Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, in an apparent attempt to begin to better his abysmal showing in the last round of presidential primaries in 2012, recently attacked the current leader in Republican polls, Rand Paul, on his perceived vulnerability – foreign policy. In the piece "Isolationist Policies Make the Threat of Terrorism Greater" in the Washington Post, Perry endeavored to smear Paul’s views by calling them "isolationist" and linking him to the "leading from behind" policies of President Barack Obama. At the same time, Perry tried to use a trick that many Republican candidates regularly use – to link themselves to the "internationalist" Ronald Reagan.
The issue that Perry chose is the U.S. reentry into the Iraq quagmire. Perry is for it and Paul is against it. Most Americans, tired of fruitless and never ending US government wars, agree with Paul, but unfortunately, Perry’s interventionist jingoism still gets some traction with the Republican base. And because Perry must win the Republican primaries in 2016 before he needs to worry about what the general public thinks (he better hope they forget his view by then), he is attacking Paul now on his more restrained foreign policy.
First of all, Paul and like-minded people are not "isolationists." This same inaccurate smear was used against Paul’s father Ron in his previous runs for president. Since 1945, and especially since the end of the Cold War, people who didn’t want to bomb anyone and everyone – that is, who show any restraint at all in their foreign policy views – have been subject to this accusation by hyperactive interventionists.
Second of all, Ronald Reagan exhibited more restraint in the direct use of US military power than many other recent presidents, including the two George Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Obama. Reagan avoided large-scale US ground interventions and even withdrew from smaller peacekeeping missions when the human costs became too high. During his eight years in office, Reagan conducted a small-scale invasion of the island of Grenada, had minor dust ups the air with Libya, and withdrew his peacekeeping mission to Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. So if anything, Reagan’s actual policies in office were closer to Paul’s view rather than Perry’s. Perry also apparently doesn’t know much about Dwight Eisenhower’s track record in foreign policy. Perry argues that Reagan, like Eisenhower before him, refused to heed "the false prophets of living alone." Yet Eisenhower was even more restrained than Reagan in the direct use of military power – conducting only a small-scale ground invasion of Lebanon during his eight years in office.
In fact, Reagan and Eisenhower might raise an eyebrow against sinking back into the bog in Iraq, even by conducting airstrikes. In the Vietnam War, when American air strikes didn’t cause North Vietnam to desist in trying to take over South Vietnam by using Viet Cong guerrilla forces, the United States felt obligated to escalate the ground war. Similarly, any American air strikes against the surging Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq would again put US prestige on the line but will likely not end the IS insurgency. Then Perry and his ilk probably will begin demanding a re-escalation on the ground.
Perry’s hysterical refrain that "ignoring the growth of the Islamic State and events in Syria and Iraq will only ensure that the problem will fester and grow" is the same tired refrain of "Munich 1938" we have heard since World War II – that is, that a minor threat anywhere in the world will snowball, if left unaddressed, and eventually become a potent threat to the United States. Yet in addressing these minor threats, US military action sometimes makes the problem worse, such as in the recent use of force against Libya and in the original invasion of Iraq (let’s not forget the origins of the Islamic State, which came in response to this invasion). Even the US occupation of Afghanistan has fueled radical Islamism and destabilized neighboring nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Perhaps instead of always looking to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938 to justify US interventionism, Republicans ought to look farther back in history, as the Pauls correctly do, to examine why Hitler was able to take power in the first place. Woodrow Wilson’s unnecessary and ill-advised US involvement in World War I, led to an allied victory, Germany’s humiliation, and demands that Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate, thereby opening a path to ascension for Hitler.
The recent US debacles in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iraq, and Libya are the reason the American people are fed up with Rick Perry–Dick Cheney–George W. Bush-style cowboy foreign policy. Conservatives should realize, as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge did, that war is the biggest cause of big government in human history and in American history (many big domestic programs have originated during wartime). In addition, even "national greatness" conservatives should realize that with a $17 trillion national debt and globe-girdling alliance commitments, the United States is currently overextended and may need to keep its powder dry more often overseas to renew its economic health, thus ensuring its great power status for many years to come.
As for IS, its threat to the United States has been grossly overblown. The group, like its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq, is so brutal that it will likely trigger a backlash among the more moderate majority in the Sunni community. Even if this doesn’t occur, rival Shiite militias, potent against the US occupation in Iraq, will likely effectively resist IS. Furthermore, as recent US interventions have shown, American military intervention in Islamic lands, which is one of the major causes of the spread of radical Islamism, usually only makes the problem worse. Besides, why not let these forces, both unfriendly to the United States, fight it out?
Instead, the United States should return to its traditional foreign policy, established by the nation’s founders and followed for most of the nation’s history, of restraint overseas – thus avoiding involvement in most foreign wars unless they really affect American vital interests. Rand and Ron Paul get it. Rick Perry should too.