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Rand Paul is about to kick off a Republican civil war on foreign policy

Rand Paul.
Rand Paul.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul is about to announce that he's running for president — kicking off a long-postponed Republican civil war on foreign policy.

Unlike the rest of the likely GOP presidential field, Paul is a die-hard true believer in scaling down America's involvement in conflicts around the world. That pits him against the mainstream, hawks in the Republican party whose ideas are sure to dominate the campaign. By running for president, Paul hopes to inject his ideas into the debate and shift priorities his party's held for decades.

Paul's presence alone is a threat to people in the party establishment. The party's most hawkish voices, fearing exactly this, are mobilizing in force to stop Paul — lobbying internally and even potentially running candidates whose sole purpose would be challenging Paul on foreign policy.

The coming campaign, then, is a major test of where the Republican Party view of foreign policy is heading.

Make no mistake — Rand Paul is a true believer in a non-interventionist foreign policy

Rand Paul

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul is pretty open about what he believes on foreign policy. It's a simple pitch: no more foreign wars and less government involvement in our lives in the name of security. It also happens to be 180 degrees from what most other Republicans think.

Paul supports nuclear negotiations with Iran (though he's been conspicuously quiet about the recently announced framework deal). He's tacitly endorsed the Obama approach to Russia and Ukraine, and has vociferously opposed NSA surveillance.

He's blasted both the Afghanistan surge and the Libya intervention. Today, he opposes arming the Syrian rebels to fight ISIS or Bashar al-Assad.

"After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war," Paul said in an October speech widely seen as an outline of his 2016 foreign policy platform.

Paul often builds conservative cred for these ideas by couching them as critiques of Democrats. In his recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee, for example, he bashed "Hillary's war in Libya" for ushering in chaos that helped jihadi groups flourish.

This is a standard non-interventionist argument — America's allegedly humanitarian wars often produce terrible unintended consequences — that also implicitly criticizes Republican hawks. But because it's couched as an attack on Democrats, it can play with Republicans.

Paul's seeming deviations from his line are usually part of a bigger plan

rand paul

(Jessica McGowan/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul will occasionally do something that makes it seem like he's moving in a more hawkish direction. Sometimes that's a sop to political necessity. Paul used to call for zeroing out US aid to Israel — an extremely unpopular position in the GOP that he's now reversed.

But other times, it's a fakeout. Paul learned from his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, that refusing to compromise or tailor your libertarian message at all will simply lead to marginalization inside the GOP. Instead, he's developed a more subtle strategy: repurpose classic Republican positions and tactics to endorse non-interventionist, rather than hawkish, views about foreign policy.

Take a recent amendment on defense spending. Paul, a longtime critic of wasteful defense spending, proposed a larger defense budget — shocking even stalwart libertarians.

But Paul wasn't mounting a serious campaign to hike defense spending. The amendment was designed to embarrass hawkish Sen. Marco Rubio, a likely primary rival. Paul's amendment proposed increasing spending by the exact same amount as one Rubio had proposed earlier, only Paul paid for it with other domestic spending cuts, which Rubio didn't.

"This amendment is to lay down a marker that if you believe we need more funding for national defense, you should show how you would pay for it," Doug Stafford, a senior Paul adviser, told Reason. The whole thing was a stunt designed to show that increasing defense spending requires tradeoffs from any Republican who's serious about the debt.

Paul's nomination could have a tectonic impact on American foreign policy

US soldier Baghdad 2008 (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

An American soldier in Baghdad in 2008. (Ali Yussef/AFP/Getty Images)

Paul is basically alone on these issues in the primary. Virtually every plausible Republican candidate has argued that the Obama administration's major problem is that it's been too unwilling to intervene forcefully around the world. Paul, of course, thinks the opposite.

If Paul wins the primary — let alone the presidency — then the GOP and its elected officials will have to line up behind him. That will mean defending his foreign policy against Democrats, who will likely blast Paul from an interventionist point of view.

The Democratic criticism of Paul's big October speech shows how this dynamic would work. "Paul's been clear about his goal," DNC Press Secretary Michael Czin told reporters before the speech. "He wants to see America retreat from our responsibilities around the world." Republican Party organs like the RNC couldn't just take this stuff. They'd need to defend their candidate, essentially forcing Republicans around the country to back Paul's non-interventionism.

As Republicans defend Paul, Democrats might also drift hawkish as they unite against Paul's philosophy. That's particularly true if Hillary Clinton, who is already on the more interventionist side of the Democratic spectrum, is the nominee.

It's hard to say if a Paul nomination would transform the Republican Party's generally hawkish positions in the long run. But it'd be the biggest challenge to the GOP's hawkish orthodoxy in decades.

What we're about to see is an incredible test of the power of the party's hawkish faction

McCain graham talking

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

The bulk of the Republican Party's foreign policy is relatively hawkish. Paul's campaign represents an intolerable threat to their dominant position in the party, so he'll face massive resistance from them in the coming months.

Yesterday, for example, Bloomberg's Josh Rogin reported that a new group called the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America planned to spend "seven figures" on an ad campaign painting Paul as soft on foreign policy, particularly on Iran. Rick Reed, the man behind the campaign, is the same guy who spearheaded the infamous "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attacks on John Kerry.

Reed's group is hardly the first major institutional pushback against Paul. Both Sen. Lindsey Graham, Rep. Pete King, and former UN Ambassador John Bolton appear to be considering runs. None really have a real shot at the nomination. It's very clear, as MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reports, that the entire point of their runs would be to attack Paul from the interventionist right.

Whether these anti-Paul campaigns succeed is an open, but really important, question. Since the early Bush administration, the GOP's hawkish factions have enjoyed essentially unchallenged control over the party's national agenda. In fact, there probably hasn't been this serious a challenge to Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy since the Reagan revolution.

Paul's announcement today, then, isn't just about him. It's about whether the Republican Party is open to a fundamentally different way of approaching the world.