS beheading James Foley and Steven Sotloff, but that’s precisely the sort of provocation that libertarians typically warn others against being seduced by. Not every act of terrorism requires war; responding emotionally to an atrocity that doesn’t implicate broader American interests usually produces rash, poorly thought out policy. Rand does acknowledge a broader strategic worry in his interview with Domenech — “I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan” — but as I say, that’s been true since they started rolling over the Iraqi army months ago. What changed? Nor is this the first time he’s seemed to shift suddenly on how we should handle a global hotspot. In February, he complained that some American hawks seem to want to “tweak” Russia all the time; 10 days later, after more Putin aggression and more Republican outrage over it, he was complaining that Obama’s not being hard enough on Russia. Hmmmm.

I like this part, though:

In general, I do think the war on the ground should be fought by those who live there. It offends me that sixteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis, it offends me that they finance radical Islam, and it offends me that they get rich off of our buying their oil and they don’t fight. So I’d like to see the first several thousands in the front lines attacking ISIS be Iraqis, but I’d also like to see the Saudis up there, Kuwaitis, Qataris. I’d like to see them fight. Ultimately, and this is where I in some ways I agree with the president, this is a long war against radical Islam, but the ultimate victory over radical Islam will have to come from civilized Islam.

Telling our Sunni “allies” to fight their own battles is gooooood politics, and potentially a killer app when the rest of the field onstage at the debates next year is trying to one-up each other on who’s the hawkiest hawk of all. There’s a sound response to Rand’s point but it’s a response that his rivals will be reluctant to give — namely, that the populations of Saudi Arabia and Jordan are sufficiently pro-Islamist themselves that sending troops to fight ISIS in Syria might destabilize those regimes. We have to fight their battles for them to some extent, especially since ISIS might now be powerful enough to fend off an Arab military assault. As I say, though, no one wants to talk about that and Rand’s take on it has immense populist appeal in a war-weary country. He should stick with it and build on it.

Two more points about “Rand versus the hawks doves,” broadly speaking. One: If you don’t believe that he’s “evolving” earnestly here but is simply making hawkish noises to preserve his viability in the primaries, well, then you should console yourself with the thought that President Paul would probably also be hawkish even when he really doesn’t want to be. A man who’s willing to do politically expedient things he disdains to get elected will do politically expedient things he disdains to get reelected. Plus, a president who takes office with a dovish reputation may feel he has something to prove when he’s first tested by an enemy, to warn the rest of the world not to test him. Watch out for that lame-duck second term, though! Two: If Rand continues to metamorphose into a hawk, the debates are going to be more boring than everyone expects. The charm of a Paul candidacy, even for those who dislike him, was supposed to be that he’ll give GOP voters a clear choice between the usual flavors of GOP hawkishness — Rubio’s McCain-ish “save the world” approach, Cruz’s Jacksonian “kill ’em and get out” approach, etc — and a far more “modest” interventionist. At this rate, how clear will the choice really be by summer 2015?

Update: The DNC is ready for Rand.