It hurts, being betrayed by someone you cared for – by someone you trusted. All those old pictures of better times serve as but stinging reminders of what once was had but now is lost. For 31-year-old Jayel Aheram, however, there were no tears. The former Marine turned antiwar activist was firmly in the righteous phase of the breakup.
“I fucking love Ron Paul so much,” he told me on the roof of his apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, “but I just don’t have the same admiration for Rand.” Indeed, my token libertarian friend then set fire to a pair of the Kentucky Republican’s “Stand with Rand” t-shirts, estimated value: $35. A handful of 20-somethings drank beer as the senator’s merchandise went up in flames. These were not normal people, to be sure: they were libertarians and, just a couple months back, several of them were phone-banking for the Paul campaign, while Aheram just had his selfie with the presidential hopeful, taken during a campaign stop in Irvine, featured in The New York Times: The two had just connected over their shared opposition to the NATO war in Libya right before he took it, Aheram told me. They looked so happy.
So what prompted such a fiery stunt on a Saturday night? Simple: The son of Ron opposes the deal with Iran over its nuclear program, faulting the agreement for lifting sanctions on the Islamic Republic before “evidence of compliance.” Paul still insists he prefers peace to war – who doesn’t? – and that he favors a negotiated settlement to the West’s standoff with the Islamic Republic, he just doesn’t support the only one that will ever happen, functionally making him pro-war. Worst of all: He’s lying to do it.
The agreement itself guarantees Iran will not be able to get a nuclear weapon that it was never shown it was trying to obtain. In exchange for the lifting of sanctions, Iran agreed to give up 97 percent of its enriched uranium and to forgo enrichment beyond 3.67 percent, far below what could be considered weapons-grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency will also be allowed to conduct 24/7 surveillance of its remaining centrifuges, after Iran agreed to give up more than two-thirds of the ones it has now.
“From what I understand, it’s a good deal,” said 24-year-old Whitney Davis, a student at the University of Southern California and member of Young Americans for Liberty. Rand Paul’s campaign merchandise simmered in a baking pan behind her, the toxic smell providing all, leftist and libertarian alike, an opportunity to ponder state regulation of the textile industry and communist China’s role in feeding the free market. “Iranians were celebrating in the streets over the lifting of sanctions,” Davis said. “I feel like that’s what we want as libertarians.”
Some libertarians, at least. Ron Paul, for instance, considers sanctions against Iran an “act of war,” and indeed Iranians unable to obtain life-saving medicine for a loved one may be forgiven for confusing this tool of the statesmen for a siege. Rand Paul, by contrast, has said sanctions can be “a tool to achieve a desired result without war.” When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on Capitol Hill last week to defend the Iran deal, Paul the younger explained that he did not believe the very agreement sanctions were designed to coerce (“a desired result”) mustn’t be lifted; rather, there should be “a phased reduction over a many-year period.”
The libertarians I talked to think his heart’s not in it: He’s just doing this because he’s running for president and needs to appeal to jingoistic Republican primary voters and the party’s even more hawkish donors. They also think it’s dumb. What billionaire militarist is going to decide their guy is Rand Paul (currently hovering at around 5 percent nationally) when there are 15 more reliable proxies to choose from? What he’s actually doing is alienating the only demographic in the country that actually likes him: Young people between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a a recent survey by CNN, are the only ones who view him more favorably than not. It is also young people who are the most supportive of the nuclear deal with Iran. And it is the earnest young libertarians busy burning his stuff who Rand needs to be doing what they were doing three months ago: volunteering for his campaign.
Aheram probably isn’t going to do that again. He’s forgiven Rand his previous trespasses, “but this is different,” he told me: he’s lending his reputation as not-the-worst-Republican to a campaign that aims to derail one of those rare instances of successful diplomacy (excepting the kind that leads to a coup). “And,” Aheram continued, “he is straight-up lying about it.”
After he cross-examined Kerry, Politico credited Paul for having “adopted a more dispassionate, even diplomatic stance” than some of his more bellicose colleagues (their story: “Rand Paul the diplomat“). The report noted that Paul cited Iran’s Supreme Leader to bolster his case against the agreement. While the Obama administration claims “this would prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon,” said Paul, Ayatollah Khamenei “is saying the opposite.” In fact, Khameni is “already saying, well, this isn’t really any limitation on our ability to make a weapon.”
Paul repeated the claim after the hearing during an appearance on Fox Business:
I made a point that the ayatollah is now saying that the deal does not prevent them from having a nuclear weapon and I thought that’s precisely what the deal is supposed to do, so I don’t know how we can have an agreement that President Obama says means one thing, John Kerry says means one thing, but the ayatollah says doesn’t mean that at all.
What neither Fox nor Politico reported is that Khamenei has said no such thing. “The Americans say they stopped Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” is what the ayatollah has in fact stated. “They know it’s not true.” Read uncharitably, one could perhaps interpret this statement as sinister, but for one thing – it is immediately followed by this: “We had a fatwa, declaring nuclear weapons to be religiously forbidden under Islamic law. It had nothing to do with the nuclear talks.” An unambiguous assertion that Iran never wanted a nuke has been twisted into a statement that no one can stop the Islamic Republic from getting one.
This isn’t a case of a bad translation: It’s a conscious lie of omission from a politician who wants to have it both ways: to be perceived as a friend of peace even as he tosses red meat to the dogs of war, an act that alienates those who would otherwise be his energized base and yet still hasn’t won him any friends at The Weekly Standard. The libertarians I spoke to were all a bit demoralized by it: economy-crashing sanctions are a form of war and Rand is making a full-on one more likely.
After the senator went so far as to argue for military action against Iran should it ever be caught trying to develop a nuclear weapon, something no US intelligence agency believes it is trying to do and which Paul conceded wouldn’t really help – he was on talk radio, where it’s the gut that counts – The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison declared it the final straw. “If there are still any Paul supporters that have been trying to find a silver lining in the senator’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy positions,” he wrote, “this should be enough to persuade them to stop trying.”
If he helps derail the Iran deal – unlikely as that is, requiring a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the Senate – anti-war libertarians might indeed bail on the Rand campaign. But as with his support for a larger military budget and his efforts to cut off aid to the Palestinians but conspicuously not the Israeli military, I suspect many will do what partisans of all persuasions do during election time and dismiss their candidate’s flaws as just the rhetoric of the campaign trail. A skeptic might note that campaign rhetoric is traditionally more attractive than the policies a candidate pursues once in power, George W. Bush having been for a “humble” foreign policy too, but such electoral downers should probably just hibernate until December 2016.
Mid-way through the shirt burning a friend of mine, Pavel, a visitor from the normal world, showed up for the free beer and liquor that I told him there was to be had. Once beveraged, I made him my man-on-the-street. “So, Pavel,” I asked, stupidly, “what do you think about Rand Paul?”
With distance often comes clarity; having never been invested in something, one is better positioned to analyze it without the distorting influence of sentiment. “He’s just a shitty pseudo-libertarian politician, right?” said Pavel, to which many of his once-and-future faithful would say: Yeah, basically. Some may persist in viewing him as a lesser evil, of course, and in a general election with Hillary Clinton he might still be the dove, no matter how hard he tries to be the hawk, but I’m willing to bet even his most ardent supporters would agree that when it comes to foreign policy he’s definitely the lesser Paul.
Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Nation, The New Republic and Salon.