Rand Paul: I signed Tom Cotton's letter to strengthen Obama's hand against Iran

I … guess this makes sense? Paul’s got the same problem here as he has on most issues not related to cutting spending, trying to find a spot on the Venn diagram where libertarians and conservatives overlap. He signed Cotton’s letter, obviously, because he knows he’ll be attacked in the primaries as a squish who can’t be trusted as commander-in-chief and he can’t hand any more ammo to the competition on that point. Now, when Rubio or Ted Cruz or whoever slams him for being dovish, he can point to the Cotton letter as rebuttal. Having pandered to conservatives, though, he needs to atone to libertarians by finding a way to make the letter seem like a pander to them too. They expect a very different foreign policy from the son and heir to the rEVOLution than partnering with neo-neocons like Tom Cotton on Iran. So here’s Paul’s solution, from this morning’s “Today” show: He signed the letter to help Obama by giving him more leverage to make a deal, not to undermine Obama by signaling to Tehran that any agreement is going right down the toilet once a Republican’s back in the White House. The theory, presumably, is that Iran will feel more pressure to make concessions now that it knows Republicans in Congress mean business about rejecting the agreement under its current terms. Rand, by joining the hardliners, is actually trying to avert war by scaring Iran into making a deal that’ll please both parties and therefore will stand a better chance of enduring. He’s not sabotaging diplomacy, he’s enabling it!

Think libertarians are buying it? Matt Purple seems dubious:

American policy, at the very least, should be to not do anything that will empower [Iran’s] hardliners and undermine the moderates. Yet that’s exactly what Cotton’s letter does. It’s another pound of leverage that Iran’s most intransigent traditionalists can bring to bear against Rouhani, Zarif, and the United States—and given Cotton’s desire to kill the Iran talks outright, that may have been its intent…

And what if my nightmare scenario does come true? Paul will have to stand up at a GOP candidates debate and make the case for both an Iranian nuclear deal and his being party to a letter that helped squash an Iranian nuclear deal. Doing that without tripping over one’s shoelaces is an impossible task…

But even from the perspective of a coldhearted political realist, it’s hard to see what advantage Paul gains here. Nothing less than full-throated bloodlust against Iran will stop hawks from calling him a squish. Meanwhile he’s spooked his base of anti-war conservatives and fed the developing narrative that he’s a opportunist willing to mortgage his principles.

What makes it doubly weird is that, by pitching his assent to the letter as helpful to Obama, Paul risks alienating some of the same hawkish conservatives he was trying to impress by signing it to begin with. Great, they’ll say, Rand signed the letter — but only because he wanted to preserve O’s ability to sell out American interests in a sham deal with Tehran. He did the right thing for the wrong reason. How can you trust a guy with instincts like that to draw sound, meaningful red lines as C-in-C?

Rand’s other pander to libertarians on the letter, which you’ll find at the start of the second clip below, is smarter and enjoys more of an overlap on the Venn diagram I mentioned. This wasn’t really a letter to Iran, says Paul, it was a letter to the White House that they’re trampling on Congress’s constitutional prerogatives again. Any deal with Iran should need to be approved by the Senate; that’s Con Law 101, especially when we’re talking about lifting sanctions that were imposed by a congressional vote to begin with. That spin has the multiple advantages of being correct on the merits, pleasing to conservatives in simultaneously rebuking Obama and Iran, and pleasing to libertarians in attempting to restore constitutional power to the legislature at the executive’s expense. Contra what Purple says, I think Paul could easily defend signing the letter while also defending his support for negotiations with Iran. It all comes down to separation of powers: He supports handling this diplomatically, if and only if Obama follows the Constitution’s protocols for diplomacy. No self-respecting libertarian would settle for less.

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