WASHINGTON – The rise of Islamic State extremists in the Middle East can be traced to Republicans who backed arming fighters in the region, presidential candidate Rand Paul said in an interview broadcast Wednesday.
“ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately, and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS,” Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said on MSNBC, using an alternative abbreviation for the terrorist group.
Reaction from Paul’s fellow Republicans was swift.
“It’s one thing for Sen. Paul to take an outlandish position as a senator at Washington cocktail parties, but being commander-in-chief is an entirely different job,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.
Jindal said radical Islam is at fault for the rise of extremists and that people such as President Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “exacerbate it.”
Paul, who polls show in the middle of a crowded 2016 Republican presidential field, said members of his party “trapped inside the Beltway” may paint him as outside the mainstream on issues like foreign policy but that his message has resonated with many Republican voters.
The question of which party is to blame for the rise of Islamic State extremists has become a parlor game for candidates in the presidential race. Republicans from Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are trying to lay blame on Obama.
Earlier this month, Bush was confronted by a student at the University of Nevada, who yelled at the Republican that his brother, former President George W. Bush, “created ISIS.”
The Republican frontrunner responded by arguing that Islamic State was able to gain a foothold because Obama didn’t reach an agreement with the Iraqi government to keep a residual force of troops after the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
“Look, we can rewrite history all you want,” Bush said. “But the simple fact is that we are in a much more unstable place because America pulled back.”
Concerns over the terror network have flared in recent weeks after Islamic State fighters captured the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Critics of the Obama administration have questioned the president’s strategy, which relies heavily on local fighters aided by U.S. training and air support. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and others have pointed fingers at the Iraqi military.
Paul also said both Republicans and Clinton needed to answer for the 2011 NATO campaign to topple Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
“ISIS is all over Libya because these same hawks in my party loved Hillary Clinton’s war in Libya,” he said. “They just wanted more of it. But Libya is a failed state, and it’s a disaster.”
The senator said the party also needed to be more diverse by appealing to black, Hispanic and young voters.
“I’m the only one out there saying the Patriot Act went too far,” Paul said, adding that a majority of younger Americans oppose the government’s surveillance programs.
Paul has a reputation for bucking the leadership of his party. Earlier this month, he dealt Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a blow by blocking a Senate measure that would have reauthorized expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and this week said he will press for a vote on ending bulk records collection by the National Security Agency.
If elected, Paul said he would raise the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits and eliminate the U.S. Department of Education.
He argued that his willingness to engage on such issues made him the most viable challenger to Clinton, who is favored to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
“If you look at me in the purple states, I’m the only one who beats Hillary Clinton,” he said.