March 11, 2013
‘I don’t know the answer on Iran’: A conversation with Sen. Rand Paul
Last Tuesday, a mere 24 hours before his becoming a national megastar and a "major 2016 player" (or, according to other accounts, simply 'hero of the week'), I spent some time with Senator Rand Paul in his Capitol Hill office. I wasn't there to talk to him about drone attacks and presidential appointments of CIA chiefs, but rather about his views on Israel and the Middle East, and about his recent visit to Jerusalem. But his office was abuzz with a flurry of anticipation of the ensuing action: I was sitting and waiting while the Senator's staff came and went to apologize for the delays in our planned conversation. The office had not yet received the Attorney General's letter about drone attacks within the US and the Senator was preparing for his victorious filibuster.
The staff didn't say a filibuster was coming, but it was clear that something was, and they were busily dissecting Holder's initial response to the questions sent by Rand. The Senator's speech – criticized by the hawkish interventionalist wing of the GOP but hailed by most other leaders of the party – was yet another sign that this Republican is not exactly like the others. Is he a principled Senator fighting for a worthy cause? Is he a "wacko bird"? If he becomes a leader of the party – even if not the leader but rather one of its main leaders – these questions can be of great importance not just to Americans but also to American allies. Paul keeps insisting that he isn't an isolationist and keeps hinting that his views aren't exactly like his father's.
In fact, this was the reason why I wanted to meet with him in the first place: I wanted to understand the real deal about his positions on Israel and to see if such a Republican could still be considered a great friend. I'm not sure if I got a clear answer, but a few days after our meeting the question suddenly seems much more important. If – that is – Paul is truly as important a player as many pundits believe he is, if he is truly a possible leader of the party in the coming years.
In the meeting room, we began our conversation looking at the photo of Cassius Clay- not the boxer, the politician- which the Senator chose to hang on the wall (Paul's debut Senate speech invoked Clay's abolitionist efforts). But we quickly started discussing his trip to Israel.
Paul has a well established formula for speaking about Israel. His message is one of detachment, but it is carefully wrapped in positive terms: the one thing he'd "fix" regarding US policy towards Israel is to "stop dictating policies to Israel". Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wanted to tell Israelis what they ought to do, and "where they ought to build". Paul would not do such an "objectionable" thing.
Does he have an opinion, though, on whether Israel should build in certain places and should not build in others? – Surely he does. He'd even convey his opinion, if asked, to the right people. But it's not healthy to "publicly criticize" Israel. Things can be said "quietly" and "discreetly". If one cheats on ones wife – he tells me – one's friend might be right to berate him, but not to humiliate him. Doing it publicly is "presumptuous".
So Paul doesn't want the US to go around telling people what to do. But since the Middle East is connected to the US "in so many ways" it is natural for the US to have interest in "the peace issue". Apparently, he went to the region "to find the key for peace". As a doctor, he says, he believes that a disease might have a cure, a solution. Rand is convinced – and this is where his views are in line with the current Israeli position – that "the solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "will be incremental". There has to be a government in Gaza which "can have negotiations". When he met with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas he heard from him that no solution which excludes Gaza could work. Rand urged the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, to assist in the "improvement of the conditions in Gaza". Rand would also like to see more "commerce between Gaza and the West Bank". And he believes that Gaza can ultimately go back to being "an important sea port".
I was somewhat surprised by his detailed suggestions. Is sharing such suggestions publicly not exactly what the US government is doing by attempting to bridge the gaps and help the two sides negotiate? Rand, again, highlights the difference between having opinion, making suggestions and "dictating" (which he'd never dream of doing).
The sense one gets from Paul as he discusses Middle East policy is of a Senator trying to walk a very fine line. He wants to stick to the ideas that make him who he is, but also to not appear too radical. He wants to avoid the perception of him being unfriendly towards Israel (his father, rightly or wrongly, has that problem); But he also wants to make sure his positions on Israel don't compromise his general outlook on politics, and don't upset his natural supporters (as some say they already have).
Hence, his nuanced I-am-not-going-to-tell-them-what-to-do stance that could be interpreted either as I-don't-really-care-about-them or as I-think-they-deserve-better – pick your choice. And his position on foreign aid for Israel – it-should-be-the-last-country-to-lose-our-support – could be seen both as favorable to Israel (it is the country most deserving and worthy of aid) and as unfavorable (it would still lose the support, eventually). It might be an attempt to defy Republican-voters' sentiment without them noticing it. Or maybe it is the new sentiment of Republican-voters, one which they don't know about yet?
Rand wants foreign aid to end. Period. The fact that Israel buys military equipment in the US doesn't change anything. Or, the way Paul describes it: the US borrowing from China, so it can give money to Israel, so Israel can buy with it in the US – all this is "economic fallacy". Here too, though, Paul has a way of presenting his position more positively: he merely agrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel needs to be "economically independent".
Where Paul has the most difficult time portraying his view as favorable to Israel is with Iran. Yes, he agrees that a nuclear Iran is not a good idea. The "entire civilized world" doesn't want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. And the sanctions against Iran can work "if China and Russia" play along, which he hopes they will. Of course, there's a problem because they aren't playing along. Paul knows this but hardly feels compelled to suggest an alternative route to stopping Iran. In the past- blocking a sanctions bill and voting against a resolution on Iran (the sole vote against it)- Paul made it clear that he'd rule out American intervention and action against Iran. However, for what one would suspect are political motivations, Paul falls short of saying what the right policy should be. "I don't know what the answer on Iran is", he told me. "I don't know what I'm going to think about it in ten days".