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In light of my most recent column, I thought it might be worth trying to clarify some of the points I made in this post on Rand Paul signing Tom Cotton’s Iran letter.

I agree that Paul shouldn’t have signed the letter. Even if the substance was defensible, its intent — subverting the negotiations that are the best alternative to a preventive war with Iran — was not. If the letter derails the talks and we end up with either war or a nuclear Iran, Paul and the other 46 senators should be held accountable.

But the Cotton letter is at least as likely to have no more impact than a deport Justin Bieber petition. That’s why the “red line,” to borrow a phrase from President Obama, should be the imposition of additional sanctions while negotiations are ongoing, which will mostly certainly short-circuit diplomacy. If Paul is able to help keep the negotiations going, it will outweigh his signature on the Cotton letter and even a vote for Corker-Menendez.

Lots of things are suboptimal. Kirk-Menendez and any preventive Iran AUMF are non-negotiable.

That’s why expecting Rand to “lead the non-interventionist cause” is both asking too much and too little. For better or worse, he’s not using his Senate seat and his likely presidential candidacy as platforms to educate people about his principles the way his father used his House seat and presidential candidacies. The younger Paul is trying to win elections and shape policy. He should therefore be judged by how successful he is at doing those things and whether his efforts actually improve policy from our perspective.

I mentioned Ron Paul’s 2007 exchange with Rudy Giuliani in my latest column. The congressman gave a press conference a day or two after the debate giving Giuliani a reading list that would help him learn about blowback. It was a clever educational approach — not for teaching Giuliani, of course, but for teaching curious voters.

Yet if Rand Paul had responded to his 2010 primary opponent’s ad highlighting the debate with Giuliani and effectively calling both Pauls 9/11 truthers with a reading list, he probably wouldn’t be in the Senate today. Rand responded by saying, “Trey Grayson, your shameful TV ad is a lie and it dishonors you.”

The supposed “isolationist” won that Republican primary by isolating his most hawkish critics and reassuring everyone else.

Robert Taft was the most influential Old Right non-interventionist, but he wasn’t the purest (Google “even Robert Taft” if you need confirmation). Pat Buchanan was a Cold War hawk. Even Ron Paul voted to authorize the war on terror and didn’t go full Rothbard on the Cold War.

I’m not criticizing these gentlemen’s positions. I’m just pointing out that the current situation isn’t completely unprecedented.

Buchanan in particular was able to win many votes from people who weren’t completely on board with his positions on foreign policy — particularly his opposition to the first Gulf War and his stand on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — while Taft was elected by his peers to lead an ideologically eclectic group of Republican senators.

That’s not to say Rand Paul’s messy rhetoric doesn’t matter. Conceding too much rhetorically — or worse, parroting the cheapest hawkish talking points — will limit the impact he can have on the Republican foreign-policy debate no matter how he votes.

But it’s a little early to write off the biggest counterweight to the GOP’s most hawkish voices.

If the Republican primary electorate is hell-bent on another Iraq-style war, Paul is not going to be the 2016 presidential nominee no matter what positions he takes. There will always be more hawkish alternatives. It’s equally true that he won’t win, or have much influence on the debate, if libertarians isolate themselves from the rest of the party instead of isolating their opponents.

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