It was only just over two years ago that Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) captured the imaginations of millions and became the voice of a war-weary American public when he mounted a quixotic filibuster in opposition to the administration’s reliance on drones as the counter-terrorism tool of choice. That seems like a lifetime ago.
Well into the night on March 6, 2013, Paul stood in opposition to John Brennan’s nomination as CIA director in order draw attention to the White House’s drone program. For 13 hours, Paul spoke for a bipartisan majority of poll respondents who had grown suspicious of the administration’s policy of summarily executing terrorists and American citizens alike who are suspected of working with militant organizations. According to a Reason-Rupe survey from February of that year, only 31 percent of those polled believed that Obama was within his constitutional bounds when ordering the execution of Americans on the battlefield.
In a demonstration of Paul’s mastery of that political moment, fellow Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) raced to the Capitol in order to join his colleague’s filibuster. Appearing on the Senate floor shortly before midnight, McConnell called the junior senator’s “tenacity and conviction” encouraging.
“Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Tim Scott of South Carolina, John Thune of South Dakota and John Barrasso of Wyoming — as well as Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon — also participated,” NBC News reported.
Two years later, the international security situation is deteriorating rapidly. Islamist militias control territory ranging from Nigeria’s Northern Region to the Iranian border, from the Turkish frontier to the Arabian Peninsula. Russian forces are invading and annexing territory in Europe, and Chinese naval forces are encroaching on contested territory in the South China Sea. Americans are scared again, and their impatience with the administration’s drone program has given way to the fear that terrorist actors would proliferate in its absence.
The evidence for this shift in public opinion has been evident in Sen. Rand Paul’s reaction to the death of two al-Qaeda hostages who perished following a failed drone strike on their captors. On Thursday, President Barack Obama apologized on behalf of the United States for the death of Dr. Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” Obama said.
As soon as Obama left the lectern in the White House briefing room, all eyes turned to Paul. Curiously, he declined to issue even a statement on this episode until hours after the president spoke. “Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has remained fairly quiet, releasing a one-sentence statement decrying the deaths of the hostages, but saying nothing about the citizens who joined Al Qaeda,” Bloomberg’s David Weigel observed.
Today, Paul appeared on Fox & Friends where he was asked about his curious silence on the botched drone strike. As Weigel noted, Paul declined to use his status as a drone skeptic to criticize the collateral deaths of civilian hostages on the battlefield.
“I do think that there is a valuable use for drones and as much as I’m seen as an opponent of drones, in military and warfare, they do have some value,” Paul said. “I think this is a difficult situation. You have hostages being held; some of them are American. You have people holding hostages; some of them are American. I’ve been an opponent of using drones about people not in combat. However if you are holding hostages, you kind of are involved in combat. So I look at it the way it is in the United States. If there’s a kidnapping in New York, the police don’t have to have a warrant to go in.”
“Had Paul never spoken out about drones before, this would have been a newsless answer, comparable to what other Republican candidates and politicians had been saying,” Weigel added. “But Paul has a long, dramatic record of pronouncements about drones.”
Paul wasn’t alone in his silence. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio all delinked to criticize the White House over the lamentable deaths of these hostages. None of these Republican politicians, however, have tethered their political brands to skepticism in America’s mission overseas.
Paul’s decision to decline to capitalize on the fallout from this failed drone strike is a reflection of how the grassroots GOP has come to accept the drone program as a necessary evil. If Paul wants to win the GOP nomination, it is apparently necessary for him to abandon the policy positions that made him a Republican celebrity in the first place.