Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Paul

The Isolationist Declares War

Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

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Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

In one way, Paul’s proposal makes a great deal of sense. For decades presidents have carried out military campaigns without a declaration of war, creating an imperial presidency that gives the executive more power than the Founders would have liked. A declaration would create, at least in theory, more accountability as well as restoring some needed constitutional balance to the way foreign and defense policy is carried out.

But as much as this makes some superficial sense, Paul’s intentions have more to do with both restricting the scope of the war against radical Islamist terrorist and posing as a responsible would-be commander in chief than it does with actually winning the war against ISIS and its allies in Iraq and Syria.

Paul’s proposed declaration, like some of the other potential new authorizations of force circulating in Congress, would preclude the use of ground troops against ISIS except in highly restricted circumstances. That actually dovetails nicely with President Obama’s stance on the war that has been carried out in a half-hearted way that makes it hard to envision the kind of rollback of ISIS gains in both Iraq and Syria that will be required for victory against the group.

Like Obama, Paul’s objective here is not military victory—the object of any real declaration of war—but giving the country the impression that the U.S. is doing something about a problem that has rightly scared the American public without actually fighting a war.

But unlike Obama, Paul’s goal is also to convince the majority of Republicans that he is not an isolationist. Since Paul began his planning for a presidential campaign after the conclusion of the 2012 campaign, the Kentucky senator’s goal has been to rebrand himself as an old-fashioned foreign-policy realist instead of being seen as the son of the leader of a rabid band of extremist libertarians. Rand is a smarter, slicker, and cooler version of his father Ron, a fire-breathing radical who lamented on Twitter the victory of his son’s party in the midterm elections because he envisaged that it would lead to “neocon wars” with “boots on the ground.”

The senator’s approach to foreign and defense policy doesn’t have the same feel as that of his father. Unlike Ron, Rand does not use rhetoric—or at least not anymore—that makes him seem to the left of Barack Obama and liberal Democrats on foreign policy. In that sense, a declaration of war is a twofer for Rand in that it enables him to look like someone serious about fighting terrorists that the public fears while also sounding some of the Constitutional arguments about presidential overreach that endeared him to conservatives last year when his drone filibuster galvanized the nation.

But the declaration is more a matter of posturing than a genuine foreign-policy alternative. In the unlikely event that it passed, it would serve to limit not just presidential abuses of power but take away the leeway that any president needs to defend the nation in an age where threats and enemies are very different from the ones Franklin Roosevelt’s America faced in 1941.

That’s why Senator James Inhofe’s idea of a new resolution authorizing force that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to use against ISIS while requiring the White House to regularly report to Congress on the war makes far more sense than Paul’s declaration in terms of what is needed to actually win the conflict.

Thanks to ISIS and Obama’s disastrous Middle East policies, the libertarian moment that convulsed American politics in 2013 is over. In seeking to position himself as someone willing to fight wars, Paul has made progress toward becoming more of a mainstream political figure, something that is necessary if he is to have a chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But what this discussion illustrates is that the real problem is not whether Congress passes a declaration of war or a new resolution authorizing the use of force but what kind of a commander in chief the country is saddled with. With an Obama or a Rand Paul, America will have someone who doesn’t want to be seen as weak but who is not interested in a serious effort to defeat threats to the country’s security. That is something Republicans who rightly take a dim view of the president’s policies should think about before they buy into Paul’s proposal or his bid for the nomination.

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Did Obama Unite the GOP on Immigration?

Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

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Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

In the past, Obama has been fairly skilled in dividing Republicans against themselves, especially on the issue of immigration. And one might have expected something similar this time as well. Republicans are not, after all, of one mind in how to respond to the executive action he plans to announce tonight. Obama has twice scuttled immigration reform, once as senator and prospective presidential candidate and once as president as well, because the issue was thought to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters.

The issue also seemed to weaken the Republican presidential fields. In 2012 Rick Perry stumbled badly over an immigration question at a primary debate and never really recovered. And for 2016, prospective candidates found themselves on different sides of the issue: Marco Rubio helped get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, Rand Paul wavered but ultimately voted against it, and Ted Cruz was opposed.

That, and the fact that reform died in the House anyway, was a setback for Rubio. The Florida senator had since recovered some of his earlier momentum thanks in part to the president’s vast array of foreign-policy blunders, and the president’s executive amnesty is likely to help the two GOP rising stars who voted for immigration reform last year: Rubio and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Immigration hawks will still remember their votes for the reform bill. But the president’s actions do two things that will help them. First, it removes some of the fear the grassroots might have in what action a hypothetical President Rubio might take on immigration. That is, if amnesty is already done, then the only things that are left are issues that Republicans tend to broadly agree on, such as border security.

It’s true that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House in the near future anyway, but Obama has essentially taken the part of it that conservatives like the least off the table. There’s no looming threat of amnesty; it’s here. Having already supported immigration reform, Rubio will get some credit from Hispanic voters. But will his opposition to executive amnesty lose them?

That’s where the second aspect of Obama’s miscalculation comes in. By making such an obvious power grab, he has made opposition to his actions intellectually much simpler. The words “king” and “emperor” have been thrown around; Ted Cruz even referenced Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline today, as if Obama would even know who that is:

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

Even Democrats seem to have no idea how to explain how the executive amnesty is legal.

Which is to say: it’s very easy to criticize this move without attacking immigrants–though the media, surely, will attempt to conflate the two. And doing so also enables Republican candidates to come out strongly against Obama’s power grabs more generally, and his immigration actions specifically, to a conservative audience in the same way they would do so to a general-election audience, without having to flip-flop or triangulate.

Obama has been criticized for this power grab by even traditionally supportive left-leaning media, such as the Washington Post and the Economist, because of the precedent it would set and the left’s fear of reprisals. This debate isn’t about the policy anymore, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something. Obama has given even supporters of immigration reform a way to oppose amnesty without opposing immigration in itself.

Obama has made the conversation about the damage this act would do to American democracy. That’s very comfortable terrain for Republicans, who are thus far more united on this issue than they would otherwise be.

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Can Rand Paul Win Without Father’s Fans?

Of all the potential serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, only one isn’t playing it coy about their ambition. Senator Rand Paul is bypassing the traditional pretense of indecision prior to announcing and is leaving no doubt that he is planning on running in 2016. The Kentucky senator convened a meeting of advisors to plan the start of his campaign today in Washington but, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there was one important person missing from the conclave: Ron Paul, the former House member and perennial libertarian presidential candidate who also happens to be Rand’s father. But while this absence is in one sense a very good thing for his son’s ambitions, the growing gap between Rand and his father raises the question of whether he can win without his father’s supporters.

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Of all the potential serious candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, only one isn’t playing it coy about their ambition. Senator Rand Paul is bypassing the traditional pretense of indecision prior to announcing and is leaving no doubt that he is planning on running in 2016. The Kentucky senator convened a meeting of advisors to plan the start of his campaign today in Washington but, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there was one important person missing from the conclave: Ron Paul, the former House member and perennial libertarian presidential candidate who also happens to be Rand’s father. But while this absence is in one sense a very good thing for his son’s ambitions, the growing gap between Rand and his father raises the question of whether he can win without his father’s supporters.

Putting some distance between himself and his father has always been a prerequisite for Paul’s presidential hopes. While his father was able to count on a small but active segment of those who voted in Republican presidential primaries, his extreme libertarianism and foreign-policy views that put him to the left of President Obama ensured that Ron Paul never was going to be nominated by the GOP, let alone win the presidency.

Rand had a different plan. Much slicker and more attuned to mainstream opinion than his father, the senator’s goal was to hold on to the libertarian base that he presumed he would inherit from his father and add Tea Party Republicans who admired his principled stands against taxes and spending. Paul won the admiration of a wide range of conservatives last year with his filibuster against President Obama’s drone policies even if many didn’t agree with him on the issue. In an environment in which his neo-isolationist views, carefully parsed to avoid the label of extremism that stuck to his father, had become respectable, Paul was certain to be a first-tier primary candidate. Moreover, in what is expected to be a crowded field in which none of his potential rivals could count on a base as solid as his, there was a clear, if by no means certain, path to the nomination for him.

For those who have followed the senator for the last few years, his attempts to move into the mainstream on foreign-policy issues has been inextricably linked to his presidential ambitions. Though he was an ardent follower of his father when he began his political career, over the course of the last four years in the Senate he has carefully edged his way back into the mainstream. He eschewed his father’s extreme positions on foreign policy and tried to position himself as the avatar of a new generation of foreign-policy “realism.” That put him at odds with neo-conservatives and others in the party’s center on a whole range of issues but was a far cry from his father’s ranting about American imperialism and rationalizations of the behavior of Iran and other Islamist terror sponsors. He tried the same delicate dance on the issue of Israel in which he continued to oppose all foreign aid but also claimed to be a friend of the Jewish state and an opponent of those who would pressure it.

But the senator shocked some of his original libertarian fans recently when he realized that the isolationist moment had ended and endorsed air attacks against ISIS terrorists. In doing so he did what all people who have caught the presidential bug do when they think they have a reasonable chance of winning: abandoning their old positions in the vain support of those who would otherwise not vote for him. That makes Rand Paul a normal politician but it also brands him as a turncoat to his father’s libertarian true believers.

Moreover, in case anyone was in doubt as to what Ron Paul thought about this, they only had to follow him on Twitter where, on election night last week, he had this reaction to a Republican victory that his son was very publicly celebrating:

Republican control of the Senate = expanded neocon wars in Syria and Iraq. Boots on the ground are coming!

This statement changes the dynamic for his son’s presidential campaign. The more Ron Paul denounces the mainstream Republican Party and stays away from his son’s campaign, the easier it will be for his son to ignore those who will say he needs to be held responsible for his father’s extremism. Rather than being Rand’s Jeremiah Wright, Ron may well have no trouble denouncing his son’s apostasy from the libertarian true faith. That will help Rand get more centrist or conservative votes but there’s one element to this equation that doesn’t work in his favor.

It’s one thing for Rand to distance himself from his father’s beliefs but quite another for the Paulbots that energetically campaigned and voted for Ron to abandon him. The plan was, after all, for him to retain his father’s backers while adding mainstream Tea Party or mainstream Republicans who wanted no part of the senior Paul’s extremist views on foreign policy. But if they abandon him altogether, then he will be heading into the primaries without the core constituency that gives him such a strong profile.

The math of the Republican primaries is such that if the Paulbots don’t turn out for Rand it’s hard to see how he wins. Though his father’s following comprised only a minority of GOP voters, they were ardent and well organized, enabling them to win delegates for him in caucus states even though they didn’t represent the views of most Republicans. Added to his new more mainstream fans, they could provide the shock troops of a libertarian push to win the GOP for Rand. But in their absence (and most would stay home or return to their Democratic roots rather than embrace a man whom some would call sellout), Rand will be on an equal footing with other Republican candidates and that spells defeat for him.

This illustrates how difficult it is for an outlier to become a mainstream candidate. Though many libertarians would stick with Paul, if enough don’t, he will wind up falling very short of his goal. Though his father provided the inspiration for his political career, it may be that he will also help end it.

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Rand Paul’s Utopian Realism and 2016

Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

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Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

At Bloomberg View, Lanhee Chen (a top advisor to Mitt Romney) writes that foreign policy helped Republicans win over Asian-American voters on Tuesday. Chen looks at the exit polls, and notes that while “one should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a sample of just 129 Asian respondents, the marked emphasis on foreign policy among these voters is still noteworthy – and outside the margin of error for the poll.”

And at the Daily Beast Eli Lake goes into detail on how the Republican wave, and specifically its takeover of the Senate majority, could impact American foreign policy going forward. Republicans elected young, promising hawks like Tom Cotton in Arkansas, and more importantly the GOP will take the chairmanships of the foreign-policy related Senate committees. “You could call it the neoconservatives’ revenge or the year of the hawks,” Lake writes. “But it has produced an interesting moment in Washington, where even the dovish side of the Republican Party now acknowledges the midterms were a win for their party’s American exceptionalists.”

One person who wasn’t happy was Ron Paul, who tweeted his wild apocalyptic take on the election. And one person who could not have been happy about that tweet was Paul’s son, Rand, who plans to run for president and therefore would benefit from his father declining to set his hair on fire in public every time a Republican says something nice about America’s role in the world.

More substantively, however, it raises the question of whether the midterms produced a wave Paul can ride to his party’s nomination or one that washed him out of contention. Paul has noticed that what appeared to be a noninterventionist moment in the GOP has not solidified into a major shift in conservative foreign-policy circles. And so it was Paul who has shifted.

At first that shift was mainly one of tone, and I am sympathetic to those who felt that this shift was being exaggerated by hawks who wanted to portray Paul as someone who decided that he couldn’t beat them so he joined them. But with Paul’s speech to the annual dinner of the Center for the National Interest, it’s clear Paul wants to be seen as shifting more than his tone. The key part of the speech was this:

The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.

President Obama claims that al Qaeda is decimated.  But a recent report by the RAND Corporation tracked a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups.

To contain and ultimately defeat radical Islam, America must have confidence in our constitutional republic, our leadership, and our values.

To defend our country we must understand that a hatred of our values exists, and acknowledge that interventions in foreign countries may well exacerbate this hatred, but that ultimately, we must be willing and able to defend our country and our interests.

Prosecuting the war on terror is far more consequential than standing athwart hypothetical ground invasions. The war on terror is far more relevant to America’s day-to-day security maintenance because it involves the prevention of the multitude of threats to the American homeland. It’s also significant because of the noninterventionists’ much-feared renewed land war in the Middle East.

The possibility of putting “boots on the ground”–or additional boots on the ground, depending on how you look at it–in Iraq and elsewhere is not because America is interested in toppling the Iraqi government but in preserving it. The entity threatening to bring down allied governments is the network of Islamist terrorists, in this case specifically ISIS. The global war on terror, then, can be just as much about preventing additional land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Rand Paul seems to understand this, if his speech is any indication. His supporters, especially his libertarian supporters who are once again looking to Gary Johnson, won’t like it. Others will, as James Poulos seeks to over at the Federalist, reimagine Paul’s limited policy aims as a broad and grand and ocean-deep set of assumptions about human nature. Aside from the unfortunate (but common) false characterizations about neoconservatives, Poulos interprets Rand Paul’s foreign policy as no less a utopian scheme than the strains of conservative foreign policy Poulos says Paul rejects. Elsewhere, Poulos credits Paul with ideas that neoconservatives have long been championing, such as the underestimated role of corruption in global affairs.

Suddenly, Paul’s unique approach to American foreign policy relies on nuance to even tell it apart from the status quo. That’s because Paul can read the polls, and he’s been watching the electorate he hopes to lead. One wonders, then, whether what will ultimately undo Paul is that he will have convinced his once-ardent supporters that he’s left their camp while failing to convince those who doubted him all along.

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Is Ukraine Too Pro-West for the West?

In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

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In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

We need to use sanctions and defense spending to achieve a diplomatic settlement that takes into account Russia’s long-standing ties with Ukraine and allows Kiev to develop its relations both with Russia and the West.

As Kissinger put it: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

This part of the speech was a combination of great power politics and something of a straw man. The straw man is the suggestion that we in the West are contemplating not allowing Ukraine to develop relations with Russia. On the contrary, the West’s position is that Ukraine should be free to choose its path. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–more than once–in order to prevent this. And the great power politics part of this section of the speech expressly contradicted the principle that Ukraine should be free to choose.

What if Ukraine doesn’t want to serve “as a bridge between” the West and Russia? What if Kiev simply wants to act as an independent nation pursuing its interests, rather than be the messenger boy between American realists and the Putin government? That’s what Ukraine appears to have done in this week’s parliamentary elections, in which pro-European parties dominated the early returns. As Simon Shuster reports:

On Sunday night, as the votes in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were being tallied, President Petro Poroshenko went on television to congratulate his citizens on the successful ballot and, citing early results, to highlight one of the milestones the country had crossed: Ukraine’s Communist Party, a political holdover from the nation’s Soviet past that had always championed close ties with Russia, had failed to win a single parliamentary seat.

“For that I congratulate you,” the Ukrainian leader told his countrymen. “The people’s judgment, which is higher than all but the judgment of God, has issued a death sentence to the Communist Party of Ukraine.” For the first time since the Russian revolution of 1917 swept across Ukraine and turned it into a Soviet satellite, there would be no communists in the nation’s parliament.

Their defeat, though largely symbolic, epitomized the transformation of Ukraine that began with this year’s revolution and, in many respects, ended with the ballot on Sunday. If the communists and other pro-Russian parties had enormous influence in Ukraine before the uprising and a firm base of support in the eastern half of the country, they are now all but irrelevant. The pro-Western leaders of the revolution, by contrast, saw a resounding victory over the weekend for their agenda of European integration. “More than three-quarters of voters who cast their ballots showed firm and irreversible support for Ukraine’s course toward Europe,” Poroshenko said in his televised address.

Right-wing and populist parties too were trounced. Ukrainian voters had repudiated Moscow’s influence as well as that of revanchist agitators. And the pro-Russian rebels have, in response, pushed forward with their own upcoming elections, which Russia backs. Shuster was effusive on the voters’ clear desire to set Ukraine on a path to Europe: “That path will not be easy, as Western leaders are hardly eager to welcome Ukraine’s failing economy and its 45 million citizens into the E.U. But the national consensus behind European integration, and the lasting break with Russia that this agenda entails, is now stronger than at any point in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.”

This is, in fact, quite historic. And it should be inspiring to the West. But the realists could take it or leave it, since they believe stability lies in bloodless great-power rivalry and a balancing that amounts to the recognition of spheres of influence. To read Paul’s speech, it is actually possible for Ukraine to be too pro-Western. To much of the conservative foreign-policy world, this is odd indeed.

And it’s also a pleasant surprise, considering the treatment of the Ukrainians during all this. The West stood by as Russia invaded, again and again, to chip away at Ukraine’s territory and create frozen conflicts in the border regions Putin wouldn’t go so far as to annex. The Obama administration yawned, and agreed to give the Ukrainians fighting for their country MREs, as if they could fling combat rations at the invading Russian forces to repel them. Europe was slow to agree to serious economic sanctions on Moscow.

All is apparently forgiven. Ukrainians seem to have made their choice. They want to join the West, not serve as a realist tool of stability, a bridge to be walked all over. How the West responds to this outstretched hand will say much about its ebbing moral authority.

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“Greatness,” Humility, and the Presidency

It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

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It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

The piece is headlined “Obama and the End of Greatness.” The story is a close relative of the “America the ungovernable” narrative, in which failed Democratic presidents inspire liberal commentators to decide that if someone like Obama can’t succeed, the job is too difficult for one man. That narrative is false, of course; Obama is simply not very good at his job and has personality traits that compel him to lash out and blame others instead of changing course. The Shesol conceit is similar: Obama turned out not to be a great president but perhaps we don’t need or can’t have or shouldn’t expect great presidents at all.

This, too, is wrong. But it’s wrong in an interesting way. Obama was the one who raised expectations, and his followers merely echoed his vainglorious messianic pronouncements. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the country agreeing on a “great” modern president if only because the two major parties have moved so far apart that they now view governing in completely different ways. Liberals would measure a great president according to how much legislation he passed giving himself and the government he leads, essentially, more power. Conservatives aren’t opposed to governing–as the left often accuses them of being–but rather see good governance from the executive in terms of devolving power back to the people.

Yet as humble as we should be about presidential greatness, a couple of other stories today indicate that letting Obama off the hook requires some sleight of hand. One story is on former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s interview with the Times of Israel on the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although each is only one person overseeing a government that tends to get along quite well most of the time with the other, Kurtzer said:

The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu “informs the entire relationship because bureaucracies and political systems tend to take their energy from the leadership,” Kurtzer told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And if the two leaders are not getting along, as they don’t, then you’ve got a problem.”

This can be seen quite clearly in the case of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, as Obama personally intervened in what are usually lower-level interactions in order to suspend weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. But the point is a more general one: despite the media’s disdain for this particular criticism of Obama, there really is such a thing as leadership, and it really does affect the energy and attitude of other public servants. If anything this is even more the case under a Democrat, since–as we’ve seen with the IRS targeting and the manifold shenanigans of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, among others–the federal bureaucracy tends to share the left’s worldview and takes its cues from the top.

And the other story that brings all this together is Eliana Johnson’s preview of Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech tonight. Johnson was given an advance text of the speech, and writes about the realism Paul hopes to inject into American foreign policy. This is a familiar tune, but it’s understandable that Paul feels the need to address it again, since he still finds himself accused of isolationism that he vigorously denies. It will probably help–and is unlikely to hurt–to spell out in detail (if that’s what he intends to do) just how his policy instincts can be applied to specific threats.

But this part of Johnson’s story jumped out: “In the realm of foreign policy, however, Paul paints himself as hardheaded and rational. His lodestars are the Cold War strategist George F. Kennan and the Reagan-era secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger.” I would say, first of all, that Republicans unnerved by what they see as Bakerite instincts will probably not be overjoyed by references to Caspar Weinberger. But more important was the context Johnson provided to Kennan’s belief in prioritizing vital over peripheral interests:

At times, however, he found it difficult to distinguish between them, initially opposing the Truman Doctrine to aid free people resisting Communist expansion because the strategy was too universalistic, then changing his mind, saying he had underestimated the importance of psychological warfare, of pushing back against the Soviets even when vital American interests were not under attack.

This is a good example of something that is often overlooked. Kennan has achieved a kind of mythical stature, and it’s true he made important contributions to American diplomacy in the early Cold War years. However, Harry Truman was the visionary (perhaps along with Acheson), not Kennan. Truman’s understanding of how to build a stable, democratic postwar order was superior to Kennan’s, and it isn’t even close (this is perhaps because democracy wasn’t exactly Kennan’s guiding principle). Kennan may have been a distinguished intellectual, but Truman ran circles around him. Had Kennan’s vision been followed instead of Truman’s, we would be living in a far different, and more troublesome, world.

Which brings us back around to the question of presidential greatness, and gives us a fuller picture of why Obama is inspiring such defeatism among his fans and pessimism among the political class. Presidents govern the country they’ve inherited, and navigate the world as it is. Few faced greater challenges or disorder than Truman, and few acquitted themselves so superbly. The lesson for Obama, his fans, and those who seek to succeed him isn’t that greatness is impossible, but that it only seems that way when you’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

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Do Early 2016 Polls Matter? For Democrats, Not Republicans

There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

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There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

Additionally, the polls tell us something else: Democratic voters are not interested in nominating Joe Biden. That’s significant this time if only because he’s the sitting vice president, and therefore has some claim to be next in line. It also means he has high name recognition, which is the key to leading such early polls. (Although it’s worth pointing out that if this Jimmy Kimmel man-on-the-street experiment is any indication, Biden has lower name recognition than you might otherwise think.)

Name recognition, in fact, is basically both the question and answer to deciphering such early polls. So while it’s the reason polls showing Clinton in the lead are worth paying attention to, it’s simultaneously the reason polls of the Republican side of the equation are meaningless. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll makes this point pretty clearly:

Hillary Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the potential Democratic field for president in 2016, while the GOP frontrunner in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is a familiar figure – but one not favored by eight in 10 potential Republican voters.

That would be Mitt Romney, supported for the GOP nomination by 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s double the support of his closest potential rival, but it also leaves 79 percent who prefer one of 13 other possible candidates tested, or none of them.

But what happens when you remove Romney’s name from contention and ask his supporters the same question? This:

When Romney is excluded from the race, his supporters scatter, adding no clarity to the GOP free-for-all. In that scenario former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have 12 or 13 percent support from leaned Republicans who are registered to vote. All others have support in the single digits.

As I wrote last month on Republicans and name recognition:

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. … If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). … Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

Now look at the new ABC/WaPo poll. There’s Huckabee, along with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul plus Romney at the top. Name recognition still roughly determines the outline of the race.

And that brings up another reason these polls aren’t much help: the actual makeup of the field when the primaries get under way. It’s doubtful Romney will run again. Huckabee is far from a sure thing to run again. Jeb Bush is probably more likely than not to pass as well, considering the fact that Christie still appears to be running and so does Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Yet according to the ABC/WaPo poll, the top three vote getters on the GOP side are … Romney, Bush, and Huckabee. The pollsters took Romney out of the lineup to get a better sense of where Romney’s support was coming from (leaving Bush and Huckabee still in the top three), but they might have done better taking all three out of an additional question and seeing where the field would be without them. Rand Paul is the top voter-getter among those who either haven’t previously run for president or whose last name isn’t Bush.

After that, it gets more interesting–but not by much. Paul Ryan is a popular choice, but that’s name recognition as well since he ran on the 2012 national ticket. He also doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about a run for president. If he doesn’t run, that means there’s a good chance three of the top four vote getters in the Romney-free version of the poll aren’t running, leaving Romney’s supporters without any of their favored candidates except Rand Paul.

Here’s another such poll, this one of Iowa voters from last week. The top two choices are Romney and Ben Carson, followed by Paul, Huckabee, and Ryan. Perhaps Romney really is running and Carson is a strong sleeper pick. But I doubt it on both counts. I also doubt Romney would win Iowa even if he ran, no matter what the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll says.

This is an indication of how wide-open the race is on the GOP side. But not much else. And the polls should be treated that way.

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The GOP’s Gay Marriage Dilemma

The reaction to yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear challenges to lower court rulings invalidating gay marriage bans in various states provided some insight on the cultural shift inside the Republican Party. While Senator Ted Cruz blasted the Supremes for allowing the courts to usurp the right to define marriage from the states, the silence from much of the GOP was deafening. While the issue may be important to anyone, like Cruz, who intends to run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, much of the rest of the party may be taking the hint from the courts.

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The reaction to yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear challenges to lower court rulings invalidating gay marriage bans in various states provided some insight on the cultural shift inside the Republican Party. While Senator Ted Cruz blasted the Supremes for allowing the courts to usurp the right to define marriage from the states, the silence from much of the GOP was deafening. While the issue may be important to anyone, like Cruz, who intends to run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, much of the rest of the party may be taking the hint from the courts.

Cruz’s willingness to jump out front on the issue is another indication that he intends to add social conservatives to a coalition that already includes Tea Party stalwarts as well as some who are enamored of his strong foreign-policy stands. But while he won’t be the only candidate seeking their votes, it’s not exactly surprising that he didn’t face much competition for airtime about the decision yesterday from leading Republicans. The position of anyone nominated by the party will be support for a definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. But though support for measures limiting abortions or banning late-term procedures that are seen as akin to infanticide remains strong among most Republican constituencies, the general lack of outrage about gay marriage yesterday outside of social conservative circles can easily be interpreted as indicating that most in the GOP think this is not an issue on which they think most Americans are behind them.

In choosing to punt on the appeals of various lower court decisions invalidating state measures banning gay marriage, the Supreme Court seemed to be saying that they won’t take up this issue again until one of the appeals courts is ready to uphold such laws. But in ruling in favor of gay marriage as a right that states can’t invalidate, lower federal courts are following the high court’s lead. Last year the court both allowed a state court to strike down a California referendum and separately ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s provision that barred benefits for same sex couples. While the court could have taken up any one of the appeals from states yesterday and handed down a definitive ruling on the issue, it seems to prefer to let the process unfold on a lower level. As it often has during its history, the court is listening to public opinion and what it’s hearing is that most Americans are no longer opposed to gay marriage.

The cultural shift on this issue has been as swift as it has been decisive, but as much as social conservatives are right to complain about the courts usurping the right of the people or the legislatures to make up their own minds on marriage, the polls are following popular culture on this point. Admitting this does not mean social conservatives no longer have support on any of their key issues. Americans remain deeply divided on abortion. But gay marriage is no longer a point on which most are prepared to argue. Indeed, as acceptance of the change grows more widespread with it now available in 30 states, even some conservatives are starting to admit that gays marrying doesn’t really affect them or their families.

The question is whether the Republican Party is ready to follow suit. Senator Rand Paul may currently find himself out of touch with many in his party on foreign and defense policy as the isolationist moment in American politics may be over. But as Greg Sargent noted this weekend in the Washington Post, his less strident tone on marriage may actually be more in tune with popular sentiment among Republicans than many thought.

But the problem for Republicans is that while they will be debating gay marriage, the rest of the country is no longer much interested in the discussion. Indeed, Paul’s argument that perhaps just as Republicans don’t want the government involved in their lives in other respects they might now be better off saying that it should stay out of marriage too may be a lot more popular than his foreign-policy views these days.

Social conservatives and evangelicals remain a key GOP constituency, but even if most Republicans are sympathetic to their concerns, the idea of letting the party get stuck in an argument that no longer resonates for most of the country should alarm them. With the conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the party’s establishment waving the white flag on gay marriage, this is one issue on which social conservatives may have lost all of their key allies.

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Rand Paul’s Misguided Attack on Jeb Bush

Senator Rand Paul, in an event in Greenville, North Carolina, drew a line in the GOP sand.

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Senator Rand Paul, in an event in Greenville, North Carolina, drew a line in the GOP sand.

“I don’t see Common Core being—if you’re for Common Core and you’re for a national curriculum, I don’t see it being a winning message in a Republican primary,” Paul said in an interview with Brietbart News.

“If there’s a Republican candidate out there—let’s just say there’s a hypothetical one that’s for Common Core,” Paul said. “I’m saying that that hypothetical candidate that’s for Common Core probably doesn’t have much chance of winning in a Republican primary.”

Let me suggest another hypothetical candidate runs in the Republican primary who, oh, say, hired as one of his key aides a person holding explicitly racist views and who had written a column “John Wilkes Booth Was Right”; who declared he would have opposed the Civil Rights Act; who argued that the United States went to war against Iraq in 2003 because of former Vice President Richard Cheney’s ties to Halliburton; and who worked for the presidential campaign of his father, who believes the attacks on 9/11 were an inside job. My guess is your guess is that individual doesn’t, and maybe even shouldn’t, have much chance of winning the primary to represent the party of Lincoln. But we’ll see.

The debate about the merits of the Common Core is a legitimate one (a good debate about it can be found here). Primary voters can decide how much weight they place in where one stands on it; whether it’s an issue intelligent and principled Republicans can disagree on (and if wrong be forgiven for) or whether it’s a hill to die on.

As a general matter, it seems to me that the mindset that says that support for the Common Core is disqualifying is indicative of a deeper problem, which might be called the Purification Impulse. This refers to those who judge individuals not in the totality of their acts but hyper-focus on this or that perceived deviation from the party line. It’s the eagerness to expel heretics from the temple.

To understand what’s dangerous about this approach to politics, consider that as governor of California Ronald Reagan signed into law legislation liberalizing abortion laws and signed into law what Reagan biographer Lou Cannon called “the largest tax hike ever proposed by any governor in the history of the United States”–one four times as large as the previous record set by Governor Pat Brown. Do we really wish in retrospect that Reagan’s actions, some of which he later regretted, should have disqualified him from winning the Republican nomination? Based on the Common Core argument by Rand Paul, it seems as if he would have declared Reagan as insufficiently pure.

The target of Rand Paul’s comment was clearly Jeb Bush. Senator Paul, who is a committed libertarian (whose philosophical tradition is quite different than conservatism), has reason to fear Bush if he enters the presidential race. Now I have no idea if Bush will run, and if he does, no one has any idea how well he’ll do. But the effort to paint Governor Bush as a RINO is really quite silly, and demonstrably so. As between Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, Bush is the more conservative person with a much more impressive conservative record. Which probably explains why Rand Paul is targeting him in such a clumsy fashion.

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Politicians Should Shut Up About Ebola

Dystopian nightmares have always been a staple of film and television but the producers of The Last Ship, a successful new television show, are probably grateful that the discovery of a case of the Ebola virus here in the United States didn’t happen when their program was having its debut this past summer. While a show about a pandemic that kills much of the world’s population didn’t seem too scary in July, it might have hit a little too close to home now. But even without more hysteria about the possible dangers from an out-of-control virus being whipped up by the entertainment industry, this is not the moment for the media or politicians to be encouraging panic or undermining confidence in government and health-care officials dealing with the crisis.

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Dystopian nightmares have always been a staple of film and television but the producers of The Last Ship, a successful new television show, are probably grateful that the discovery of a case of the Ebola virus here in the United States didn’t happen when their program was having its debut this past summer. While a show about a pandemic that kills much of the world’s population didn’t seem too scary in July, it might have hit a little too close to home now. But even without more hysteria about the possible dangers from an out-of-control virus being whipped up by the entertainment industry, this is not the moment for the media or politicians to be encouraging panic or undermining confidence in government and health-care officials dealing with the crisis.

Ebola is the perfect cable news story in that there is very little actual news to report but affords plenty of opportunities for talking heads and various kinds of experts to opine about minute details that don’t advance our understanding of what is going on. In that sense, Ebola is just like the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri or the Trayvon Martin murder trial. But rather than merely appealing to our appetite for crime stories or the political prejudices of the moment, the discussion of Ebola goes to the heart of some our primeval fears about disease and extinction. And that is exactly why those inclined to treat it as some kind of political football need to take it down a notch.

A classic example of the tendency to grasp at any chance to be part of the news cycle came yesterday when Senator Rand Paul stoked fears about the government’s handling of the disease while riding his favorite isolationist hobby horse:

The Kentucky Republican, appearing on “The Laura Ingraham Show” on Wednesday, said the CDC and the Obama administration are giving off a false sense of security.

“This could get beyond our control,” said Paul, an ophthalmologist. …

CDC Director Tom Frieden — emphasizing both the sophistication of the U.S. public health system and the difficulty of transmitting a disease like Ebola — has said repeatedly that he has “no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the U.S.”

Paul, though, on Wednesday questioned Frieden’s statements and said health officials might be underestimating the disease’s potential impact in the U.S. and worldwide.

“I think because of political correctness we’re not really making sound, rational, scientific decisions on this,” the senator said. “It’s a big mistake to underestimate the potential for problems worldwide.”

Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, also expressed concern about President Barack Obama’s plan — announced earlier this month — to send up to 3,000 troops to combat Ebola in West Africa, the major hub of the disease.

“You also have to be concerned about 3,000 soldiers getting back on a ship,” he said, expressing concern about the spread of disease in close quarters. “Can you imagine if a whole ship full of our soldiers catch Ebola?” he asked later.

In this case, Ebola gave Paul a double whammy: an opportunity to claim the administration was failing and a chance to cast doubt on the wisdom of foreign deployments of U.S. troops.

But while it is entirely possible that an eye doctor knows more about pandemics than your average journalist, it’s not yet clear that there is any reason to doubt the ability of the government to handle what looks to be a problem that is not out of control or that there is any political advantage to be gained here for Republicans. Which means that rather than getting out front of the story, politicians, including potential presidential candidates, should probably be keeping their mouths shut.

That’s true even though it’s clear now that some of President Obama’s assurances about the threat have proven to be off base. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York notes today, the president’s comments about the problem delivered two weeks ago during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control’s Atlanta headquarters don’t seem to have held up. It turns out that American hospitals were not as well prepared for the problem as he, and the rest of us, hoped and the result is that the person currently hospitalized with the Ebola virus in Dallas entered the country and may have infected others before his symptoms were diagnosed.

But even if we concede that the system wasn’t foolproof and health-care personnel not entirely ready to deal with it, the president was also probably right when he said America’s “world class facilities and professionals” can respond effectively to the outbreak and that there is no reason for anyone to be panicking. And while tough questions deserve to be asked about what happened in Dallas and the measures being implemented to deal with any other possible cases coming into the country, this is not the moment for opinion leaders to be sounding the doom and gloom theme or shoehorning Ebola into a grand narrative about the administration’s incompetence.

Of course, if a Republican were in the White House, we would probably be listening to lectures on CNN and MSNBC about how conservative racism was increasing the chances of an epidemic. But Barack Obama is no more responsible for Ebola than George W. Bush was for bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico or the flight of first responders in New Orleans and reasonable conservatives should not pretend otherwise.

It is interesting to note that the program I alluded to earlier in this piece is a perfect mixture of paranoia and patriotic faith. The Last Ship, which could best be described as The Andromeda Strain meets On the Beach with a heavy dose of Tom Clancy (a Navy destroyer is the real star of the show), was good if gruesome fun and celebrates the heroism of the U.S. Navy as much it indulges the viewing public’s desire to be scared and to jeer at villains whose nationality tends to reflect the news (in this case, the bad guys are Russians, thank you Vladimir Putin). In it, the dedication and courage of American sailors triumph over all obstacles to bring a cure home to a nation devastated by a plague.

We need not have the same blind faith in the CDC or the government that we are asked to have in the protagonists of the show. But neither should we stand for politicians looking to exploit a health crisis that cannot be blamed on President Obama’s policy failures. The odds are, the country will survive this scare before the press moves on to the next big story. Those who think they can score points by betting on the opposite result may be relying on the public’s short attention span. But they would still be better off avoiding feeding panic when none is necessary.

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Who Will Show Leadership on Iran?

One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

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One of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals in his speech today before the United Nations General Assembly was to put the debate about Iran’s nuclear program back on the international community’s front burner. But whether he succeeded or not—and given the hate for Israel that is integral to the culture of the UN it is unlikely that many nations will heed his warnings about the moral equivalence between ISIS and Hamas Iran—the real question that needs to be asked is why the Iranian threat has dropped off the radar screen here in the United States in the last year and whether anyone of stature in this country is willing to speak up consistently and forcefully on the issue.

Shutting down the debate about Iran is one of President Obama’s few political triumphs during his second term. Though the president pledged to shut down Iran’s nuclear program during his campaigne for reelection, his main focus after his victory was on appeasing Tehran and enticing the Islamist regime to sign an interim nuclear deal that undermined economic sanctions while doing nothing to end the threat. Having squandered immense political, economic, and military leverage over Iran in order to secure that agreement, he then branded critics of this travesty as warmongers. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he was able to squelch efforts to increase sanctions on Iran if negotiations failed despite the support of majorities in the both Houses of Congress for a measure that would have strengthened his hand in talks with the ayatollahs.

Since the collapse of that effort, the issue has remained largely dormant in the U.S. as diplomacy with Iran has remained largely under the radar. And while conservatives can generally be counted on to attack virtually any Obama initiative, let alone one as misguided as his attempt at engagement with Iran, many on the right have been far more interested in following Senator Rand Paul’s lead in criticizing the president’s misuse of executive authority rather than sounding the alarms about Iran. Even if, in the wake of the new concerns about the rise of the ISIS terrorist movement, it appears that the isolationist moment in American politics may be fading, the president is probably right if he thinks he still has plenty of room to maneuver in negotiating a new Iran deal that may be even more dangerous than last year’s accord.

Given the leaks about possible compromises—including the absurd one last week about an American proposal that Iran disconnect the pipes that link the centrifuges that enrich the uranium used for nuclear fuel—there is little doubt about the administration’s zeal for a deal. In response, Iran has stiffened its demands to the point where it is clear that any accord will leave their nuclear infrastructure in place and quickly eviscerate sanctions while making it impossible to re-impose them even if it quickly became clear that Tehran wasn’t keeping its promises.

But in the absence of serious debate about the issue or the willingness of GOP leaders to draw a line in the sand on the nuclear issue, it is possible to envisage a repeat of last year’s fiasco in which critics of Iran appeasement were routed by the administration.

That is why Senator Ted Cruz’s decision to stake out an extremely tough position on Iran is such an intriguing development.

Cruz has critics, including COMMENTARY bloggers, who rightly point out that his success in buffaloing congressional Republican leaders into supporting the confrontation that led to last year’s government shutdown was a huge mistake. So, too, is his continued unwillingness to concede that it was an error. But like it or not, the Texan has become an extremely influential figure in the GOP who is clearly interested in running for president in 2016. While Cruz goes into the next election cycle as a huge underdog who is probably not a viable Republican option to defeat Hillary Clinton, what is most interesting about his effort is the fact that this Tea Party hero seems to think foreign policy is where he can best differentiate himself from other conservatives or a libertarian like Rand Paul.

Where last year he rushed to the Senate floor to second Rand Paul’s dubious but wildly popular filibuster about the administration’s use of drones, in recent months he has been throwing down the gauntlet to the Kentucky senator. Though he claims he should not be confused with an all-out interventionist like John McCain, Cruz’s op-ed in Politico Magazine published yesterday seemed to indicate he is prepared to use opposition to the Obama drive for détente with Iran as a rallying point for his presidential hopes.

Cynics will say this is just about Cruz seeking an edge for 2016 and, as with his courageous stand against anti-Semitic critics of Israel among those protesting persecution of Christians in the Middle East, dismiss his statements as politics as usual rather than principle.

But at a time when the administration appears to be operating with a free hand on Iran, this is no time to questioning the bona fides of anyone on the national stage that is willing to prioritize this issue. Cruz’s insistence that justified concerns about ISIS should not allow the West to give Iran a pass on both its use of terrorism and its nuclear ambitions is exactly what we should be hearing from Republicans on Obama. But, for the most part, this point and others he made about Iran’s egregious human rights record haven’t been said loudly or often enough.

Even if we were willing to accept the premise that Cruz is doing this for political reasons—and his record on both Israel and Iran suggests that his foreign-policy views have been both consistent and sincere—that doesn’t change the fact that his effort to change the conversation about the issue is timely and much needed. If he steals a march on Paul or other 2016 contenders by pushing Republicans to speak up on Iran the way he did about the shutdown, then so much the better for him, his party, and the country.

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Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

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The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

That’s the quandary for Senator Marco Rubio, who stands second to none in the Senate as a critic of the president’s foreign policy. Rubio has rightly denounced the president’s failures in the Middle East and, in particular, his abandonment of Iraq and dithering on Syria that allowed ISIS to become a dominant force in both countries on Obama’s watch. Like other conservatives as well as a not insignificant number of liberal senators, he’s also rightly worried that the president’s plans for this conflict are woefully inadequate to the situation. More than that, along with many Republicans, he believes the president is wrong not to seek an explicit authorization from Congress to fight ISIS rather than to merely pretend, as the administration wrongly contends, that the 2001 vote granting President Bush the right to use troops against al-Qaeda also applies to the rival, and now more powerful, group.

But Rubio has indicated that he will vote yes for the authorization on Syria. The question now is whether this will haunt him or anyone else planning on running for higher office or reelection.

Rand Paul seemed to be saying as much when he said yesterday that members of Congress were petrified by a possible vote to authorize force. Senator Ted Cruz, whose views on foreign policy are a lot closer to those of Rubio than they are to Paul, seems to agree. Cruz said he would oppose arming the Syrian rebels because the administration doesn’t really have a clue as to which groups opposing the regime of Bashar Assad are “good guys” and which are “bad.”

It’s difficult to argue too strenuously with those qualms. The president’s adamant refusal to act on the growing catastrophe in Syria not only enabled ISIS to fill the void but also undermined the chances that genuine moderates might be able to replace the despotic Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Moreover, there are, as the New York Times noted today, ominous precedents for senators who swallow hard and vote to authorize the use of force but later have that decision thrown in their face by primary opponents. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Senate, found herself outflanked on the left by Barack Obama in 2008. The question facing Rubio and the rest of the Senate is one that juxtaposes the certainty that voting for an expanded conflict will be viewed by many voters as a mistake against the certainty that the failure to act will allow ISIS to prevail in the fighting.

As I noted yesterday, as the U.S. prepares to step up the fight against ISIS, the country’s main problem is not the lack of a strategy but the seeming inability of the president to play the part of a wartime leader. Supporting operations in the Middle East under such circumstances is a perilous undertaking. So, too, is any effort to finally aid those Syrian forces that are not linked to Islamists or Assad and the Iranians.

But Rubio is right to worry more about the danger of inaction than any possible political repercussions. Were the U.S. to stand aside in Syria, especially with the president foolishly taking the threat of a direct intervention on the ground off the table, the consequences would be grave. If, as most Americans rightly now understand, ISIS is a serious threat to U.S. security, any counterattack undertaken now, whether well led or not, is bound to improve the situation. More to the point, the failure to act would be a potential catastrophe and might make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a conflict in which U.S. success is not assured, notwithstanding the braggadocio being heard to that effect in Washington these days.

There is no way of knowing today whether votes on Syria or Iraq will be major liabilities in the winter or spring of 2016 or, indeed, if the ISIS threat will still be an issue at that time. The year and a half between now and the presidential primaries is a lifetime in politics. But Paul and Cruz are probably right in reckoning that any vote that can be construed as insufficiently anti-Obama is a safe bet and that those who vote yes are giving up a valuable hostage to fortune, whether or not they run for president.

Just as it is simple to second guess those who voted for war in Iraq without thinking what dangers would have resulted from doing nothing, it will be easy to take pot shots at those who vote yes today. But Rubio is still in the right here. The costs of doing nothing in war are usually higher than those of boldness. Even with an inadequate leader who is not prepared to do everything to achieve victory, the situation will be better off if the U.S. finally starts to do something to alter the correlation of forces in Syria and Iraq against both Assad and the terrorists. Voting no may eventually be popular, but it won’t be the right thing to do.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and the End of the Isolationist Moment

Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

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Early in 2013 when Senator Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster catapulted him into the first tier of potential 2016 presidential candidates, the first of his colleagues to rush to the floor to support him was Ted Cruz. The freshman from Texas was then in the process of establishing his own reputation as a Senate firebrand but many wrongly assumed that his endorsement of Paul’s grandstanding about administration drone attacks meant that he shared the Kentuckian’s foreign-policy views. Flash forward to today and not only is Cruz staking out a position opposing Paul’s positions, but the libertarian is himself inching toward the center on the question of foreign interventions. In other words, the isolationist moment in both the Republican Party and the nation appears to be over.

In recent weeks, Paul’s drift away from the views shared by his father and the legions of libertarian extremist supporters that he has inherited from him has escalated to the point where the senator has opened himself up to charges of flip-flopping.

Paul seemed to be riding the wave of revulsion against the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan last year when his filibuster helped make him the new darling of the GOP. While the senator has consistently maintained that he is a realist in the mode of James Baker rather than an isolationist, there was no doubt about his desire to pull back from engagement in the war on Islamist terror until recent developments made it obvious that such stands were not as popular as he thought.

For example, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed published in June he stated the case that “America shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq” and that there was, “no good case for U.S. intervention now.” But three months later, he’s singing a different tune. Last week in a TIME magazine article, he not only proclaimed that he “was not an isolationist” but went on to claim “if I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.”

Paul’s apologists will, as is their job, attempt to spin the two pieces as somehow representing the same position. But for those of us who are not determined to rationalize every twist and turn that he must follow in his quest for the presidency, the contradiction is pretty obvious. Though he remains opposed to “nation building,” the Rand Paul of 2010, let alone 2013, would be scratching his head about his criticism of President Obama for “disengaging” in Iraq. Put it down to Paul putting his finger in the wind and rightly determining that sticking to his non-interventionist line after the ISIS beheading would be a problem for most conservatives.

All of which partly explains Cruz’s recent emphasis on his own, more mainstream foreign-policy views. On ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Cruz not only enunciated positions critical of Obama and in favor of a more muscular U.S. foreign and defense policy that is consistent with traditional GOP stands that Paul has opposed. He also made it clear that he thinks the distance between Paul and himself on that issue is significant enough to create a real opening for him in 2016.

While more marginal (at least in terms of their chances of winning the nomination) Republicans such as John Bolton and Rep. Peter King have stated that they would run if there was no clear advocate of a strong foreign policy in the field to oppose Paul, Cruz is thinking the same thing. Since there is not much to differentiate him from Paul on domestic issues, the Texan thinks his consistent support of Israel and position in favor of re-asserting American power in the world gives him the chance to assume the Reaganite mantle in Republican primaries.

Is he right?

Cruz has some clear strengths, but also liabilities. He is the hero of Tea Partiers who love his willingness to confront Democrats on every issue, to refuse to play by the rules of the old Senate game about going along in order to get along. But what Tea Party activists see as a commitment to principle, other Republicans view as a mad commitment to suicidal tactics like last year’s government shutdown. Cruz’s unwillingness to acknowledge that mistake makes him anathema to the GOP establishment as well as others who see him as a loose cannon. But his mainstream foreign-policy views could give him an opening with these sectors of the party, including major donors even if he must be considered, at best, as an extreme long shot.

But whether Cruz’s 2016 hopes are realistic or not isn’t the point of recent developments. What we’ve seen in the last few months is the crackup of the libertarian alliance that looked to have a decent chance to take over the Republican Party last year as war weariness and suspicion of the Obama administration seemed to turn the Republican worldview upside down. With Paul retreating from not only his father’s extremism but also from some of his own “realist” stands and Cruz leading a faction of the Tea Party into what he hopes will be a foreign-policy debate in which he will champion the cause of a strong stand in the Middle East, it appears the isolationist moment in American politics is over.

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Parsing Paul’s ‘Evolution’ on Aid to Israel

Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

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Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

One voice raised on behalf of giving Paul a chance to prove himself is Abby W. Shachter, the author of Acculturated, the indispensable cultural blog, who writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune that both left- and right-wing critics of Paul on Israel are mistaken. While acknowledging the doubts about Paul’s sincerity about being a friend of Israel, she thinks friends of Israel shouldn’t consider his longstanding opposition to foreign aid a disqualifying factor. As Shachter notes, his position on aid to Israel has evolved since he began public life as a supporter of his extremist libertarian father’s presidential candidacies. Paul now claims he’s never really advocated ending assistance to Israel and says that even if all foreign aid is eliminated, Israel should be last on the list to be cut and even voted this summer for additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has saved countless lives from death at the hands of Hamas missiles.

Even more significantly, the recent controversy over President Obama’s willingness to use aid as a lever to pressure Israel may make Paul’s position on the question more defensible. Many Israelis believe the president’s decision to halt ammunition sales and transfers to Israel at the height of the fighting in Gaza so as to force the Jewish state to buckle to his demands about a cease-fire should force their country to ponder whether the price of this aid is too high in terms of their independence and security. If so, then maybe Paul’s position should be regarded as actually one that is helping Israel rather than a threat to its well-being.

Shachter goes even further and cautions conservative friends of Israel to think long and hard about labeling the libertarian senator as a foe of the Jewish state. She believes his ability to bring more young voters to the GOP has caused Democrats to fear him more than other Republicans. If Paul is spurned, she fears Republicans will rue the day they repelled the youth/libertarian voters that support the Kentucky senator, especially if they back libertarian or fringe candidates in November 2016.

But I’m afraid Shachter is giving Paul too much credit for both his “evolution” on the Middle East and his ability to help Republicans win in 2016.

Let’s first understand that Paul’s attempt to spin his record on Israel is blatantly insincere. If the senator has moved far closer to mainstream views on Israel since his presidential ambitions became manifest, that also illustrates just how far he has had to come from his starting point as a supporter of his father’s hostile attitude toward the Jewish state and the need for a strong American position on the Middle East. While he never explicitly singled out Israel for aid cutoffs, it’s also true that he has always opposed any assistance, a position that he still maintains to a large degree.

It is also true that many friends of Israel are rethinking the value of aid since Obama has used the assistance to pressure Israel to adopt policies that are against its interests. Paul is right when he says Israel would be better off if it were not dependent on the United States for military aid. But the problem is that even after the disheartening spectacle of Washington betraying its sole democratic ally in the Middle East in this manner, Israel doesn’t really have an alternative to this aid, no matter how many strings come with it.

The plain fact is that while Israel has a thriving arms industry of its own, if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over its Arab and Muslim foes, it’s going to need continued help from the United States. Without U.S. funding (started under the George W. Bush administration and continued under Obama), the Iron Dome system would not have been deployed as quickly or in the numbers needed to stop Hamas’s rocket offensive this year. Iron Dome might be the most prominent example of the utility of U.S. military assistance, but it is not the only one. Like it or not, Israel needs U.S. weapons and ammunition, especially when it is forced into shooting wars where resupply of stocks becomes necessary. Seen in that context, Paul’s rhetoric about aid cutoffs being to Israel’s benefit is beside the point, if not completely insincere.

Nor does Paul’s opposition to aid make sense even from a strictly American viewpoint. The U.S. has always gained nearly as much from security cooperation with Israel as the recipients. The U.S. not only benefits from Israeli technology and intelligence but the money is almost entirely spent in the United States. The assistance given is as much aid to the U.S. arms industry as it is to Israel.

As for Paul’s ability to bring in hordes of youthful libertarians who can tip the balance in 2016, that may be more of a myth than anything else. As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog noted earlier this week, polls give us no evidence of any potential for such a massive swing vote. Young liberals may like Paul’s foreign policy, but not much else about the libertarian. But that shouldn’t recommend him to Republicans because the only reason they do like him is that his views are actually to the left of President Obama’s generally weak posture on foreign and defense issues. Even so, there is little evidence that liberals will back a conservative libertarian for president. Nor is it likely that any defection of libertarians, who have been hostile to every GOP presidential nominee for a generation, would be enough to cost Republicans the presidency.

Thus, while Paul should be encouraged to continue to evolve, his position on Israel is still unsatisfactory. More to the point, his position on aid reflects an even greater desire for an American retreat from the Middle East than that of Obama. In the unlikely event that his views truly change, pro-Israel conservatives should give him a chance. Until then, they would do well to seek an alternative that will both support Israel and have a better chance of being elected president.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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