The big winner in the collapse of Governor Chris Christie’s political prospects looks, at least for the moment, to be Rand Paul, the rising right-winger from Kentucky. He is the leading libertarian Republican in the Senate, an all-but-declared candidate for president, and a politician whose philosophy poses a challenge to the paleo- and neo-conservatives and to the liberals. He could also change the game in respect to Israel.
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My own sense of the story starts with the senator’s father, Ron Paul, whom I’ve covered for more than 30 years. He was the leading libertarian in the Congress until he stood down in the last election. Ron Paul’s libertarian principles are so opposed to foreign aid and to foreign entanglements that he emerged as a bitter critic of neo-conservative partisans of Israel. Some ascribe this to base sentiments. But covering Ron Paul’s campaign for honest money has left me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
The written record left by the young Harry Truman, after all, is filled with more coarse anti-Semitism and racist references to African Americans and Asians than anything any one has come close to finding in respect of Ron Paul. Yet Truman desegregated the army and recognized Israel within minutes of its declaration. One of the great features of democracy is that people tend to change as they run the gauntlet of a presidential campaign.
What impresses me about Paul is his attention to the classical economists and to the American Constitution. Right after September 11, 2001, he introduced legislation to issue against Osama bin Laden and his confederates what are called letters of marque, which are licenses to private parties to carry on acts of war. Though rarely used, letters of marque are the second of the basic war powers the Constitution grants to Congress. That Ron Paul proposed to use them, rather than the trillion-dollar expedition from which we’re now retreating, offers a lesson in how libertarians think.
They are surprising, creative, and partial to the American parchment, and Rand Paul seems to have learned well from his father’s principles — and mistakes. He is charting a more open course. He signaled this with his trip to Israel a year ago. At the time I wrote of the contrast with Vice President Biden, who on a visit to Jerusalem precipitated a diplomatic crisis by erupting at some detail of policy on the West Bank. Rand Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, the West Bank, and other places, was all sweetness and light.
Rand Paul did speak of his opposition to foreign aid. He insisted that he’d not end aid precipitously but that cutbacks would hurt Israel’s enemies more than the Jewish state, which in recent years gets essentially no traditional foreign aid. Nor is Rand Paul the only opponent of foreign aid. In the 1990s, when I was editing the Forward, the newspaper, in an editorial headlined “Israel’s Poison,” called for weaning Jerusalem from foreign aid, on the theory that it retards progress toward a free market economy.
Paul’s Israel visit displayed his ability to express differences without seeming haughty, bigoted or hostile — though where his libertarianism would take him hasn’t been thoroughly tested in the American debate. He did emerge as the first Republican to side with President Obama and the Iranian mullahs in the Iran sanctions debate, saying of the mullahs: “If we can see that they’re negotiating in good faith, I don’t think it’s a good idea to pass sanctions while we’re in the midst of negotiations.”
Rand Paul’s father famously hung back from denouncing Israel when the Prime Minister Begin sent the IDF to destroy Iraq’s atomic reactor. Would Rand Paul do the same were Israel raid the Iranian bomb-making program? More recently the senator’s father has declared himself satisfied that the U.S. should honor Israel’s choice of Jerusalem as its capital. Presidential aspirants have a way of promising to move America’s embassy to Jerusalem only to flinch once in office. The Pauls, though, have a way of not flinching.
No wonder Rand Paul has emerged as a leading figure in the fight against the administration’s use of the U.S. PATRIOT Act. “If you like your privacy, you can keep it,” is the wisecrack with which Paul mocked President Obama’s proposed reforms to NSA eavesdropping. I wouldn’t make book one way or another what the Supreme Court is going to do, but Rand Paul is someone to think about in the current crisis.
Secretary of State Kerry, after all, has just fetched up at the Munich Security Conference, warning that what he perceives as Israel’s intransigence could invite consequences from disappointed Arabs. “There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things,” Kerry told the Europeans. It fell to Prime Minister Netanyahu to reject the threat and Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz to mark the insult as “insufferable.” My guess is that he’d take Rand Paul over John Kerry in a walk. And not just because Chris Christie is stuck in traffic.
The writer is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a 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.