If arming Syrian rebels is such a great idea, why was everyone in D.C. so terrified of a standalone vote on the issue?

Before Senators voted 78-22 to pass a continuing resolution that would fund government through Dec. 11 and avoid a government shutdown, Rand Paul asked that question – and some other uncomfortable ones – on the floor. Call him is an isolationist if you like, but it’d be nice to hear some coherent answers…

As Paul points out, when was the last time toppling of secular dictator guided a Middle East nation towards a self-sustaining liberalism? Was it Egypt or Libya? The notion that we have the capacity to create a functional ally in the Middle East is laughable. What happens if ISIS is repulsed? Are we in it with them until Assad is expelled from power? I sure didn’t hear a coherent answer from the administration or any of the cowering Senators up for re-election on the matter.

Instead, what senators are doing right now is figuring out a way to allow Obama to use the existing Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against ISIS.

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Still, whatever his motivations, Paul, through it all, has arrived at something of a coherent foreign policy philosophy. As he explained it in his biggest foreign policy speech to date, at the Heritage Foundation last year, “I am a realist, not a neoconservative nor an isolationist.” If that sounded Obama-esque in its attempt to find a middle way between competing straw men, the fact is that, in GOP foreign policy debates, those straw men are real people like John McCain and Ron Paul. In the same speech, Paul went on in (in unspoken contrast to his father, who worshipped at the feet of the isolationist Senator Robert Taft) to cast himself as an heir to George Kennan, the foreign policy thinker behind America’s “containment” strategy during the Cold War, elaborating:

“What the United States needs now is a policy that finds a middle path. A policy that is not rash or reckless. A foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by Constitutional checks and balances but does not appease. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of radical Islam but also the inherent weaknesses of radical Islam. A foreign policy that recognizes the danger of bombing countries on what they might someday do. A foreign policy that requires, as Kennan put it, ‘a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of … expansive tendencies.’ A policy that understands the ‘distinction between vital and peripheral interests.'”

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In an effort to stake out a position that is at once in stark contrast to that of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Paul seems to have found himself outlining a foreign policy that often eats its own tail. Paul opposes arming Syrian rebels, but his post-airstrike plan includes providing “technical support” to other local moderates from countries he has blamed for inadvertently arming ISIS. That said, Paul is uncertain that moderates have the capacity to effectively fight at all, calling that concept “mythical”; he says he does not support Assad, but believes any effort to undermine him is fundamentally misguided, and is what paved the way for ISIS, despite a lack of evidence to support the claim. In short: It’s all a little confusing

Paul said he believes Iraqis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Turks, and Kurds should be engaged in the on-the-ground fight. Note: These countries are the same ones Paul blamed in the previous breath for helping to arm ISIS.

Later, Paul seemingly negated his post-airstrike plan when he expressed skepticism at the idea that moderate rebels could actually band together to fight effectively, calling the idea “mythical”: “The mythology is that they are going to be some great fighting force. It’s not that they don’t exist—the mythology is that they’re a great fighting force that’s sort of waiting there in the wings. The bottom line is, even if they were strong fighters, if you were beating back Assad, you’re still providing a space for ISIS. Anything we’ve done to degrade or keep [Assad] away from these territories has been to the betterment of ISIS.” This does not take into account the fact that Assad has a history of making strange alliances—like with al Qaeda.

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“He’s trying to reconcile his past statements with the current crisis and it’s not working,” said former Bush administration official Brian Hook, who advised 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. “His foreign policy seems to be of a day-to-day variety, and as a consequence he’s playing catchup.”…

The senator has said he changed his mind after ISIS militants beheaded two American journalists. Staffers say he judges each situation by asking: Are American lives and national security at stake? Will military action have unintended consequences?

“It’s a lot easier for his opponents, who are mostly people who want to intervene all of the time, no matter what the situation, to paint him as someone who doesn’t want to intervene any of the time, which he has said over and over is not who he is,” said Doug Stafford, Mr. Paul’s top political adviser. “He’s a conservative realist who will look at each situation.”

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After hearing Paul condemn past interventions based on trumped-up threats, remind his colleagues about the ever-present risk of unintended consequences, and insist that the burden of proof should be on those who advocate war, it is easy to forget that he actually supports this war, although he disagrees with Obama about how to conduct it. Paul says “ISIS is now a threat to us,” although in his 6,700-word speech this is the closest he comes to explaining why: “If ISIS is left to its own devices, maybe they will fulfill what they have boasted of and attack our homeland.” That is also the closest that Obama comes to justifying this war; Paul’s admirers might have expected more from a man who talks so much about the dangers of foreign intervention.

Notably, while Paul just a few weeks ago was saying war must be justified by “a threat to our national security” (which he wasn’t sure ISIS posed), he is now willing to settle for a threat to “American interests,” which can mean whatever an advocate of war says it means. Don’t Americans have an “interest” in promoting peace, preventing the slaughter of innocents, and freeing people from oppressive governments? This highly elastic criterion for military action leads to just the sort of promiscuous intervention that Paul criticizes.

“Let’s get on with destroying them,” Paul says, referring to ISIS. “But make no mistake: Arming Islamic rebels in Syria will only make it harder to destroy ISIS.” Paul surely is correct that trying to arm the right rebels is a strategy fraught with peril, but he seems to forget that the rebels are supposed to be proxies for U.S. soldiers, which he is adamantly against sending to Syria or Iraq as part of the war against ISIS. Yet Paul says the U.S. should do “everything we can to help” the Iraqi opponents of ISIS, including “air support,” “intelligence,” and “drones.” Those roles can very quickly entangle American soldiers in combat on the ground, even if Obama prefers to call it something else. Paul does not mention Syria in this context, but any serious effort to “destroy” ISIS would have to involve airstrikes and other kinds of military assistance there, which amounts to the kind of meddling Paul says we should avoid. It is impossible to reconcile Paul’s avowed goal with his avowed desire to “stay the heck out of their civil war.”

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In the lobby of the Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Hotel in Virginia on Thursday evening, a 62-year-old man named Charles sat patiently as he waited for the Liberty Political Action Conference to begin. The event, hosted by the Campaign for Liberty, of which former Congressman Ron Paul serves as chairman, boasted an impressive list of libertarian-leaning lawmakers on its schedule—but it’s Paul’s son, the U.S. senator from Kentucky and early frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Rand Paul, whose name lit up the marquee—perhaps to the dismay of people like Charles.

“The apple fell a little far from the tree,” he sighed. “I’m not a big supporter of the wars in the Middle East. That war’s supposed to be over. I’m surprised he’s supporting anything there.”…

“I understand the game he’s playing,” Charles offered, calling him “politically savvy… He learned from his dad’s mistakes.” And then, “I don’t know how to put this without sounding conspiratorial,” but, ISIS, like every other conflict in the world, he said, was “all planned by the people who control everything globally. They want a World War III.”

This, I soon realized, would be a common theme at LPAC.

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Paul was undeniably the man of the hour, but there was also a tension in the air among the true believers at LPAC. On the one hand he’s almost certainly the movement’s best chance to put one of its own into the White House in 2016, especially given what looks to be a wide open Republican field with no clear frontrunner. On the other hand, the principled activists who powered his father Ron Paul’s overachieving 2008 and 2012 campaigns are nervous about what parts of their platform the younger Paul might need to leave behind in the process.

“I like Rand, my hesitation is that I want to see what he stands for,” Linc Austin, who traveled from Nashville, told msnbc. “It might be the only way you can do it. He won’t win by sticking with the Ron Paul platform all the way. The question is where are the compromises.”…

“Someone must have said to him ‘Don’t end up like your dad,’” Dylan Stephenson, an LPAC attendee, told msnbc. “I still think he understands Israel doesn’t need our money. They have nuclear weapons, there’s no reason they can’t support themselves.”

Given the likely Republican field, however, libertarians might not have much of a choice but to trust that he knows what he’s doing.

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Paul, though still somewhat coy, was far more forthcoming when asked about his [presidential] decision-making process.

“We really haven’t finally decided,” he said in an interview with RCP. “My wife is not completely convinced of it. And some of it is that things can change. Within six months, will we still be in a position, through national surveys, that people think we can compete? Will there be a reason why we couldn’t? So I think you have to wait a little while until you get closer to the season of campaigning for that office.”

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