Rand Paul thumbs his nose at Washington groupthink on Russia

By Willis Krumholz

Last week, Sen. Rand Paul (KY) visited Russian officials in Moscow. With him, Paul brought a letter written by President Trump, addressed to Vladimir Putin. “The letter emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges,” Paul said.

Sen. Paul’s reason for making the trip was simple: “Engagement is vital to our national security and peace around the world.” Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with the head of a similar committee in Russia, Konstantin Kosachev. Paul said that he and his Russian counterpart “agreed on the importance of continued dialogue.” Paul invited the Russians to visit Washington to continue talks, and Kosachev accepted.

For his efforts, Paul was called a “Russia stooge” and a “whacko bird.” On CNN’s cable-TV channel, the headline read: “GOP’s Paul Visits Moscow, Ignores Russia’s Election Attacks.”

Proponents of the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory—a near religious movement at this point—even tried to say that there was something nefarious about the letter that Sen. Paul brought from President Trump. MSNBC’s Sam Stein wrote that it was “weird” that Rand Paul had asked President Trump to write the letter. CNBC’s John Harwood, infamous for coordinating with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, thought it suspicious that Paul wanted to bring a letter introducing himself to Putin, because surely Putin knows who Rand Paul is. Maybe these media personalities never learned basic diplomatic formalities.

Republicans were more measured, but still not fans of Paul’s trip. The standard GOP talking point goes something like this: “Rand Paul can go ahead and talk to the Russians, but he needs to remember that Russia is not our friend, so talking to them is a fruitless endeavor.” GOP leadership immediately rejected allowing the Russian delegation on Capitol Hill.

The controversy was reminiscent of a 2017 debate on the Senate floor over admitting tiny Montenegro to NATO. When Sen. Paul questioned whether it was in America’s interest for Montenegro to be added to NATO, which would require America to go to war to defend Montenegro, Sen. John McCain (AZ) accused Paul of “carrying out the desires and ambitions of Vladimir Putin,” and stated that “the Senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

In other words, there is a bipartisan consensus in D.C. that we should not just be tough on Russia, but that we should shy away from talking to Russia altogether. According to this crowd, Russia is our enemy, and there are no areas of potential cooperation between America and Russia. The New York Times said that Paul was “thumbing his nose at Washington groupthink.” The Washington Post wrote that Paul was a foreign policy “lone wolf,” and had played a similar role—Paul was just about the only politician to defend President Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin—after the Helsinki summit.

Sen. Paul is right to talk to Russia, and it is a shame that more of our elected leaders in Congress do not share his convictions. Yes, Russia is a geopolitical adversary. And yes, Russia’s military and economy are tiny compared to our own. But given the wide expanse of territory Russia controls, its cooperation on certain fronts is vital to achieving U.S. foreign policy goals.

For example, Russia is helping North Korea evade sanctions. We could get moralistic about this, but why should Russia cooperate with our sanctions on North Korea if it gains nothing in return? Foreign policy is about give-and-take. Few recall that to end the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy removed American Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Reagan, meanwhile, talked tough against the evils of the communist Soviet Union—a much greater threat to America than Russia is today—but he was willing to negotiate.

And Sen. Paul’s outreach is all-the-more important today, given the sour state of relations between the world’s two nuclear superpowers. Russia has stepped up its hacking and meddling overseas, and Russian spies were likely behind the assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy residing in the U.K. Meanwhile, America has leveled repeated sanctions on Russia, U.S. forces recently engaged and killed Russian mercenaries in Syria, and NATO is expanding ever-closer to Russian territory. The Trump administration has been exceptionally tough on Russia too, arming Ukraine—a country on Russia’s doorstep—and pressuring NATO-members to meet their defense-spending commitments.

Russia shares most of the blame for the poor state of relations, but not all of it. Many in D.C.—as we have seen with the controversy over the letter Sen. Paul carried to Moscow—are trying to criminalize basic diplomacy with Russia. Yet if we don’t talk to the Russians, the bad-blood will only get worse. In Sen. Paul’s words, “the hatred for the president is so intense that partisans would rather risk war than give diplomacy a chance.” While in Moscow, Paul also said that President Trump’s hands were tied when it came to Russia, largely because of the Mueller investigation into potential Trump-Russia collusion.

Think of that for a second. President Trump successfully ran for office on a platform that was critical of the Washington foreign policy establishment, and open to cooperation and dialogue with the rest of the world. Congress has a right to push back on a President’s desired foreign policy, but  President Trump’s biggest inhibitor to charting a course away from the foreign policy status quo seems to be unelected bureaucrats and intelligence agencies running a never-ending investigation.

We should always favor engagement over bravado, especially with nuclear armed countries. Russia is an adversary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk to Russia, and even work with Russia on areas of shared interest. The American people should wonder why so many of their politicians don’t seem to agree.

Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.

 This piece was originally published by The Daily Caller on August 15, 2018. Read more HERE.