President Trump’s on-the-fly decision to pull United States troops out of Syria is the latest flash point in the Republican battle to shape and define a “conservative” foreign policy. Increasingly, that term means very different things to very different people, all bearing the Republican mantle.
One of the best ways to view this battle of wills is to follow the sparring between two of Mr. Trump’s top allies in Washington: Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In the 2016 election, both harshly criticized Mr. Trump. But they quickly spotted real potential for influencing his policies by making nice with him. They have been shrewd enough to recognize that Mr. Trump doesn’t really have friends and certainly had none in Washington, but that like everyone else out there, Mr. Trump needed a friend — and maybe even two.
Both also figured out — faster than most K Street government-relations experts who are still sweating their inability to lobby the president successfully as well as major figures in the nation’s foreign-policy establishment — that a lot can be gained by simply being nice to the guy and, as friends do, picking up the phone and chatting. It’s a way to put a bug in Mr. Trump’s ear, and both have used it.
The only trouble is, if you’re Mr. Graham, Mr. Paul seems to be making the friendship thing work better for him — though at least Mr. Graham so far has continued American engagement in Afghanistan to show for it. It’s not an inconsequential victory, but it might be a temporary one — and it hints at some serious differences of opinion between Mr. Trump and Mr. Graham that aren’t being overcome by late-night heart-to-hearts.
By contrast, those same one-on-one chats seem to be paying dividends for Mr. Paul, who applauded Mr. Trump, after his move in Syria, for “moving forward to stop the ‘endless wars.’”
Mr. Graham called that same decision “the biggest mistake of his presidency.” But Mr. Paul redirected the blame for foreign-policy mistakes to Mr. Graham, who, the Kentucky senator said, “has been wrong about almost every foreign-policy decision of the last two decades.”
More often than not, the president stands with Mr. Paul. Mr. Graham has noticed. Mr. Graham told ABC News that the president’s problem is that “he talks like Ronald Reagan and he acts like Rand Paul on occasion.”
“On occasion” is an understatement: Syria is just the latest instance of foreign-policymaking in which Mr. Trump has demonstrated highly Paulite tendencies. For example, we’ve seen the president favor diplomacy over his tweet-threatened “fire and fury” with North Korea.
This is in part because Mr. Paul’s views align naturally with Mr. Trump’s much more than with Mr. Graham’s. Both the president and Mr. Paul favor engagement, including with North Korea and Russia.
The fact remains that while Mr. Graham’s friendship and Trump-whispering may well be the only thing standing between America’s high-tailing it out of Kabul and staying put, it isn’t indicative of a fundamental alignment — or a fundamental realignment — of foreign-policy views between the commander in chief and a guy from the John Bolton wing of the party.
Lucky for Mr. Paul. For years, the Republican Party wasn’t buying what he was selling. But now, thanks to Mr. Trump, their friendship and Mr. Trump’s natural instincts combined with his malleability, it’s no longer Mr. Paul versus the entire party where Syria — or anywhere else — is concerned. Mr. Trump has mainstreamed Paulite thinking on America’s international relations, whether you like it or not.
Mr. Paul’s cultivated friendship with the president has paid dividends in other policy areas. Small-ball though it may seem, executive action on association health plans was something Mr. Paul sought, and got, from the president. And out of self-interest in the Russia investigation or not, Mr. Trump has also helped to mainstream within the Republican Party traditionally Paulite — and very much not Bushite or Cheneyish — concerns about government surveillance of its citizens (or in this case the Trump campaign).
Will all this mean the end of “endless wars”? In fact, Mr. Trump doesn’t seem quite as keen on getting out of Western Asia and the Arabian Peninsula wholesale as Mr. Paul would like.
On this, the president has actually united Mr. Paul and Mr. Graham in opposition. Take his decision last summer to sell billions of dollars of munitions to Saudi Arabia. Both senators opposed that action and were part of bipartisan legislation intended to block the arms sale.
“The reason I’m voting with Senator Paul and others today is to send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship,” Mr. Graham said, referring to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist killed in 2018. “There is no amount of oil you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate.”
Still, when Mr. Paul contrasts Mr. Trump with “virtually every president in my lifetime” who has “ended up in a new conflict or extending and expanding the old ones,” name-checking Libya and Syria in particular, he seems fairly close to the mark and speaks as someone with special insight.
The bottom line is that Mr. Graham may tout Mr. Trump’s golf skills and may have been his point man on getting Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, but the president and Mr. Paul seem to have a deeper, realer rapport, perhaps born of the common experience of having routinely been denigrated, mocked and treated as weirdos and freaks throughout their time in politics.
Both have failed to attract mainstream political talent, leaving them reliant on fringe figures who have subsequently managed to get their bosses in trouble. Both have had to do a lot of battle with the Republican establishment. There’s a lot of common ground besides general skepticism of foreign entanglements — and, it appears, a good amount of trust.
In real life — i.e., outside of Washington — a shared political philosophy is rarely the basis of enduring friendships. Usually, common experiences are a more solid foundation. Mr. Paul knows this, and most likely Mr. Trump does, too.
But perhaps nobody knows it, or hates it, as much as the senator from South Carolina.
Liz Mair, a strategist for campaigns by Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry, is the founder and president of Mair Strategies.
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