By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — After former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was killed Saturday at a Texas shooting range, former Rep. Ron Paul tweeted a shockingly cold sentiment.
“Chris Kyle’s death seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,’” wrote Paul, who as a presidential candidate opposed military action.
The message quickly drew a dissenting view from Capitol Hill, where one senator issued a statement calling Kyle “a hero like all Americans who don the uniform to defend our country. Our prayers are with his family during this tragic time.”
That senator was Paul’s son, Rand Paul.
That divergence between father and son underscored the younger Paul’s mission as the Kentucky Republican builds his power in Washington in preparation for the 2016 presidential run he has been talking up: He must detach himself from his father’s most extreme views without disowning his father’s considerable following among tea party activists and libertarians.
This is no easy task, for one simple reason: Rand Paul’s views are often indistinguishable from his father’s. The similarity was plain to see when the younger Paul appeared at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday morning to give a speech outlining his foreign policy.
“I am a realist,” he proclaimed, “not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.” He described himself as being between the two extremes of intervening “everywhere all the time” and being “nowhere any of the time.” He informed the Heritage scholars that “Reagan’s foreign policy was much closer to what I am advocating than what we have today.”
Oh? The same Reagan who intervened in Beirut, invaded Grenada and bombed Tripoli?
In fact, the only military intervention Paul explicitly supported in his speech was attacking al-Qaida in Afghanistan — a conflict even his father voted to authorize. Later, in a conference call with reporters, I asked Paul whether there was any other military intervention in the past 30 or 40 years he would have supported. That left a wide range of possibilities — Vietnam, Panama, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Iraq, Libya — but he declined to name one.
The apple, it would appear, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Paul’s libertarianism, like his dad’s, is well established. He caused a stir during his 2010 campaign by raising doubts about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and he opposes foreign aid — reiterating on a recent trip to Israel his wish to cut funding for that country.
But Paul has national ambitions. Although the presidency hardly seems plausible, he has shown more interest in being a Washington player than his father did, and he has been making more overtures to the Republican establishment.
During Wednesday’s conference call, he said in response to a question from the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Jim Carroll that the purpose of the speech was “separating myself.” He didn’t say from whom he was separating himself, but in a later question from The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake, he said “there are definite differences” between the two Pauls, and “I think it’s better just to try to be my own person.”
In his speech, Paul presented himself as a modern-day George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment. “What the United States needs is a foreign policy that finds that middle path,” he argued, reading from a teleprompter. “A policy that is not rash or reckless. A foreign policy that is reluctant, restrained by constitutional checks and balances but does not appease.”
But in the details of his speech, Paul didn’t say much about where his foreign policy would allow for intervention. He was skeptical of involvement in Iran and Syria, mentioned concerns about Iraq and urged less military support for Egypt. Paul hurried through his speech in 20 minutes and then bolted from the lectern before questions could be asked. Such sessions at Heritage generally last an hour, including questions.
In his call with reporters later, he returned to a tone that sounded more isolationist — or, as modern isolationists call themselves, non-interventionists. “We supported a concept of radical jihad against the Soviets, and it came back to bite us,” he said. “Some people argue keeping the shah in power ultimately came back to bite us.” Calling for the United States to “be more hesitant,” he argued that in Syria “we shouldn’t be arming one side or the other.”
Paul acknowledged that 70 percent to 80 percent of his colleagues reject his views. “The elected officials up here haven’t caught up with where the public is,” he said.
If this makes Rand Paul a foreign policy realist, so’s his old man.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.