Paul is an unelectable, flawed and at times crazy-sounding candidate. His Internet followers are infinitely worse. Yet if you look beyond 2012, Paul matters. Once all the truthers, crazies, and proclamations of Iran's supposedly benign intentions are sorted out, conservatives will have to think seriously about what American foreign policy should look like in the future. They may well settle on something closer to Paul's view than the bellicose bipartisan consensus that sent us to war in Iraq in 2003.
Paul's near-absolute non-interventionism is too radical for most conservatives, and it will surely remain so. His missives against Israel -- which may in fact violate his own principled opposition to public judgments about the acts of other sovereigns -- rub some the wrong way, and reinforce some of the most unfortunate and embarrassing content in his old newsletters.
But after eight years of the Iraq occupation, and the all the accompanying loss of life, there is substantial demand on the Right -- and more broadly among normal, non-hippie Americans -- for a less interventionist foreign policy.
This is not lost even on other viable candidates in the current GOP field. Even here, one sees small hints of regret about the last decade, and about the war that shaped it and created the Obamacare majority as its political byproduct.
Four years ago, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke at the American Enterprise Institute -- known to conspiracy theorists as a vipers' nest of neoconservatism -- and argued that the Iraq war could have been avoided through better diplomacy.
Mitt Romney -- who is not exactly known for staking out and maintaining politically risky positions -- implied quite clearly in an interview last month that Saddam Hussein's removal did not itself justify the Iraq invasion. To be specific, he said we would not have done it at all if not for false reports of Saddam's weaponry.
In short, it is no longer controversial for conservatives to suggest that the agenda of President Bush's second inaugural address -- the one about confidently using America's might to advance the cause of freedom around the world -- has been a complete bust.
The road to such Republican squishiness on Iraq need not be traced to Paul, who voted and spoke against the war. Trace it instead, if you like, to William F. Buckley. In 2005, Buckley called Bush's zeal for nation-building unrealistic and even "surreal." As Buckley told the New Yorker, "It is not, in my judgment, conservatism."
Long before Buckley, there was George W. Bush himself, who in 2000 spoke of "a humble foreign policy." As he put it in the second presidential debate against Al Gore, "I'm not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, 'This is how it's got to be.' "
We know why Bush's view changed, but our withdrawal from Iraq has been immediately followed by an outbreak of violence and an apparent breakdown in the political process. The related question arises: Just how much can such international bossiness accomplish, even if we try?
Paul will not win the Republican nomination. He has an admirably consistent libertarian record that he seems incapable of defending without raising the irrelevant suggestion that America brought 9/11 upon itself. But he will win many votes in primaries this year from conservatives who just don't care about that or about his old newsletters. Many will view a protest vote for Paul as the only expression of hope that the GOP is not the war party of the future.
David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.