Rand Paul’s Munich

In signing the Cotton letter he’s become the Neville Chamberlain of the liberty movement

by , March 11, 2015

If you read the letter circulated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and signed by forty-seven GOP Senators, addressed to "the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," what’s striking is its condescending tone:

"It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system…."

Sounding like Miss Manners instructing a boorish host on the proper placement of table napkins, Cotton goes on to make a series of highly debatable assertions about the how the US Constitution regulates the making of international agreements and the role of Congress in the process. He reminds the Iranians that all treaties must be ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate, while neglecting to say how the as-yet-to-be-reached agreement with Iran qualifies as a treaty – say, in the same sense that the establishment of NATO did. This a technical legal point that is nevertheless significant: treaties have no time limit, but a principal objection to the pending agreement with Iran made by its opponents is that it is limited in duration to, at most, ten to fifteen years.

A "so-called congressional-executive agreement," Sen. Cotton avers, also requires congressional approval: that President Obama will doubtless bypass Congress in this matter, however, is left unmentioned. Also ignored is the fact that the members of that august body will have no recourse but to sit there and take it. Many of the measures designed to isolate Iran can be lifted by executive order. Eventually, however, the President will have to come to Congress to lift the worst of the sanctions permanently, but by that time, as Dan Drezner points out in the Washington Post, the political and diplomatic consequences of reneging on the agreement are likely to deter Congress and whoever sits in the Oval Office from backtracking.

The letter, in short, is without any real substance: as Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif noted, it betrays a lack of understanding of international law, not to mention the recent history of US executive agreements with other nations – the overwhelming majority of which have never been subject to congressional approval. Zarif went on to point out that “the world is not the United States," a geographical reality neocons like Sen. Cotton have trouble acknowledging. "If the current negotiation with P5+1 results in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action," Zarif observed, "it will not be a bilateral agreement between Iran and the US, but rather one that will be concluded with the participation of five other countries, including all permanent members of the Security Council, and will also be endorsed by a Security Council resolution."

Will the United States risk alienating its allies and defying the Security Council in order to appease Benjamin Netanyahu? Sen. Cotton certainly hopes so, but the chances of this happening are close to nil.

The Cotton letter, said Zarif, is a "propaganda ploy," but on whose behalf? Clearly it is a follow-up to Netanyahu’s speech before Congress and is designed to torpedo the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iran. A shorter version might have read simply: "Are you sure you want to sign an agreement with these guys – when it will probably be rendered inoperative once we Republicans take the White House?"

Given that, the fact that among the signers were three prospective GOP presidential hopefuls – Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul – underscores the propagandistic nature of this ploy. That Rubio and Cruz signed on is hardly surprising: they have been among the most bombastic of the Republican field when it comes to foreign policy, never deviating from the Fox News-neocon party line. The real stunner was the conquest of the sometime anti-interventionist junior Senator from Kentucky.

I say "conquest" because, although he voted for sanctioning Iran in 2012, Sen. Paul has recently been a vocal opponent of imposing new sanctions, and has broken with his Republican colleagues on the whole question of how to deal with Tehran, averring that we must give diplomacy a chance. Less than two months ago, speaking at a forum for GOP presidential aspirants, he directly confronted Rubio and Cruz:

"Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops?I’m a big fan of trying to exert and trying the diplomatic option as long as we can. If it fails, I will vote to resume sanctions and I would vote to have new sanctions. But if you do it in the middle of negotiations, you’re ruining it."

If Sen. Paul is against "ruining it," why did he sign a letter that seeks to do exactly that? Is he now ready to send ground troops into Iran? Is he ready to bomb them?

Under considerable pressure to abjure the anti-interventionist views of his father, the Senator has been engaged in a dizzying tightrope act, balancing the strong opposition to war with Iran of his activist base against the bloodcurdling war cries of his party’s neocon-dominated foreign policy establishment. Indeed, he has gone so far as to formulate his own theory of international relations, which he calls "conservative realism," that seeks to occupy a middle ground between the go-everywhere school of thought and the go-nowhere rule of thumb steadfastly maintained by the elder Paul.

While this is certainly a project that is not inherently misconceived, the result in practice has been a confusing variety of positions that have satisfied no one. As Jacob Heilbrunn pointed out in The National Interest, Paul’s attempts to cozy up to Sheldon Adelson – not to mention his flattery of the staunchly anti-Paul Free Beacon by offering them exclusives on his cruel and ill-conceived legislative attempts to cut off lifesaving aid to Palestinian children and keep the Palestinian Authority out of the International Criminal Court – "suggests opportunism rather than conviction. Nor is this all," writes Heilbrunn:

"There’s also the problem that the neocon opposition to Paul is not rooted in a lack of outreach on his part. It can’t be altered with tidbits about bills he’s proposing. It’s based on a sincere and fervent opposition to his foreign policy stands. Finally, cozying up to his detractors is no way to attract the kind of serious foreign policy thinkers that Paul would need to mount a serious campaign even as Jeb Bush seems intent on nailing down anyone of consequence.

"As the primary season heats up, Paul’s rivals will increasingly seek to use him as a foil to buttress their own positions. If he continues on his current course, Paul could torpedo his chances of promoting a debate about foreign affairs in the primary season before the contest has truly begun."

The moment Sen. Paul signed the Cotton letter, Heilbrunn’s prophecy became a political reality. Rand Paul has pulled the rug out from under his attempts to open up a real foreign policy debate in the GOP – and perhaps also from under his presidential aspirations. After all, his marketing of himself as "a different kind of Republican" has been undermined, perhaps fatally, by his joining the neoconservative "bomb bomb bomb Iran" chorus. The Senator and his supporters may regard this as an unfair characterization of his views, and it no doubt is, but this is how his stance is being perceived – and perception is reality in politics, and in human relations. In politics, and in life, one is judged in large part by the company one keeps – and in this instance, that means Senators Cotton, Cruz, and McCain.

What’s particularly galling about Rand Paul’s opportunism is not only that it reeks of insincerity, as Heilbrunn notes, but also that it isn’t even effective. He gains nothing by it: his neoconservative enemies are still attacking him, and even going at it more viciously once they smell his fear. That’s how bullies operate, and that the Senator allows himself to be bullied so easily speaks to the major flaw in his political persona, one that militates against his presidential ambitions.

The main quality one looks for in a presidential candidate is the capacity to exert leadership – that is, the ability to take a position, hold fast to it, and get others to follow. He gave the appearance of being able to do this with his famous anti-drone filibuster – but who, really, is in favor of giving the President the power to drone Americans while they’re sitting around a Starbucks? That’s why Senators Cruz and Mike Lee (R-Utah) didn’t hesitate to join him on the podium: it’s a popular position, one that almost no one opposes.

When the going gets tough, however, it’s a far different story as far as Senator Paul is concerned. Faced with vicious attacks from the neoconservative wing of his party, Senator Paul has become the libertarian Neville Chamberlain, meeting with Sheldon Adelson, reversing his position on foreign aid to Israel, and doing everything short of asking Jennifer Rubin out on a date. The Cotton letter is Rand Paul’s Munich, a betrayal of his libertarian and anti-interventionist constituency that will not be soon forgotten.

In spite of my early criticisms of Sen. Paul, I have always been a firm believer in the efficacy of libertarian electoral politics and the necessity of political realism, i.e. the idea that politics is not religion. I’ve been encouraged by the Senator’s often eloquent arguments against the War Party’s destructive policies, and for the past year or so I’ve praised him on many occasions in this space. Even when he endorsed bombing ISIS, whilst still holding out against putting US troops on the ground, I gave him the benefit of a doubt.

No more. By joining the wrecking crew of Cotton & Co., Sen. Paul has proven he cares more about gaining the approval of neoconservatives who will always hate him than he does about preventing a major war in the Middle East. What’s more, he clearly lacks the character it takes to be President of these United States – the sense of conviction that is the essence of leadership, whether in politics, commerce, sports, or any human endeavor. No, I’m not saying Sen. Paul has no real convictions: my guess is that he is relying on advisors and "handlers" and getting some pretty bad advice.

It’s a pity, really, and a damn shame, but I’m obligated to say what is. I very much regret having to write these words, and yet I must tell the truth as I see it. My fear is that Sen. Paul will give ammunition to those sectarians who call themselves libertarians and yet are content to sit on the sidelines, criticizing anyone who enters politics as a "sellout": these habitual naysayers are too busy contemplating their own pristine-pure virtue to notice anything going on in the real world, and our movement would be better off without them.

On the other side of the ledger, an even greater danger is that libertarianism will be misperceived and misrepresented as a purely economic doctrine, one that gives short shrift to the vital issue of war and peace – and, worse, ends up on the wrong side of the barricades. The trivialization of what has become known as the liberty movement will be accomplished when its adherents forget their origins in the antiwar and anti-draft movements of the 1960s and become known merely as dope-smoking Republicans who want to legalize gay marriage.

The truth is that a principled libertarian politics is both possible and absolutely necessary if we are to save our old republic and bring about a more peaceful world. We must choose between liberty and empire – and in order to do that, a clear case must be made on behalf of the former. On that score, Sen. Paul has failed.

As I have often done in the past, I turn to Garet Garrett, that old fighter for liberty (and inveterate pessimist), who foresaw our present predicament with such eerie clarity, for some explanation of where we are and where we may go. At the end of his classic essay Rise of Empire, Garrett wrote:

"No doubt the people know they can have their Republic back if they want it enough to fight for it and pay the price. The only point is that no leader has yet appeared with the courage to make them choose."

A very important note: Yes, it’s tough going, in politics and in the world of pushing ideas generally. We have been pushing the idea of a noninterventionist foreign policy for nearly twenty years now, and although we’ve made considerable progress along the way, our fundraising efforts haven’t gotten any easier. Indeed, this time around we are into the fifth week of our quarterly fundraising campaign and we’re still almost $10,000 short.

I must confess to you that writing these words exhausts me: after all, I’ve been writing some variation on them for over a month now – and we have yet to cross the finish line. I seem to remember a time when it was easier, but then again that may be an illusion – perhaps it was always like this and I’m conjuring a happier time that never existed out of mental self-preservation.

There’s not a web site in sight that’s anything like Antiwar.com – I’m not boasting but simply stating a fact when I say this web site is simply irreplaceable. Where else can you get the facts – all the facts – about Washington’s foreign policy of unrelenting aggression? Who else told you the war in Iraq was based on 100% lies? Who else can you turn to for the truth about the Ukraine conflict? Who else had the inside story on the Libyan "liberation" – and predicted the disaster that we see unfolding before our horrified eyes? When Obama decided it was time to bomb Syria, which web site played a key role in mobilizing popular opposition – and forced Congress and the White House to back down, with their tails between their legs?

Look, I hate to keep hectoring you about this, but it has to be done: we simply can’t afford to be short of funds this time around. Before I and the rest of the staff collapse into a heap of pure exhaustion, we need to make our fundraising goal and get on with the job of reversing our senselessly destructive foreign policy. Please, go here right now and make your tax-deductible contribution to Antiwar.com today.


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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.

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