Rand Paul Doubles Down on Anti-ISIS Strikes

The likely presidential candidate is doubling down on on his support for anti-ISIS air strikes, despite new evidence that they aren’t working.

01.19.15 10:45 AM ET

LAS VEGAS — When the facts change, don’t expect Sen. Rand Paul to necessarily change his mind.

Despite the recent revelation that ISIS’s territorial control in Syria has ballooned since the start of U.S. air strikes, the purported skeptic of intervention is doubling down on the American bombing campaign there.

And he’s doing it with a flourish of campaign rhetoric, criticizing "a war Hillary [Clinton] was very interested and promoted in Syria" while simultaneously defending American air strikes in that war.

By holding firm on the anti-ISIS strikes, the likely 2016 presidential nominee is echoing the arguments made by President Obama’s Pentagon, moving him further away from his previously atypical position on military involvement in the Middle East that had distinguished him from the rest of the Republican Party.

On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported that at least one third of Syria had fallen into the hands of ISIS, even though the American military has pummeled the country with some 800 air strikes in an effort to weaken the terrorist organization.

Paul responded to the news in an interview with The Daily Beast on Friday in Las Vegas, saying that he did not regret his decision to support airstrikes in Syria, and despite evidence to the contrary, he believes the airstrikes have “lessened” ISIS’ ability to attack the U.S.:

“I think that their ability to attack—this is an opinion, and I think you can have facts, you can look at it and come to a conclusion—I think that the ability of ISIS to enter Baghdad and take our Embassy, or enter Irbil and take our consulate, has lessened from before the bombing. Is that a success? I think it’s a relative improvement of the situation. The ultimate success, though, is going to require boots on the ground—but those boots on the ground need to be the people who live there.”

It's a muddled message: Even while supporting air strikes, Paul blamed ISIS's prior rise in the Middle East on politicians who favor intervention, a subtle jab at the foreign policy hawks in his own party. He has said that he favors limited, thought-out intervention—but he has offered no concrete alternative for when such a plan fails.

"We have to do something about ISIS now, but we need to not forget that part of the reason we're here is because the people who always want to be involved made ISIS and allowed ISIS to become stronger,” Paul said on Friday.

The senator’s defense of the bombing campaign also mirrors the Pentagon’s line on increasing ISIS control in the Middle East.

The Pentagon has not disputed that ISIS territory has expanded in Syria, but instead has emphasized that the Obama administration has pursued an ‘Iraq first’ strategy to keep ISIS from threatening Baghdad. On Friday, the U.S. military announced its plans to send more than 400 soldiers to help train Syrian rebels, part of a long term plan to roll back ISIS's gains on the ground.

Back in September, Paul explained to The Daily Beast that people who felt his foreign policy view had shifted because he supported bombing ISIS in Syria didn’t understand that his views were constantly evolving as the situation in the Middle East was changed:

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“I’ve always said that I adhere to foreign policy realism—that you look at the facts as they exist, not as you wish them to be, as they exist—and that’s why you can have one position on ISIS three years ago, where you say, ‘you know, I don’t think they’re necessarily a threat,’ and you can have a different position three years later when they’re stronger. Things change on the ground, and so does the analysis as those things change on the ground.”

His comments come as the Kentucky Republican tries to contrast his foreign policy vision with Hillary Clinton - the leading Democratic figure of the 2016 presidential cycle.

“One lesson that is pretty explicit and hard to argue against is that when we have toppled secular dictates we have gotten chaos and the rise of radical Islam,” said Paul. “It happened with Hillary's war in Libya, it's happening in a war Hillary was very interested [in] and promoted in Syria.”

The overarching foreign policy message: like Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul supports intervention in Syria—but just with less gusto.

Asked if he regretted supporting air strikes in Syria, Paul responded, “no, I don’t. I support airstrikes in that i think there are vital american interests that can be and should be defended.”