Politics & Government

On foreign policy, Rand Paul leans left and Jim Gray tilts right

Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, left, and his Democratic challenger, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray.
Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, left, and his Democratic challenger, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. File photos.

The race for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat features two self-proclaimed foreign policy realists who have vastly different opinions about how the U.S. should engage in the world.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the “conservative realist,” believes in limiting U.S. intervention abroad while being prepared to defend American interests.

Jim Gray, the Democratic nominee, says he believes in keeping with the American tradition of playing a strong role in world events.

What’s right is left; what’s left is right.

In his latest ad, Gray has seized on the fact that pundits often called national defense Paul’s greatest weakness as a candidate during the Republican presidential primary. A majority of Republican voters prefer a more aggressive approach to national security, according to a CNN poll.

Republican Party nominee Donald Trump called for an aggressive approach, advocating for killing the families of ISIS militants. Runner-up U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called for carpet bombing ISIS territory.

Meanwhile, Paul preached a measured approach, one that called for a ceasefire in Syria in order to defeat ISIS.

Paul likes to call his foreign policy stance “conservative realism.”

“We need foreign policy that recognizes our limits, preserves our might, a common-sense conservative realism of strength and action,” Paul said during a 2014 speech to the Center for National Interest. “We can’t retreat from the world, but we can’t remake the world in our own image, either. We can’t and shouldn’t disengage from the world, but we also shouldn’t engage in nation building.”

Since there aren’t too many foreign policy issues to address as mayor of Lexington, Gray doesn’t have an established record to examine.

However, when asked to sum up his views, Gray said they weren’t hawkish or dovish, just “realistic.”

“I believe in a strong role for the U.S. in shaping world events,” Gray said. “In the long arc of history, America has never withdrawn from responsibilities to have a more peaceful world community.”

ISIS and Terrorism

When it comes to defending America against terrorism, Paul preaches measured restraint. Gray focuses on boosting U.S. intelligence.

In 2013, Paul launched a 13-hour filibuster to call attention to the Obama administration’s use of drones, a maneuver that put him in the national spotlight and eventually led to a Time Magazine cover that declared him “the most interesting man in politics.” Paul is adamantly against using drones to kill American citizens overseas, even if the federal government believes those citizens have been radicalized.

He also has said drone strikes targeting terrorists contribute to terrorism. In his 2014 speech on national security, Paul said “we can’t be blind to the fact that drone strikes that inadvertently kill civilians may create more jihadists than we eliminate.”

Gray supports drone strikes to combat terrorism and says we can avoid harming civilians in the attacks if we improve U.S. intelligence.

To prevent terrorist attacks in America, Paul introduced a bill in 2015 that would suspend visas given to refugees from Syria and 30 other countries pending stricter background checks.

Gray also is focused on domestic threats, saying our intelligence system is the country’s greatest asset.

He thinks there can be a balance between protecting Americans’ privacy and giving the FBI the information they need to investigate terrorists.

“It’s not a black-and-white issue,” Gray said. “When there’s one life threatened, we need to acknowledge that we need to have access to surveillance and intelligence information.”


Paul is done with the United States toppling dictators.

A strong opponent of the U.S. involvement in Libya during the Arab Spring, Paul thinks America needs to be involved in fewer international entanglements, while protecting national interests.

“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,” Paul said in a 2014 speech.

Paul’s reluctance to intervene overseas also applies to arms deals. As a senator, he has often taken the president to task for selling weapons to countries and groups he says are allies of ISIS.

Most recently, Paul forced a Senate vote on an arms deal that would send weapons to Saudi Arabia. The sale was backed by both Democrats and Republicans and the vote did little to prevent the deal. He also has forced votes on arms deals with Pakistan.

Gray paints himself as opposite to Paul on this front.

“America is the leader of the free world,” Gray said. “That’s our history and that’s our responsibility. I don’t believe in a small America or a weak America.”

When asked what that would mean in terms of intervention in Syria, Gray said he would want to create a no-fly zone in Aleppo. Paul’s campaign disagrees.

“It’s not worth going to World War III over,” said Rob Givens, a foreign policy adviser to Paul. “...people forget that Russia is still a threat.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia have besieged Aleppo and used chlorine gas to attack the anti-government rebels that are stationed there.

There are three widely acknowledged approaches to the situation in Aleppo (which serves as a metaphor for the wider civil war in Syria): arm the rebels in the city and risk that those weapons fall into jihadist hands, break the siege with military force and risk alienating Russia, or stay out of it and allow the humanitarian crisis to persist.

Both Paul and Gray would like to take a fourth option: a negotiated settlement. In September, all parties agreed to a ceasefire to discuss a settlement, only to have the ceasefire end after a few days.

The difference between the two candidates is whether or not Assad stays in power.

Gray says he needs to go.

“Assad has murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” Gray said. “In my view he’s lost all credibility as a legitimate leader.”

Assad is a bad person, but the power vacuum that his departure would create might be worse, said Givens.

“(If an agreement) involves keeping Assad in power and getting him to reform a bit, then that’s a possibility,” Givens said.

Paul’s campaign also stresses that Congress should get to vote on any military involvement in Syria.

“Before we can have that decision, there has to be a discussion in Congress on whether the U.S. should be involved.” Givens said.

Defense Funding

Paul has run all of his campaigns with one central theme — eliminating the national deficit. One of his first proposed bills would have cut the budget by $500 billion. That meant drastically reducing spending, including eliminating foreign aid entirely and reducing the size of the military.

When Paul proposed a budget in 2013, it included increases in the national defense budget, but increases much smaller than those proposed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Paul’s proposed increase did not match projections for required spending to sustain current defense levels.

Paul still contends that the national debt is, in itself, the greatest threat to national security.

Gray would not say if he would increase defense spending. Instead, he said he would focus on eliminating unnecessary expenditures.

“Cut what is unnecessary spending out, but you go at that with a scalpel and not with a meat ax,” Gray said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics