When Senator Rand Paul owns the most sensible voice on a foreign crisis and still captures the blessings of the far right, you know things have gotten overheated.
While everyone else in his party seized on the Russian incursion in Crimea as more evidence of President Obama's weakness and of Russian imperialism, Paul addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference presidential cattle show and didn't mention Vladimir Putin or the Russians. The day before, he cautioned against committing ourselves in Ukraine in a way that could lead to military intervention and said the United States should seek "respectful" relations with Putin.
Meantime, other Republicans, a few Democrats and herds of columnists and editorialists resurrected Hitler and Stalin and compared Putin's meddling in Crimea to all their butcheries and ethnic cleansings. Hillary Clinton, her shadow campaign for the presidency flowering everywhere, got into the act with a scary analogy to Hitler's forays in eastern Europe to "protect" ethnic Germans.
The historical material is so abundant and so easy to mine and the arrogant little tyrant who runs Russia so unlikable that you can hardly blame them. But Rand Paul didn't succumb to the lure, and he deserves some credit because his party's establishment was already after him for his isolationist approach to foreign affairs, which stands in contrast to the Republican Party generally. He opposed efforts to block accords with Iran over nuclear development and dared to say that, contrary to Israel's policy, arms are not necessarily the solution to Middle East problems. He sued the president over the collection of phone records and filibustered the president's use of drones to kill militant Muslims, the one Obama policy Republicans love.
By the way, CPAC did a straw poll after all the Republican presidential maybes had made their pitches and 31 percent favored Paul, three times the votes of the runner-up, Sen. Ted Cruz. Our man Mike Huckabee, if you are interested, finished in a four-way tie for 10th place.
Let's not misunderstand Paul's stance as neutrality. While he cautioned against the Cold War rhetoric, he condemned Putin's invasion of Crimea as a violation of international law, as it clearly is, not unlike our own invasions of tiny Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan, which three presidents undertook because they thought our grievances outweighed international law.
To counter his statesmanlike pronouncements Paul went on to identify steps he would take to isolate Russia and punish Putin — generally steps that Obama had already taken, except for letting oil companies build the Keystone XL pipeline, which he thought would terrify Putin by offering expensive Canadian oil to China and Europe.
You can overstate Rand Paul's qualifications to be president. He holds the same pure but nonsensical ideas about economics and the role of government as his old man, Ron Paul, the thoroughly admirable old libertarian who stood his ground through all the jeering Republican presidential debates and wound up with the votes of the ideologues and no one else. But the son has a presence that the whiny dad didn't have. He may be a presidential contender, at least for the nomination, when you put him up against Chris Christie and Ted Cruz.
Ron Paul had a clear-eyed grasp of history and of how America went wrong in the Middle East, with such morbid consequences, starting with President Eisenhower's decision to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953 to please Winston Churchill, London banks and the British petroleum companies.
And Rand seems to have the same capacity to view events with a little dispassion, even while recognizing the United States' competitive need to promote our interests to the detriment of Russia's. The events in Ukraine are not so one-sided as American politicians, including the president and Hillary Clinton, make them appear.
The Crimean peninsula is made up largely of Russians who view themselves historically, through many wars, as the most heroic Russians of all. Crimea was part of Russia from 1783 until Nikita Khrushchev, who stoked American fears by vowing to "bury" us, signed an order in 1954 detaching it from Russia and assigning it to his native Ukraine. Most Crimeans have resented it for 60 years.
Obama's sanctions will make Putin's violation of international law costly to Russians, though not so costly as were our own. For the last two invasions, George W. Bush at the end bore those costs personally. The tyrant Vladimir Putin, not so much, though he's not Hitler or Stalin.