On the evening of September 11, Rand Paul sipped red wine out of a clear plastic cup as he wended his way through a bar full of 200 or so millennials. After snapping photos with admirers who had gathered to hear Paul speak and partake of free food and drink provided by Generation Opportunity, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit, the Kentucky senator took the stage.
“How many people here have a cell phone?” Paul asked at the beginning of his remarks. “How many people think it’s none of the government’s damn business what you do with your cell phone?” The crowd cheered.
“I really, really worry about Anthony Weiner. Because you know he likes to take the selfies,” Paul said of the former Democratic congressman who accidentally posted lewd photos of himself on Twitter. “He’s had trouble finding a place to put them where no one can find them. So I’m thinking maybe Anthony Weiner should put his selfies in Lois Lerner’s emails.”
The crowd loved it, but Paul quickly dropped the stand-up act and became an earnest civil libertarian. He denounced the Patriot Act, the NSA’s surveillance program, and the drug war. He warned that American citizens could be detained at Guantánamo Bay someday without a trial. It was the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, but Paul didn’t mention them. Generation Opportunity, the group hosting the event, primarily focuses on fiscal issues, but Paul devoted a single line to economics. Almost every word spoken by the likely Republican presidential candidate could have been uttered by the president of the ACLU. And that was the point.
Paul was surrounded by longtime supporters of his father Ron Paul’s presidential campaigns, including the elder Paul’s 2008 effort, which was born largely out of opposition to the Iraq war. But Rand Paul had recently announced his support for an air war against the Islamic State, despite his previous strong skepticism about airstrikes and his father’s advice to “stay out.” The message the Kentucky senator was sending to the loyalists gathered in New Hampshire was that he hadn’t really changed at all—he was still the same old different-kind-of-Republican he’s always been.
But it’s impossible to deny that on the issue of airstrikes against ISIS, Paul’s views have changed. On June 19, a week after Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, fell to ISIS, Paul took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to warn that the United States should stay out of Iraq’s civil war. He wrote that U.S. airstrikes could turn America into “Iran’s air force” and that an effort to “transform Iraq into something more amenable to our interests would likely require another decade of U.S. presence and perhaps another 4,000 American lives.”
On August 11, after Christians had fled death or forced conversion in Mosul and Yazidis had been massacred in Sinjar, Paul indicated he was ambivalent about the airstrikes President Obama had just ordered. “I have mixed feelings about it,” Paul said. “I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing.”
As late as August 29, Paul suggested at an event in Dallas that he hadn’t made up his mind about attacking ISIS: “I think the strategy has to be that you have an open debate in the country over whether or not ISIS is a threat to our national security. And it’s not enough just to say they are. That’s usually what you hear—you hear a conclusion. People say, ‘Well, it’s a threat to our national security.’ That’s a conclusion. The debate has to be: Are they a threat to our national security?”
But later that same day, Paul sent a statement to the Associated Press saying that if he were president, he would “seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”
“Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily. They shouldn’t be,” Paul wrote on September 4 in Time magazine. “If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”
Some of the pundits most surprised were Paul’s libertarian allies. “The sudden evaporation of Paul’s doubts reeks of political desperation,” wrote Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason. “Paul still has not explained why the problem of ISIS is one the United States has to solve.”