A former United Nations correspondent, Leslie Pitterson is currently working on the production of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow her on Twitter @lesliepitterson.
One of the most memorable moments during Wednesday's heated congressional hearings on Benghazi came from Sen. Rand Paul. Calling the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi "the greatest tragedy since 9/11", the Kentucky Republican criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a "failure of leadership" and accused her of ignoring cables to the State Department that expressed concern over diplomatic security in Libya. Not to be outdone on a day full of political posturing, Paul told Clinton, "Had I been president at the time and I found out that you did not read the cables ... I would have relieved you of your post."
In the analysis following the hearing, many liberal commentators have dismissed Paul's remarks, at best giving a Michelle Obama like eye roll to the thought of a hypothetical Paul presidency. While it may seem a shallow prospect to those on the other side of the aisle, Paul has expressed his interest in a possible 2016 bid for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Wednesday, his office sent out an E-mail with video of his exchange with Clinton, the words, "Had I been president," in the subject line.
Debating the likelihood of a Rand Paul presidency is something best left for political pundits, who will no doubt have differing opinions on the viability of his candidacy within the GOP and his appeal with independent voters. But far more interesting is the internal calculus that Paul himself seems to be making about sharpening his foreign policy acumen ahead of a possible bid for the White House.
In recent months, Paul has attempted to make subtle shifts in his stances on several key foreign policy issues, moving closer to echoing the foreign policy talking points of past GOP presidential contenders. A Tea Party darling and son of libertarian retired Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rand Paul is aware of reticence his noninterventionist policy elicits from members of the Republican Party establishment. His public moves to align more closely with the rank and file reflect an understanding of what will be needed to strengthen his chance for a bid.
Earlier this month, Paul went on an eight day visit to Israel to quell concern among evangelicals that he was "anti-Israel," noting a "perception out there that because I'm in favor of cutting foreign aid I am not a friend to Israel." Accompanied by the Iowa and South Carolina GOP state chairs and 50 conservative activists and donors, Paul met with Israel's president and prime minister, gave speeches assuring that reductions in foreign aid would begin with the countries where the American flag gets burned before Israel and that his support for less U.S. economic assistance to Israel was really support for a more sovereign Israel, in his words, "less beholden." He also took a dip in the Dead Sea.
Upon his return to the Hill, Paul has stepped into his new role on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations making nearly daily statements taking the line of the hawks who have expressed skepticism towards him. Last week, Paul said that maybe the U.S. did need the Iron Dome missile defense systems to protect U.S. cities. Thursday, during Sen. John Kerry's confirmation hearing, Paul reiterated his call for the United States to consider withholding aid packages from Egypt and Pakistan. Taken on their own, these remarks are not in and of themselves about-faces. Rather, they are reframing of Paul's ideology to better fit into the script GOP nominees tend to stick to in the foreign policy debate.
In all of his recent foreign policy rollbacks, it is interesting to note that Paul has yet to concede a position on a single domestic issue. He remained adamant in his criticism of the House GOP for 'caving' to President Obama on the debt ceiling. In his upcoming appearance at the litmus test Conservative Political Action Conference, one can expect him to affirm his views against same sex marriage and in support for a federal ban on abortion.
The policies Rand Paul is willing to shift on suggest something far more significant about his internal calculus in eyeing a GOP bid. The logic seems to be that the vulnerability for a possible Rand Paul candidacy is not so much his lack of appeal to the fastest growing segments in the electorate (women and minorities) but rather his anti-interventionist rhetoric which has been central in defining his view of America's role in the world up to this point.
In some ways, Rand Paul's foreign policy rebirth reinforces the importance of foreign policy credibility in our country's choice for its highest office. It outlines the political limits to non status quo thinking in either party on foreign affairs. But probably most importantly, it shows that even in a polarized Washington, with the right incentive, the so called 'uncompromising' often budge.