Advocates of a noninterventionist foreign policy and the restoration of civil liberties in America haven’t had a reason to be optimistic in the past decade or so – but that is rapidly changing.
On the foreign policy front, non-interventionism hasn’t had many champions in American politics. Indeed, during the darkest days of the post-9/11 era, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a single influential politician willing to take up the banner of peace. The debate over the Iraq war was mainly between the unilateralists, usually Republicans, and multilateralists, Democrats for the most part: the question wasn’t whether we ought to intervene, but how we ought to do so.
That has changed, and it has changed not only because the country is sick and tired of perpetual war but also because of a sea-change within the Republican party, formerly the political bastion of that troublesome little sect of warmongers known as the neoconservatives. During the Bush era there was hardly a peep of protest within the GOP over our recklessly aggressive foreign policy: today there is a growing contingent of congressional Republicans who can be relied on to vocally oppose the wide-ranging interventionism of the Obama administration – and the unrepentant militarism of the administration’s Republican critics who claim the President isn’t aggressive enough. And the star of this rising anti-interventionist movement on the center-right is undoubtedly Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
The conventional wisdom about Senator Paul is that "he’s not his father," i.e. he’s not as radically critical of US foreign policy as former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. This observation is usually made with the smug self-assurance of those who assume that anyone who wants to succeed in American politics must curtail his or her more "radical" views and especially keep a low profile when it comes to critiquing the Empire.
That isn’t true anymore, although the DC-centric pundits act as if nothing’s changed. For the first time in memory the majority of Americans believe the best foreign policy is the one that minds our own business. Nearly fifteen years of constant foreign adventurism has taught ordinary people a few basic lessons, although these seem to have eluded the Deep Thinkers of DC.
During the Vietnam era, Joe Sixpack was portrayed as an unmitigated war-lover whose first response to any ginned-up overseas "crisis" was to call in the 82nd Airborne. No longer: today Joe (and Jane) are much more likely to dismiss panicked calls for military intervention as the clucking of chickenhawks looking for wars other people’s kids will fight. And now they have a voice.
The Sunday morning talk shows have traditionally been the War Party’s exclusive domain: indeed, hardly a Sunday has gone by in the past few years that hasn’t featured either John McCain or his sidekick Lindsey Graham demanding some form of US military action abroad. Whether it was Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, or the preposterous prospect of going back to Iraq, these two paladins of interventionist promiscuity and their neoconservative amen corner have had the Sunday talk shows virtually all to themselves. This Sunday, however, was quite different: Rand Paul hit the talking heads circuit running, and his impressive performance spotlighted his growing stature as the chief spokesman for a foreign policy more in line with the views of ordinary Americans. Joe and Jane Sixpack have found their champion.
First up was an interview on "Meet the Press" with the political class’s favorite bootlicker – a.k.a. David Gregory – whose questions were mostly about Iraq. Asked if he sees "a clear-cut American interest" there, the Senator took the ball and ran with it:
"I see mostly confusion and chaos, and I think some of the chaos is created from getting involved in the Syrian civil war. You have to realize that some of the Islamic rebels that we have been supporting are actually allies of the group that is now in Iraq causing all of this trouble. But, I see that in the Syrian civil war we’re sending arms and opposing Iranian proxies – now they want, some people want us to get involved, allied with Iranian guard, even maybe fighting alongside the Iranian guard."
You could hear the impatience with such out-of-the-box thinking in Gregory’s dismissive tone as he stuck to his talking point: that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is now supposedly at the very gates of Baghdad, "has been billed by many as a clear and present danger to the United States as a terrorist actor." Note the buzzwords – "clear and present danger" is surely the most hackneyed of phrases – carefully inserted in his "question" that set the framework for the expected answer. But Senator Paul was having none of it:
"I look at it on a personal basis. I ask, ‘Do I want to send one of my sons, or your son, to fight to regain Mosul?’ And I think, ‘Well yeah, these are nasty terrorists, we should want to kill them.’ But I think, ‘Who should want to stop them more? Maybe the people who live there.’ Should not the Shiites, the Maliki government, should they not stand up? And, if they’re ripping their uniforms off and fleeing, if they don’t think Mosul is worth saving, how am I going to convince my son or your son to die for Mosul … ? And yes, we should prevent them from exporting terror; but, I’m not so sure where the clear-cut, American interest is."
Poor David Gregory – this was almost as bad as interviewing Glenn Greenwald! Somewhat taken aback by the Senator’s persistence, he played what he and his kind think of as the trump card:
"Well, is the clear-cut American interest to protect America if these are terrorists who designed to hit America?"
He didn’t say "you dummie," but it sure seemed like it.
"Well, I think if they are," Rand shot back, then "maybe we shouldn’t be funding their allies and supporting them in Syria." He then went on to explain to the clueless Gregory the history of US assistance to Syrian jihadists, singling out our supposed "allies" in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia as among the main financiers of ISIS and its "moderate" Syrian allies. Gregory then fell back on the partisan angle: "So you agree with the President …" and followed this up with an open invitation to attack Dick Cheney’s recent op-ed piece, by now infamous, in which he opined "Rarely has a US president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many." Is Cheney "a credible critic of this president?"
In Washington, where it’s all about partisan politics, the political is the personal: to get Senator Paul in a public spat with a former Republican Vice President would do nothing to enhance Paul’s presidential ambitions. Rand didn’t fall for it: instead his critique of the War Party was broad and bipartisan:
"I think the same questions could be asked of those who supported the Iraq War. You know, were they right in their predictions? Were there weapons of mass destruction there? That’s what the war was sold on. Was democracy easily achievable? Was the war won in 2005, when many of these people said it was won? Um… they didn’t really, I think, understand the civil war that would break out. And what’s going on now, I don’t blame on President Obama. Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution."
A problem for which Washington can find no solution? Holey moley, how can this be?
That we can count on Senator Paul to introduce some ideas into the political "mainstream" formerly considered beyond the pale by the self-appointed guardians of the national discourse was further underscored by his appearance on CNN, where he was interviewed by Candy Crowley. Like Gregory, Crowley continually pressed him on the question of whether the capture of Mosul poses a "direct threat" of terrorist attacks in the United States, to which the Senator replied: "I don’t think in the middle of a battle in Mosul that ISIS is busy thinking ‘Oh well, tomorrow we’re going to launch an attack on the United States." When he explained to the increasingly impatient Crowley that the current crisis in rooted in our policy of support to the Syrian rebels, her disdain was palpable: "Yes, but that’s in the past." "Yeah," he shot back, "the past of six months ago." She kept trying to get him to endorse air strikes, but he demurred: “It’s now a jihadist wonderland in Iraq precisely because we got over-involved – not because we had too little involvement."
That Senator Paul is a powerful critic of the fundamental wrongness of American foreign policy cannot be denied, not even by his enemies. That he is now the frontrunner in the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination ought to gladden the hearts of not just libertarians but of all those Americans desperate for a leader who will show us the way out of a conflict that has "no time limits and no end," as Senator Paul puts it.
Paul’s rise to prominence indicates nothing less than a sea change in American politics. For the entire post-WWII era, through the cold war and now the "war on terrorism," any suggestion that the United States has been over-involved in the affairs of other nations has been dismissed by the Washington elite as evidence of "weakness." The mandarins of DC haven’t changed in all these years, but the American people have – and now they have their unlikely spokesman in a very conservative first-term Republican Senator.
On the civil liberties front, those Kentucky Republicans in Congress are again in the lead, with a bill co-sponsored by Kentucky Republican Tom Massie and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) requiring an individual search warrant for the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept Americans’ communications passing by a healthy majority. Massie, one of the crop of Ron Paul Republicans recently elected to the House, joined with his progressive colleagues on the other side of the aisle to rein in the NSA significantly. While still imperfect, NSA reform has taken a huge step forward with the passage of this bill: the effort to water down the reform process behind closed doors, in committee, was decisively defeated.
These two issues – constant foreign intervention and the frightening erosion of our civil liberties – are inextricably linked: our overseas adventurism fuels the very dangers the Surveillance State is supposedly designed to defend us from. The American people have seen how the alleged necessity for universal surveillance is intimately related to calls for universal American intervention. The more we intervene, the more we bomb, the more our enemies emerge from the rubble – terrorist Myrmidons intent on our destruction.
This dynamic is little understood in Washington – and, indeed, all talk of "blowback," the CIA’s technical term for the idea that actions have consequences, was considered a toxic liability in the post-9/11 era. When Ron Paul raised it during the 2007 Republican presidential debate, enraging Rudy Giuliani, the conventional wisdom was that Paul’s campaign was finished: in fact, that moment launched a movement whose culmination we are seeing in the rise of Paul the Younger.
Gregory and Crowley kept harping on the alleged threat posed by the existence of a "terrorist safe haven" in the Middle East, with Iraq the latest example. Yet the time is long gone when the Rudy Giuliani "argument" – "a noun, a verb, and 9/11" – is sufficient to dismiss all talk of nonintervention.
If it’s going to be Rand Paul versus Dick Cheney, critics of America’s hegemonic role in world affairs have good reason to celebrate. For too long, the Cheneys of this world have dominated the discourse when it comes to foreign policy: with the rise of Rand Paul, that monopoly has been broken.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
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 Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.