Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul wrote a column for The Washington Post on Wednesday in which he clarified a position that has come under fire: He opposes allowing Iran to get nuclear weapons and he opposes statements meant to demonstrate to America's opposition to its getting nuclear weapons. Perhaps the word clarified above should be in quotes.
Paul is running for president in 2016, in the it-is-two-years-away-and-the-FEC-is-watching way that one runs for president a few years in advance. His 2010 Senate campaign drew some attention to his foreign policy positions, in large part as he tried to differentiate his views from his father's. On the 2008 campaign trail, then-Rep. Ron Paul became popular with younger voters by advocating a staunchly isolationist worldview, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and pretty much everywhere else. This (and other opinions) put him outside the Republican mainstream and limited his viability. Rand's goal has always been to straddle the line: appealing to mainstream Republicans, but leveraging his father's support from younger, more libertarian voters.
In an interview on ABC that aired Sunday, Paul stepped outside of the mainstream entirely, indicating to Jonathan Karl that a policy of containment on Iran — accepting the country's nuclear weapons without resorting to military conflict — could work. "We woke up one day and Pakistan had nuclear weapons. If that would have been our policy toward Pakistan, we would be at war with Pakistan," Paul said. "… The people who say ‘by golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war."
Conservatives were not happy. The Post's Jennifer Rubin wrote that the interview would "haunt him" on the campaign trail. It was that fear that almost certainly spurred Paul's clarification.
I am not for containment in Iran. Let me repeat that, since no one seems to be listening closely: I am unequivocally not for containing Iran.
I am also not for announcing that the United States should never contain Iran. That was the choice I was given a few months ago and is the scenario being misunderstood by some in the news.
He opposes a nuclear-armed Iran and also opposes a statement form the Senate saying, in essence, that the United States would go to war before accepting a nuclear Iran. Those ideas are not incommensurate, Paul points out, lamenting that "[n]uance has been a bit lacking in our foreign policy of late." He continues:
It is a dumb idea to announce to Iran that you would accept and contain that country if it were to become a nuclear power. But it is equally dumb, dangerous and foolhardy to announce in advance how we would react to any nation that obtains nuclear weapons.
Paul calls his position "strategic ambiguity," after Ronald Reagan. And Rubin has already responded, calling it "incoherence."
"Strategic ambiguity means we don’t reveal our strategy, not that we don’t reveal our position on a given issue, especially one as critical as this," she writes. "I suppose we should rewrite the NATO charter as well to say an attack on a member state is maybe an attack on all and maybe not." Then she imagines a Republican 2016 debate, in which Chris Christie and Rick Santorum and John Bolton ("I’m the only guy here who worked for Reagan" haha) beat up on Paul for his ambiguity.
Rubin is right on one thing: Republicans (and other voters) "generally like clarity" from presidential candidates. Nuance is admirable and important in politics, but it's generally not great for elections.
But nuance also means something different than "I oppose policy X, but I oppose saying that we oppose policy X." That's just confusing. Non-conservative Jonathan Chait praised Paul for his apparent position of allowing containment; it seems likely that many of Ron Paul's 2008 and 2012 fans would praise it as well. But Rand is a better politician than his father was, and so he's decided to try and keep straddling that line.