Sen. Rand Paul (Chip Somodevilla/ / Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — GOP presidential frontrunner Sen. Rand Paul continues to solidify an isolationist defense philosophy that is raising concerns among pro-defense Republicans.
During a brief sit-down July 8 with Defense News, the Kentucky tea-party darling said a violent Sunni group that has Iraq on the brink of collapse poses no direct threat to the United States.
In the latest example of Paul's philosophic skepticism toward using US military force around the globe, he said there is no reason for President Barack Obama to send ground forces back to Iraq.
Asked whether the Islamic State of Syria in the Levant (ISIL) poses a direct threat to the US, Paul said, “The vast amount of Americans disagree with that assessment.”
Several polls say Paul is right, to a point. One recent Public Policy Polling survey found that 74 percent oppose the return of ground troops to Iraq. But the polls also find that a majority supports some assistance, such as American intelligence assets.
Paul said he disagrees with Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when they call ISIL a direct threat.
“We know that there’s a civil war going on there. And we know that they want to claim a big chunk of Iraq — as much as they can get. But, I mean, anything else is complete conjecture,” he said.
“Are they a potential threat to the US? Sometime,” Paul said. “Maybe even at the present. But ... is there a US interest in sending US troops into Iraq? Absolutely no.”
Paul, whom multiple public opinion polls show has a narrow lead on other potential GOP presidential candidates, also continued his call for Washington to place hardline restrictions on military and other forms of aid it sends to countries "that hate us and burn our flag."
The likely GOP contender has been leading a legislative insurgency against foreign aid. He wants aid to Palestinians stopped immediately, and he believes that GOP primary voters will agree that Hamas is benefiting from it.
“We’re involved in the current package [to deny] aid to Egypt, Pakistan, the Palestine Authority,” he said.
He also opposes the Obama administration’s recent reversal on providing aid to “vetted” members of the Syrian opposition. As Paul sees it, the Free Syrian Army rebel group is ISIL’s ally.
“We’re fighting with [ISIL] in the Syrian war,” Paul said passionately, “and then fighting against them in Iraq. Try explaining that to the American people.”
Collectively, Paul's comments provide a glimpse into his worldview and likely policies if he became the next commander-in-chief. The brief interview provided enough light to see the makings of a defense and foreign policy campaign platform that likely would call for a much less active United States in global affairs.
Paul doubts that the country can continue to pay for a muscular foreign policy built on huge annual Pentagon budgets and lengthy military deployments.
"We have to borrow the money from China to go fight," he said.
A longtime advocate of smaller DoD budgets, Paul likes the much-maligned sequestration cuts that Pentagon leaders, industry executives, and their allies on Capitol Hill say are weakening the US military.
In February 2013, Paul said that more federal spending reductions are needed on top of the sequestration cuts, which total $1.2 trillion for defense and domestic budgets.
“Not only should the sequester stand, many pundits say the sequester really needs to be at least $4 trillion to avoid another downgrade of America’s credit rating,” Paul said then, and he has stood by that stance.
There is evidence that Paul’s isolationist approach aligns with that of likely Republican primary voters. A new Pew Research Center poll found that among “steadfast conservatives,” 71 percent believe America should focus more on issues at home than abroad, and 55 percent believe US actions make global problems worse.
This may put Paul more in line with conservative voters — who typically turn out in big numbers for GOP primaries — than so-called “establishment Republicans” like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or McCain, who has said he sees Paul’s isolationist views as wrongheaded.
“Paul is going to our nominee,” said one GOP source last week. “And that’s not going to be a good thing for defense.”
The source said there is a growing group of “defense conservatives around town who favor Hillary [Clinton].” ■
Barbara Opall-Rome contributed to this report in Washington.