Why Rand Paul’s filibuster was something worse than grandstanding

Last week, I wondered whether Rand Paul’s filibuster was “grandstanding or something worse.” Actually, in the course of the post I made it clear that, for me, the filibuster (in addition, perhaps, to grandstanding) was indeed “something worse”:

I fear that, like his father, Paul’s underlying objection is to what he has called the “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists.

Being more politically astute then Ron Paul, the junior Senator from Kentucky has manufactured an issue out of domestic use of drones — a non-occurrence so far. He understands that many conservatives will be inclined to rally around him on this (non)issue, in part because their imagination will run wild and in part out of knee-jerk opposition to President Obama and Eric Holder.

Michael Gerson, in a devastating critique of Paul’s filibuster, has more fully articulated my fear in just about the words I wish I had used:

Since arriving in the Senate in 2011, Rand Paul has been probing here and there for issues of populist resonance. Audit the secretive, sinister Federal Reserve. Rein in those TSA screeners patting down little girls. In each instance, Paul has evoked the fear of oppressive government without tipping over into the paranoia of his father’s most dedicated supporters. It has been a diluted, domesticated, decaffeinated version of the ideology that motivated Ron Paul’s presidential races.

On drones, Rand Paul finally hit pay dirt. Thanks to his filibuster, Americans can now feel safe that if they are “typing e-mails in a cafe,” they will not be “summarily executed” by a Hellfire missile. . .It was Paul’s political genius to pick a ripe populist issue and drive home one narrow, uncontestable point.

But in the course of a 13-hour filibuster, it becomes impossible to hide your deeper motivations. Paul employs the prospect of drone murders in an attempt to discredit the “perpetual war” in which “the whole world is a zone of war.” His actual target is the war on terrorism, which he regards as unconstitutional and counterproductive.

When Paul spoke at last summer’s “We Are the Future” rally in Tampa, he praised his father in particular for raising the issue of “blowback.” “Had he not talked about blowback,” said the younger Paul, “I don’t think anyone ever would have.” This, in the Paulite milieu, is the idea that U.S. policies of aggression and empire provoke terrorist attacks. In his own speech at that rally, Ron Paul claimed that if his non-interventionism had been in force, the 3,000 people killed on 9/11 would still “be alive.”

In various settings, Rand Paul has described himself as a foreign policy “realist.” But this is not the ideology of Chuck Hagel or others skeptical of democracy promotion and nation-building. Paul’s “constitutional foreign policy” denies the legal basis for the war on terror, would place severe constraints on the executive in defending the nation and hints at the existence of an oppressive national security state.

These views are not new. They were central to Ron Paul’s presidential runs. But now they have an advocate who is more skilled, picks his fights better and possesses a larger platform. If the younger Paul runs for president in 2016, it will set up a lively debate on foreign policy fundamentals.

For insisting on, and skillfully promoting this debate, Rand Paul should not be denounced as a stunt artist trying to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in college dorms.” But Paul is dead and dangerously wrong about the war on terror, just as his father is. As Gerson concludes:

On the other side of that debate are two administrations and the majority of members of Congress from both parties who, since 9/11, have found the threat of terrorism both real and unappeasable. In this period, the American government, with congressional authorization, has destroyed terrorist training camps; undermined terrorist communications, fundraising and planning; targeted terrorist leaders; and disrupted at least 40 plots aimed at U.S. targets.

Far from perpetrating imaginary terrors on Americans, the government has protected them from real ones. Which is the reason that Republicans, in the end, cannot ­#StandWithRand.

Conservatives who understand this reality, and a clear majority of them do, shouldn’t abstain from non-over-the-top criticism of Rand Paul simply because he put on a good show and made the Obama administration squirm for a day.

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