I started writing this as Rand Paul entered the 9th hour of his historic filibuster against the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director, but I had to stop. As I listened and watched, real tears clouded my vision, raining down on the keyboard – tears of pure joy.
Quite an emotional reaction, and it took me by surprise: what, I wondered, is wrong with me? But perhaps my somewhat overwrought response wasn’t so inexplicable. After all, for years we’ve been subjected to a relentless assault on our civil liberties, with the War Party running roughshod over what weak dissents have surfaced – and now, finally, a clear voice of reason has emerged, to answer their war cries with a resounding "No!" Rand Paul, it turns out, truly is his father‘s son.
Paul’s panegyric was ostensibly launched in protest of the administration’s refusal to answer a simple question about its drone campaign: "Does the President have the right to kill Americans on American soil, without trial or due process?" In his letter to Brennan, the junior Senator from Kentucky gives voice to his own answer: "I believe the only acceptable answer is no."
Brennan answered this letter, somewhat belatedly, by pointing out that the CIA is forbidden to operate on US soil, but this only underscored the administration’s evasiveness on this question, because it’s DoD that would handle such an operation, and Attorney General Eric Holder’s testimony was unclear on the subject, basically boiling down to "We haven’t, we probably won’t, but we can’t make any promises." The administration claimed there are "exceptional" circumstances that preclude any pledge not to do so, pointing to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (!) and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But of course these were military attacks on the United States by foreign enemies, and the military is fully empowered to repel all such attacks. So this is a phony argument, and Sen. Paul was determined to get some real answers.
This wasn’t just about the narrow question of the drone war. It’s about what Rand calls the "perpetual war" that we’re now waging on a worldwide scale. As he put it in his historic speech:
"Kevin Gosztola who writes at FireDogLake, writes ‘the mere fact that the President’s answer to this question, whether you can kill an American on American soil, that the President’s answer was yes is outrageous. However, it fits the framework for fighting a permanent global war on terrorism without any geographic limitations, which the present administration, President Obama’s administration, has maintained that it has the authority to waive.’
"What’s important here is that we’re talking about a war without geographic limitations, but we’re also talking about a war without temporal limitations. There is no limit, no limit in time to this war. When will this war end? It’s a war that has, I think, an infinite timeline.
"So if you’re going to suspend your rights, if there is going to be no geographic limits to killing, which really means we’re not at war in Afghanistan, we’re at war everywhere and everybody that pops up is called al-Qaeda now, whether they have ever heard of al-Qaeda or not, whether they have any communication with some kind of network of al-Qaeda, everybody is al-Qaeda, but there is a new war or an ongoing war everywhere in the world, there is no limitations."
It isn’t just drone strikes on American soil that Sen. Paul is calling into question. He challenged the so-called "signature strikes," and asked the vital questions that none of his colleagues (save Sen. Wyden) dared raise until now: how do we know who is a "terrorist"? Who is authorized to launch or veto these strikes? What standards are used to determine if a target is a legitimate one? How many civilian deaths have resulted from our drone campaign? Has this helped us or hurt us in the countries we are bombing?
Sen. Paul’s critique has gone beyond even this, extending into the foreign policy realm. He used the drone issue to make a very effective criticism of our interventionist forays in general, pointing out how the notion of a perpetual war has empowered the Imperial Presidency and threatened the very foundations of our republican form of government. From Libya to Mali and beyond, Rand Paul raised an important point, one that few have raised – and certainly no one in the Senate – and it is how we know these alleged "terrorists" are members of Al-Qaeda. The "legal" justification for our endless "war on terrorism" is contained in the AUMF that launched the Afghan war, but how relevant is this to the people of Mali – who are more concerned with where their next meal is coming from than they are focused on plotting attacks on America? As Paul put it:
"I think we were united in saying let’s get those people who attacked us on 9/11 and make sure it never happens again. The problem is as this war has dragged on, they take that authorization of use of force to mean pretty much anything. And so they have now said that the war has no geographic limitations, so it’s really not a war in Afghanistan, it’s a war in Yemen, Somalia, Mali. It’s a war in unlimited places.
"Were we a body that cared about our prerogative to declare war, we would take that power back. But I’ll tell you how poor – and this is on both sides of the aisle – how poor is our understanding or belief in retaining that power here. About a year ago, I tried to end the Iraq war. You may say, well, I thought the Iraq war was already over. It is, but we still have an authorization of use of force that says we can go to war in Iraq any time.
"And since they think the use of force in Afghanistan means limitless war anywhere, any time in the whole world, for goodness sakes, wouldn’t we try to take back a declaration of war, an authorization of force if the war is over? But here’s the sad part. I actually got a vote on it and I think I got less than 20 votes. You can’t end a war after it’s over up here. And it has repercussions, because these authorizations to use force are used for many other things. So the authorization of force says you can go after al-Qaida or associated terrorists. The problem is, is that when you allow the Executive Branch to sort of determine what is al-Qaida, you’ve got no idea."
Contary to the arrogant tut-tutting of unemployed analyst Joshua Foust – who huffed that the "filibuster of folly" was a cheap gimmick "focused on a non-issue and deflected attention from the bigger, more important issues we should be discussing" – this wasn’t only about drone strikes on Americans. It was a wide-ranging indictment of our foreign policy of global interventionism, a gauntlet thrown down in the path of the neocons who control the foreign policy department of the GOP.
John McCain and Lindsey Graham both understand this, which is why these two "amigos" were on the Senate floor the next morning denouncing Paul in no uncertain terms. Of course they had to respond: and in that response – which had little to do with Paul’s actual arguments – they only underscored their own weakness. The Amigos are losing their grip on the Republican foreign policy shop – and that is the good news we’ve been waiting for.
One particularly admirable aspect of Sen. Paul’s remarks is his raising the question of how and why Anwar Awlaki’s son was murdered in cold blood by the drone lords of Washington. Here was a 16-year-old American citizen, sitting in a café somewhere in Yemen, turned into a pile of scorched bones at Obama’s command. Sen. Paul cited the remark by presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki “should have a far more responsible father." What kind of country are we living in, asked Paul, that the President’s spokesman can evince such a "flippant" attitude toward human life, and such a young human life at that?
"There was a man named [Anwar] al-Awlaki. He was a bad guy, by all evidence available to the public that I’ve read, he was treasonous. I have no sympathy for his death. I still would have tried him in a federal court for treason and I think you could have been executed. But his son was 16 years old, had missed his dad, gone for two years. His son sneaks out of the house and goes to Yemen. His son is then killed by a drone strike. They won’t tell us if he was targeted.
"But here’s the real problem: When the President’s spokesman was asked about al-Awlaki’s son, you know what his response was? This I find particularly callous and particularly troubling. The President’s response to the killing of al-Awlaki’s son, he said he should have chosen more responsible father….
"You know, it’s kind of hard to choose who your parents are. That’s sort of like saying to someone whose father is a thief or a murderer or a rapist, which is obviously a bad thing, but does that mean it’s okay to kill their children think of the standard we would have if our standard for killing people overseas is, you should have chosen a more responsible parent."
While Sen. Paul framed his questioning of the administration in terms of what this means for US citizens, he also implicitly criticized the drone strikes overseas as counterproductive and immoral:
"Asked how their kill list can be justified, Gibbs, the President’s spokesman replies, when there are people who are trying to harm us and have pledged to bring terror to these shores, we have taken the fight to them.
"But since the kill list itself is secret, there is no way to offer a specific counterexample. It’s one thing to say yeah, these people are going to probably come and attack us, which to tell you the truth is probably not always true. There are people fighting a civil war in Yemen who probably have no conception of ever coming to America.
"[Conor]Friedersdorf goes on to say: ‘We do know the U.S. drones are targeting people who have never pledged to carry out attacks in the United States,’ so we’re talking about noncombatants who have never pledged to carry out attacks are being attacked overseas. Think about it, if that’s going to be the standard at home, [we’re killing] people who have never really truly been involved with combat against us. Take Pakistan where the CIA kills some people without even knowing their identities. This is more from Friedersdorf: ‘As Obama nears the end of his term, officials said the kill list in Pakistan has slipped to fewer than ten al-Qaida targets, down from as many as two dozen, and yet we’re killing hundreds of people in Pakistan.’"
I could go on quoting from the speech for many more thousands of words, but the point, I believe, has been made: this wasn’t just a jeremiad against the currently unlikely prospect of a drone attack on Americans sitting around in a Starbucks – it was a wide-ranging and well-informed critique of the whole post-9/11 hysteria that has turned this country into the 21st century equivalent of Mordor, and turned America into what is fast becoming a police state.
That’s why there was such a tremendous response from the American people: on Twitter, and no doubt on the phones of those Republican Senators who ran to Capitol Hill to see what all the excitement was about. When I called Sen. Marco Rubio’s office and demanded to know if and when the Senator was going to get down to the floor to lend support to Rand, the astonished aide told me Sen. Rubio was "snowed in." Well, I must’ve been one among many callers, because half an hour later I saw Rubio on the floor, and he even managed to get in on the action – albeit with a distinct and quite visible lack of enthusiasm.
From what I’ve been able to learn, the filibuster was a spontaneous thing: Rand didn’t even realize the vote on Brennan was about to be held, he thought it was going to be the next day. So it looks like the three ringleaders – Rand, Mike Lee, and (ahem!) Ted Cruz, decided to do it on the spot: aides were sent scurrying to come up with material, and they did a good job. No reading from the phone book.
Part of what made this a signal event was that this was no pro forma type filibuster of the modern school, in which the Senator merely has to make known his or her intention to filibuster, but not actually get up there and speak. This was the real thing, and it was substantive. The Senate actually debated an important policy matter in the old style, with references to Shakespeare, and rhetorical flourishes the like of which we haven’t seen in many years. It was, in short, a paleo moment – and, politically, it was the Libertarian Moment, i.e. that moment in which a substantial body of Americans was rooting for a champion of liberty against the puffed-up conceit and criminal depredations of an overweening federal government.
Being politicians, with their fingers perpetually in the wind, the Republicans who got up off their fat butts and ran down to bask in Paul’s limelight did so out of political necessity rather than commitment to principle. After all, where were Minority Whip John Cornyn, Saxby Chambliss, Pat Toomey, and the rest during the Bush years? A good part of the answer is provided by Jim Antle, writing in the Daily Caller, who cites an interesting statistic:
"A Reason-Rupe poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed it was unconstitutional to launch drone strikes against American citizens suspected of terrorism. Interestingly, Democrats were least likely to hold this view, with just 44 percent saying such actions were unconstitutional. By contrast, 65 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of independents thought it was unconstitutional."
What we are seeing is a seismic shift in the two parties’ approach to civil liberties, with the Democrats now freed to exude their inherent authoritarianism and the Republican grassroots in fear of a federal government headed up by a former "community organizer." Yet this isn’t just a matter of the partisan divide, although there is some of that: imbued with a sense that something has really gone wrong with the country, and disabused of the notion that the neocon-inspired dogmas of the Bush years are any kind of antidote, grassroots GOPers rallied to Rand‘s cause with sheer joy, like the inhabitants of a long-besieged city who see the cavalry coming over the hill.
They’ve had to endure being groped by lascivious TSA agents, had their emails – and bank accounts – spied on, and endured every kind of affront and indignity because, don’t you know, we’re "at war." They’ve watched crony capitalists get rich while their own homes are being foreclosed: they’ve watched the worst rise, while they and their families and friends fall into penury. They’ve watched as we send billions overseas to fund the conceits of our world-directing "leaders," as their own prospects shrink down to the level of where their next mortgage payment is coming from.
They are aroused because, finally, someone has arisen to champion their cause: the junior Senator from Kentucky, son of the libertarian movement’s chief factotum, whose long efforts over the years have laid the foundations for his scion’s success. From Code Pink to Ted Cruz – now that’s a Popular Front coalition that’s hard to beat in terms of sheer breadth! It limns the outlines of the coalition that will have to be forged before we can take this country back from the War Party.
I trust the Code Pinkos far more than Cruz – indeed, as far as Sen. Cruz is concerned, I don’t believe he’s a friend of liberty in any shape, form, or manner. His link to the Paulian movement is one of simple political convenience: there’s lots of libertarians and "fellow travelers" in the Lone Star State, and if Cruz knows what’s good for him, he’ll go out of his way to appease them.
What was significant about the presence of so many Republicans rushing to the Senate floor to get in on the action was that they felt compelled to do so. The wind is blowing in the direction of libertarianism – and not just on the economic front, but in the foreign policy and civil liberties realm as well.
This is not to say Rand Paul is the perfect embodiment of libertarianism, or even of non-interventionism: he’s said a few things that cast some doubt on at least the kind of foreign policy advice he’s currently getting. His much-heralded speech before the Heritage Foundation was a non-starter, and his more recent statement that any attack on Israel constitutes an attack on the United States is simply a formula for justifying the "perpetual war" the Senator opposes. And yet the filibuster – a political event the likes of which we haven’t seen since that last giant worldwide demonstration against the Iraq war – shows what he is capable of.
Most importantly, it shows him that the impulse to rein in his libertarian instincts acts as a brake on his success. It shows him that opposition to foreign wars and endless international meddling isn’t an aspect of libertarianism that has to be kept in the closet, so to speak, and downplayed like some sort of affliction. With the twin disasters of the Iraq and Afghan wars all too readily apparent to everyone but John McCain and Lindsey Graham, anti-interventionism is an asset to be emphasized and articulated in just the way Sen. Paul did with such eloquence the other night. If there was an overarching theme of the filbuster, it was the unbreakable connection between peace abroad and liberty at home – and Sen. Paul brought that message home to both the right and the left.
There is talk of a presidential run, and the seriousness with which this is taken by the Republican Establishment was underscored by how quickly his chief rival, Sen. Rubio, hightailed it to the Senate floor. "Snowed in," my ass.
As of today, Rand Paul poses a direct threat to the gaggle of militarists, crony capitalists, and out of work has-been "consultants" who have been dragging the GOP down lo these many years, virtually reducing it to a regional party with little chance of mobilizing a national constituency.
I have been one of Rand’s harshest critics precisely because I saw his enormous potential as a force for liberty – and feared it was going to waste. As it turns out, it looks like my fears were not justified, and that is a great relief. Of course, we don’t endorse political candidates here at Antiwar.com, and don’t tailor our editorial policy to the requirements of any party or faction. If and when Sen. Paul veers off on some unwelcome tangent, we’ll be the first to let him – and you – know. What’s encouraging is that I have much less expectation of that occurring.
As I said in an interview on Bob Wenzel’s radio program, the libertarian brand-name has got to be protected. There are all sorts of people who are now claiming to be "libertarians," from Glenn Beck (ugh!) to Bill Maher (double–ugh!). Libertarians, who are well aware of the dangers of degrading the coin of the realm, must be equally cognizant of the danger of diluting their ideas in the mistaken belief that this will make them more palatable. What the #StandwithRand phenomenon demonstrated is that this is far too pessimistic a view to take: the public is ready – indeed, more than ready – for the most supposedly "radical" libertarian ideas. They’re just looking for leadership.
Due to Ron’s great achievement in making libertarianism into a household word, the Paul family is the First Family of liberty. The value of that heritage is incalculable. Today I have confidence that Sen. Paul, far from squandering it, will more than live up to his legacy.
Reason editor Matt Welch, whose magazine did little to support the Ron Paul movement – and often worked against it – once gleefully remarked that "Rand Paul is not his father" when it comes to matters of war and peace. Yet here is Sen. Paul taking on not only the drone war, but also challenging the idea that we should be engaged in a decades-long "Global War to abolish terrorism," as one wag well-known to Welch once put it.
No, Rand Paul is not his father. But from what I saw the other night, he sure is a chip off the old block. That’s why I #StandwithRand.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
In a terse, guarded letter in response to Sen. Paul, Holder has – finally – given a clear "no" to the original question that started this whole brouhaha: does the US government have the legal right to kill Americans on American soil without trial or due process? Clearly a victory for the Kentucky Kid – and perhaps an augury of victories to come.
I had great fun on Twitter the night of #StandwithRand, somehow acquiring over 200 more followers (!), and I urge you to join me on this wonderfully interactive site: you can do so by going here.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).