‘Clear & Present Danger’

Rand Paul Declares War on ISIS—and Allows Boots on the Ground

The Kentucky senator, seeking to define himself as a foreign-policy heavyweight ahead of 2016, will introduce a measure in the Senate next month declaring war on the terror group.

11.24.14 5:02 AM ET

“The most important” part of Rand Paul’s assessment of “questions of war,” the Kentucky senator told The Daily Beast this fall, is “how you go to war.” Now he’s putting that assessment into action with a plan to introduce a declaration of war against ISIS in the Senate next month.

The move is part of Paul’s ongoing campaign to position himself as a foreign-policy heavyweight ahead of the Republican presidential primaries, when he is expected to mount a campaign for the nomination. But it may simply be dismissed as a tit-for-tat gesture as Republicans complain of executive overreach in the aftermath of President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

As Obama is hit with charges of overstepping his power, Paul’s resolution could be perceived as an attempt to strike back in another conflict: the now 200-year-old war between the executive and legislative branches of government. The senator’s resolution would turn on its head the traditional process by which presidents lead the United States into conflict and Congress says, “Sure, why not?”

In a draft of the resolution obtained by The Daily Beast, Paul states that “the organization referring to itself as the Islamic State has declared war on the United States and its allies” and that ISIS “presents a clear and present danger to United States diplomatic facilities in the region, including our embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and consulate in Erbil, Iraq.”

The Obama administration has justified the bombing campaign against ISIS by claiming that it is enabled by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Afghanistan, passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force in Iraq. Paul’s resolution would terminate the latter and place an expiration date on the former, one year after the passing of his resolution.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Paul’s resolution will allow for limited use of boots on the ground “as necessary for the protection or rescue of members of the United States Armed Forces or United States citizens from imminent danger [posed by ISIS]… for limited operations against high value targets,” and “as necessary for advisory and intelligence gathering operations.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast in September, Paul said he was against the idea of U.S. forces on Middle East soil. “I don’t think there needs to be any American soldiers over there on the ground,” he said. “I don’t mind helping them through technical support, through sophisticated intelligence, drones, Air Force, etc.”

He added: “The people on the ground fighting these battles, going hand-to-hand with ISIS, need to be their fellow Arabs and those who, I think and hopefully do, represent civilized Islam.”

Doug Stafford, a senior aide to Paul, said the senator has not flip-flopped: “He doesn’t believe we should send a bunch of troops in to start a ground war. But he has always said we have an obligation to defend people in the region. The declaration is tailored to allow for this.”

Stafford later added: "It has always been a given that American troops could be required to secure the people and property of our embassy and consulate. Senator Paul believes that boots on the ground beyond those limited number as outlined in the declaration should come from allies in the region, as he has previously stated." 

Paul has outlined his stance on ISIS over the past few months: He is in favor of “destroying” the terrorist organization “militarily” with bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria but is against arming rebels and believes President Obama should formally declare war.

Paul’s contention that wars should be formally declared has been a key part of his policy platform since his arrival on the national stage in 2010. The United States has not formally declared war since World War II.

He sketched out his overarching philosophy for how to approach the Middle East to The Daily Beast as “No. 1: Always go to Congress. We can’t do things unilaterally. This used to be the president’s position in 2007, when he ran for office.”

The rise of ISIS has presented Paul with an opportunity to define his foreign policy, which had previously—due to his opposition to the war in Iraq and zealous skepticism of military engagement in the Middle East throughout his short time in the Senate—been inextricably linked to that of his father, former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, the libertarian icon and proud noninterventionist.

Much of Paul’s base of support was inherited from his father, which means that as Paul moves closer to formally declaring his candidacy for president, he must find balance between appealing to their libertarian sensibilities and to those of mainstream Republican primary voters.

With that in mind, Paul spent the majority of the summer rebranding himself as a “conservative realist” on foreign policy who models himself after Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, an odd trio who are alike only insofar as they are open to intervention. Paul even turned “conservative realism” into a hashtag. The declaration of war against ISIS, then, would seem to be a logical next step.

This article has been updated to include additional comment from Doug Stafford.