What is the difference between Senator Rand Paul and the Democratic Party’s left wing? Or, for that matter, between the senator and U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry? The libertarian Republican from Kentucky shocked a group of Orthodox educators in Brooklyn this week by declaring — “flatly,” according to the New York Times — that it was a “mistake” for America to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Barack Obama once said the same thing.
The senator, though, also opposed the intervention in which the Obama administration toppled Colonel Muammar Gadhafi at Libya. Paul called it “Hillary’s war,” according to several accounts of the meeting, and asserted that Libya had been an “utter disaster.” In and of itself, none of this is surprising. Senator Paul and his more radical father, ex-congressman Ron Paul, have been saying this sort of thing for years. What was new is that he came to the heart of Brooklyn and made the remarks to Jewish educators.
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Paul’s visit is being taken in the press as an important glimpse at how the senator is going to handle the questions his — and his father’s — libertarian views present to Jewish voters. His more radical father, ex-congressman Ron Paul, is often set down (wrongly, in my view) as anti-Semitic. The senator is going to deal with all this through the explication of his worldview in an outreach to the very communities that are most skeptical of him.
It’s a strategy I admire, even though I was — and am — a supporter of the Iraq War. My own view is that the mistake in Iraq was not in the attack but in the retreat. By my reckoning the better part of wisdom is with former U.S. President George W. Bush, who, in a meeting Saturday with Jewish Republicans at Las Vegas, suggested that President Obama blundered in pulling our residual forces out of Iraq and leaving the vacuum that Islamic State, or ISIS, is now filling.
“You gotta mean it,” the 43rd president told the gathering at Las Vegas, according to the account in the Times, which took his point to be that both our allies and enemies need “to know where an American leader stood.” Mr. Bush, incidentally, also came out against the appeasement of the Iranian regime, the first time he has done that in a post-presidency calculated to stay out of the way of his successor.
Senator Paul, in any event, seems to be following a “you gotta mean it” approach of his own, but from the opposite perspective. He insists he’s no isolationist but believes merely that war is a last resort, a point his father (a former officer in the Air Force during the Vietnam years) has always made. Senator Paul is no John Kerry, who was for resupplying our GIs in Iraq before he was against it and who, during Vietnam, campaigned for an abandonment of the Free Vietnamese forces alongside which he’d fought.
What was so striking about Senator Paul’s visit to Brooklyn this week is that for all the controversy over foreign affairs, Middle East issues are not at the center of his approach to the Jewish community. His meeting was at the Midwood, Brooklyn, office of Torah Umesorah, a national society of 675 Hebrew day schools with an enrollment of 190,000 pupils. This is a community that would benefit enormously from Rand Paul’s views on education funding.
Paul is a supporter of school vouchers, a system under which funding would flow not to the institutions where parents want to send their children. In its purest form it would relieve religious parents of having to pay for education twice, once for state schools to which they can’t send their children and once for religious schools. Or, as Business Insider quoted Paul as telling the Rabbis, “It’s your money, you should be able to take it wherever you want, religious, private, secular or public.”
Whether all this will cut any ice beyond Orthodox neighborhoods is hard to predict. But reports from Brooklyn this week suggest the senator made a bit of progress. His strategy, with its philosophical consistency, emerges as a sharp contrast from the situational ethics of the Democratic contenders and all too many of the Republican candidates. The Times quoted one person who attended the meeting, Michael Fragin, as saying “Clearly Senator Paul does not pander.”
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.