"I have nothing good to say about Assad," Kentucky Senator Rand Paul made sure to stipulate on a hurried conference call after the marathon Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Syria yesterday. A reporter from a radio station back in Paul's hometown of Bowling Green, Kentucky had said that he had spoken to a Syrian woman, a Christian, living in the area who was afraid of what would happen to Christians in her home country if Assad fell.
"You know, I wish I had a good answer for you," Paul said. "I've talked to a lot Syrian Christians and they're afraid of Islamists coming to power. I have nothing good to say about Assad, but as bad as Assad is, they've somehow been able to have their religion and their own way of life. My concern is what happens over there if Assad falls from power. It's inevitable that there will be a second war." He then predicted that the Islamists may come to power, and drew a parallel between what could happen in Syria after Assad, and what happened in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood took over: attacks the Coptic Christians.
Yes, this is a legitimate concern—Christians make up some 10 percent of the Syrian population, and have largely backed Assad—and the Egyptian example is a widely reported one; and, given the reports of jihadis brutally establishing Sharia law in the areas they've secured, Paul raises a fair question. The only problem is that it seems it's all he's talking about. Aside from his standard non-interventionist caution, and the how-do-we-really-know-anything-about-anything epistemological exercises of the kind we saw in his confrontation with Kerry, the paramount concern for Rand Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is not the question of chemical weapon use, or the 100,000 dead, but the Christians.
This weekend, Paul did a tour of the Sunday morning shows to talk about Syria, and sounded the clarion call for protecting his brothers in God. On "Meet the Press," Paul predicted a bleak future: not only did he not foresee American interests winning out in Syria, but envisioned "an Islamic state in which Christians are persecuted." A possible solution, he said, might be to remove Assad and keep some of his people in power. "That," he said, "would also be good for the Christians."
Playing on the home field on Fox, he was more blunt. "I also can’t see sending my son to fight with Islamic rebels against Christians," he said on "Hannity." "But the other question is, what if the other Islamic, the better, the moderate Islamic rebels take over? You will still probably have Sharia law, you'll have Christians persecuted for blasphemy." A few days earlier, on Mike Huckabee's radio show, he had said that Obama needs to realize that "there are two million Christians living in Syria, more than just about any place in the Middle East. And I just don't want to see my kids or weapons of the United States being used to kill Christians in Syria."
This isn't a wholly new preoccupation for Paul, who has had to prove himself with the evangelical base within the GOP. He's sat for an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network and talked, as always, uncomfortably about his Christian faith; he's embraced the cause of Israel, against which Paul the Elder often voted in the House. (Recently, though, he's also given them a dose of his signature tough love, saying the evangelical community was generally too eager to rush into war.)
His need to prove himself to the traditional, non-libertarian Republican base would seem to explain why he picked up on the Christians-in-Syria trope long before this most recent political crisis in the Middle East. In June, for instance, he banged on this drum at a Faith and Freedom Coalition rally in Washington. "The Senate is attempting to arm the rebel forces in Syria, many of whom are al-Qaida or affiliates," he said. "They do so out of a misguided attempt to stop the violence in Syria. Instead their actions will bring more violence and more persecution of Christians, who have long been protected in Syria."
What's more, he reframed his infamous opposition to foreign aid as standing up not just for American pride, but for Christianity as well. "In Egypt, in Pakistan, they burn our flag—I say not one penny more to countries that burn the American flag," Paul said. "While they burn the American flag and the mobs chant 'Death to America,' more of your money is sent to these haters of Christianity ... It is clear that American taxpayer dollars are being used to enable a war on Christianity in the Middle East, and I believe that must end."
In May, in a guest op-ed for CNN, he wrote:
Empowering Islamic extremists to achieve questionable short-term goals does not serve America's long-term security or interests. Nor does it serve the interests of nearly 2 million Christians in Syria who fear they could suffer the same fate as Iraqi Christians who were abused and expelled from that country as radical Islamic forces gained influence and power.
These Christians are natural allies of the United States, and if we're going to seriously discuss any American interests in Syria, the welfare of these Christians is more important than arming Islamic extremists.
To be fair, the concern for Syria's Christians, is, as I've said, a legitimate one. Christians, Alawites, and Shiites have largely lined up with Assad not for any love for the man, but for fear of those who might replace him. The concern that the armed opposition to Assad is increasingly dominated by jihadis, who are better fighters than your random engineer or taxi driver picking up a Kalashnikov, is a legitimate one. The concern that a prolonged civil war in Syria is making a solution of any kind, political or military, more difficult, and that the two sides are becoming only different shades of repugnant, is a legitimate one. As is the concern that military strikes do not always go smoothly or simply.
The problem is that the right is increasingly inflating these concerns—for example, equating the opposition to Assad with al-Qaida—simply because President Obama supports striking Assad.
The other, much more problematic issue is that Rand Paul's brotherly, at times obsessive concern for Syrian Christians, is becoming interwoven, whether he wants this or not, with the right's increasingly revolting, jaw-slackening Islamophobia. Pointing out that Assad protects Christians even as he gasses Sunni Muslim children may not be what Paul was intending to imply, but it sure looks that way when his most ardent supporters are writing editorials titled "Letting Allah Sort Out Islamic Civil War in Syria," itself a borrowed line from nuanced foreign policy thinker Sarah Palin. Or "Christians Under the Crescent." Or when Hannity, who loves inviting Paul on his show, brings on an organizer of the Million Muslim March—trumpeted in alarmist tones on Drudge Report—and, along with an exceptionally rabid guest, lays into him for "playing the victim" at a time when we should be honoring people who "will never see their parents again" because of things Muslims did on 9/11. Or when Drudge, to the slobbering, hateful glee of his Facebook followers, posts an Iranian video that says the messiah's coming is at hand. (Some choice comments: "HELL WILL SOON BE THEIR HOME !!!!" "Peaceful Muslims are non-practicing Muslims." "Islamic messiah = antichrist?" and, "WHO LET THE DOGS OUT ????") Or the right-wing blogosphere exploding with rage when Senator John McCain impatiently corrects a Fox anchor, telling him, rightly, that people shouting "Allahu akbar" is like Americans shouting "Thank god!" (Check out the comments on Breitbart's take on the incident, several referring to Middle Easterners as "nut jobs.")
As my colleague Isaac Chotiner has pointed out, there is a rich vein of religious extremism on the right, we just don't call it that because it's Christian, because they're our "nut jobs."
Paul's emphasis on Syrian Christians is more than a simple reminder of a neglected aspect of an already complicated situation. It sounds distinctly like the garbage about America being a Christian nation, like the unnerving evangelical support of Israel, like the not-too-subtle hum on the right that some lives, Christian lives, are simply more important than other, Muslim ones.
How's that for sectarian warfare?