Opinion: Rand Paul’s hawkish stance on Islamic State has some libertarians crying flip-flop

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is being excoriated by some libertarians for his comments about Islamic State. His support for the U.S. pulverizing the would-be Middle Eastern caliphate has led to accusations that Paul has flip-flopped.
(Mike Stone / Getty Images)

When are a politician’s biggest fans his worst liability?

When they are ideologically pure.

A case in point: how some libertarians have turned on Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for his comments over the last week about Islamic State. In particular, his support for the United States pulverizing the would-be Middle Eastern caliphate has led to accusations that Paul has flip-flopped.

I’m not enough of a student of Kentucky’s junior senator to know whether his recent hawkish statements about Islamic State threat reverse any stance he’d previously taken on the mafia-like band of holy warriors. But here’s the thing: A politician’s most ideological or single-issue-oriented followers are such students. They hang on a favored pol’s every word.

And when the pol appears to stray or show inconsistency, they take their complaints to the public.

For example, Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, walked readers through a series of apparent vacillations in Paul’s recent pronouncements on Islamic State. Referring to comments Paul made to the Associated Press on Aug. 29, Sullum wrote, “At that point Paul, who earlier in the day had presented himself as undecided on the question of whether ISIS poses a threat that justifies war, was firmly convinced that it does. The sudden evaporation of Paul’s doubts reeks of political desperation.”


Sullum also held up a recent Paul op-ed as evidence that the senator was shifting in the wind. “ ‘A more realistic foreign policy,’ Paul wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, ‘would recognize that there are evil people and tyrannical regimes in this world, but also that America cannot police or solve every problem across the globe.’ Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the U.S. has to solve.”

Reason’s Robby Soave followed up on Sullum’s accusatory piece with a roundup of opinions from the Libertarisphere, most of them more tolerant of Paul’s stance. Several, in fact, suggested that Paul wasn’t really a libertarian, or at least he wasn’t a non-interventionist libertarian, or that he might even be a (gasp!) realist.


The latter quality, I might add, would be a good thing when it comes to the United States’ role in world affairs. But that’s just me.

Paul is hardly the only potential candidate for higher office to feel the sting of supporters who believe they have been spurned. There are examples of this all over the spectrum of litmus-test politics (e.g., pro-choice absolutists blasting Democrats who support parental notification requirements or limits on partial-birth abortion, or no-new-taxes zealots who oppose the elimination of tax breaks for ethanol).

Nevertheless, as Paul tries to persuade Republicans that he’s not an extremist on foreign policy -- as his non-interventionist father sometimes was, especially from a GOP POV -- he’s likely to prompt more critiques from writers such as Sullum, who read in Paul’s previous remarks a promise to be something that he’s proving not to be.

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