5 Questions with Kiron Skinner on Rand Paul, Reagan, and the GOP Race

September 17, 2015

This is a very special #NatSec2016 edition of our 5 Questions series.  I had a chance to speak with Kiron Skinner, the director of the Institute of Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University and a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign.  She answered questions about Sen. Paul, the GOP race, and Ronald Reagan.  And of course, we asked our special War on the Rocks-themed fifth question!

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1. You’ve advised a number of Republican presidential candidates in the past.  In this election cycle, you’re advising Sen. Rand Paul.  What drew you to his campaign?

From the start of his career in politics, Rand Paul has had a genuine appreciation for the factors that make the United States strong at home and abroad.  Among them is continually addressing the issue of race and rights in our country.  His heartfelt engagements with African Americans drew me to him.  That’s one of the reasons I am part of his campaign team.

2. Sen. Paul is frequently labeled a libertarian.  Beyond the national security issues for which his position is widely known — drone usage and the NSA, for example — to what extent do his views on security and foreign policy more broadly differ from those of the other presidential candidates in the GOP field?

For Sen. Paul’s last five years in public life, he has repeatedly stated that he is neither an isolationist nor an interventionist. He is someone who believes in the Constitution and believes that the United States should have a strong national defense.  The senator believes that we should defend ourselves when it is in our national interest to do so.

As Sen. Paul puts it: “We need a hammer ready, but not every civil war is a nail.”

Specifically, Sen. Paul believes that America should not fight wars unless they are authorized by Congress, and that there must be a clear objective when we go to war. For example, the ill-fated decision to attack Libya after Qaddafi peacefully surrendered his weapons program destabilized the region and discouraged Iran from similar cooperation.  Sen. Paul believes we must overcome the damaging hypocrisy of our unconstitutional intervention in Libya and follow a grand strategy of consistent principles that recognize our limits and preserve our might.

3. The electorate is generally believed to be more concerned with national security issues than it has in the past couple election cycles.  Which issues, in particular, do you expect to feature most in the campaign?  How does that affect the type of advice you would give to Sen. Paul?

Understanding the requirements of war is clearly important for U.S. citizens, especially after more than a decade of being engaged in two wars in the broader Middle East.  The rise of the Islamic State is an issue for U.S. citizens because the terrorist organization and the network it has spawned threatens us at home and abroad and they seek to destroy the West.  My advice to presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul is really an encouragement: Continue to demand that any decisions around war and international conflict include the constitutional involvement of the Congress.  These decisions cannot and should not be made by political cabals in and around the White House.

4. You’ve studied and written extensively about Ronald Reagan, including co-authoring two bestselling books on him.  What aspects of Reagan’s presidency, and what features of the geopolitical landscape from his era, offer the most useful lessons for candidates running in 2016?

Ronald Reagan was president during the first decade of the Global War on Terror.  He assumed office on the day that U.S. citizens were coming home after being held in captivity in Tehran.  Later, he faced the Lebanon hostage crisis, with U.S. citizens held there, at the hands of Hezbollah.  It was during the Reagan years that the U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command became operational.  One lesson on terrorism from the Reagan years is to put the institutional structures in place for the evolving threats to U.S interests.  The next president is going to have to look very closely at the status of military forces, our security arrangements around the world, and our laws that protect privacy while guaranteeing security.   There is a lot of work to do in this regard.  Studying how the Reagan national security team put the institutional building blocks in place in the 1980s for the twenty-first century challenges surrounding global terrorism while still fighting the Cold War is instructive for the next president.  We sometimes forget just how heavy a lift President Reagan faced in the anarchic environment of the international system; he was finishing of the last war of the twentieth century (the Cold War) while gearing up for the new threat (terrorism), which is one of our principal threats now.

5. As we all know, campaigns are a bit like roller coasters, with ups and downs.  When something big happens — a surge in the polls, a straw poll victory, or a great debate performance — what will be imbibed if you’re the one ordering the celebratory drinks?

Mojitos for all.


John Amble is managing editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore