WASHINGTON — Sen. Rand Paul used an address to the conservative Heritage Foundation Wednesday to give voice to the a softer, less paranoid and more moderate version of what his father Ron's foreign policy positions have traditionally been.
Paul has positioned himself as suspicious of neo-conservatism in the past, but this speech was possibly the most explicitly anti-neocon address of his career, outlining a libertarian-leaning but not isolationist view of the world and the nation's place in it.
"I see the world as it is," Paul said at the beginning of his speech. "I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist." He spoke to a small auditorium of Heritage and Capitol Hill staffers, college students, and reporters.
Paul argued against ruling out diplomacy when it comes to Iran, and even seemed to argue that containment should still be on the table — a position that puts him to the left even of the Obama administration, whose stated policy on Iran is prevention, not containment.
"No one, myself included, wants to see a nuclear Iran," Paul said. "Iran does need to know that all options are on the table. But we should not pre-emptively announce that diplomacy or containment will never be an option."
"In a recent Senate resolution, the bipartisan consensus stated that we will never contain Iran should they get a nuclear weapon. In the debate, I made the point that while I think it unwise to declare that we will contain a nuclear Iran, I think it equally unwise to say we will never contain a nuclear Iran. War should never be our only option."
Paul argued that the current situation of the U.S. in relation to Islamic fundamentalism is analogous to our relationship with the Soviets during the Cold War, and seemed to take Ronald Reagan's foreign policy as inspiration.
"Everybody now loves Ronald Reagan," Paul said. "Even President Obama tries to toady up and vainly try to resemble some Reaganism. Reagan's foreign policy was robust but also restrained. He pulled no punches in telling Mr. Gorbachev to 'tear down that wall.' He did not shy from labeling the Soviet Union an evil empire. But he also sat down with Gorbachev and negotiated meaningful reductions in nuclear weapons."
"Many of today's neoconservatives want to wrap themselves up in Reagan's mantle but the truth is that Reagan used clear messages of communism's evil and clear exposition of America's strength to contain and ultimately transcend the Soviet Union."
The speech was a little thin on the history side — for example, Paul blamed the U.S. for the effects that came out of arming the Afghan mujadhadin during the Cold War, but skated over the fact that this was a part of Reagan's foreign policy. And though the speech was supposed to be about striving to emulate what the founding fathers would want for foreign policy, there weren't too many details about what the founders actually thought about issues like these.
But the speech, along with his appointment to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and recent trip to Israel, announces Paul's intentions to become a serious player in the foreign policy world — and to have that be a marquee issue for him as he looks toward a possible presidential run in 2016.
It also may cause a bit of a dustup. As the audience got up to leave after Paul's 30-minute speech, one woman remarked to her neighbor: "Well, that was a shot at the neo-cons."