Rand Paul’s War Against “Radical Islam”

Sen. Rand Paul wants to be taken seriously – as a presidential candidate, as heir to the energetic youth-oriented movement founded by his father, and as a foreign policy Deep Thinker. This last goal was supposed to have been approached, if not reached, by his much-anticipated foreign policy speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation the other day, which was supposed to give wonkish heft to his presidential ambitions.

Barely twenty minutes long, Sen. Paul’s peroration was two thirds Glenn Beck, and one third Robert Taft – with a dash of George Kennan thrown in for good measure. Right off the bat, however, he made the point he wanted to make: I am not my father. To which one can only add: you can say that again.

"Foreign policy," averred Paul the Younger, "is uniquely an arena where we should base decisions on the landscape of the world as it is . . . not as we wish it to be. I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist."

What is telling about his opening shot is how deftly he utilizes the language of the War Party to define – and restrict – the parameters of the foreign policy debate. As paleoconservative foreign policy analyst Daniel Larison has tirelessly pointed out, there is no such thing as "isolationism" in American politics: not today, not yesterday, and not ever. No one believes the US should isolate itself from the world and turn this country – connected to the rest of the globe by innumerable ties of trade, sympathy, and kinship – into the Western equivalent of the Hermit Kingdom. "Isolationism" is an epithet rather than a description of anyone’s real views, meant to stifle discussion rather than advance it.

Rand Paul surely knows this. He’s heard his father deny and deride the "isolationist" label, no doubt thousands of times, and so his choice of words may seem distinctly odd. It is, instead, a calculated effort to banish the looming image of the elder Paul, the nation’s leading non-interventionist, from the room, and he does so right off the bat. Indeed, the entire speech – and, come to think of it, his entire political career since being elected to the Senate – could be summed up in five words: I am not my father!

This rhetorical patricide accomplished, he pressed onward – and downward:

"When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched and wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be. But McCain’s call for a hundred year occupation does capture some truth: that the West is in for a long, irregular confrontation not with terrorism, which is simply a tactic, but with Radical Islam."

Writing about this trope in The American Conservative, Larison confessed he was "puzzled" by the reference to "Radical Islam," and went on to point out in his best pedagogical manner why this glosses over the very real differences between the goals and methods of competing jihadist groups: it is a generalization so diffuse as to be devoid of meaning. The result, says Larison, is "confusing." Perhaps, but I have to ask: confusing for whom?

To those relatively few Americans who understand that there are, indeed, real differences between, say, the Sunni jihadists who overthrew Qadaffi and took power in Libya and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, this kind of rhetorical shorthand is indeed puzzling. If a young Rand Paul wrote a term paper around this theme he would surely get no more than a C-minus. However, his Aqua Buddha days are over, he’s a bigtime politician now, and he isn’t addressing an academic audience, or even one that is moderately well-informed: he’s talking to the folks back home in Kentucky, the same ones who rallied against the building of a mosque in their midst and worry that sharia law is coming to their town. He’s talking to Glenn Beck, on whose program he appeared shortly before his Heritage speech. In the midst of a discussion about John Kerry and Sen. Paul’s crusade to cast Egypt out of the circle of US allies, he ventured:

"Well, and it hasn’t been a month ago that President Morsi was at a prayer meeting with a radical Sheik.

GLENN: I know.

RAND PAUL: Standing next to him saying death to Israel and anybody who supports Israel. And so it’s like …

GLENN: And wait, wait. Don’t forget, and the new capital of the Caliphate will be Jerusalem.


GLENN: That was at that same meeting.

RAND PAUL: Yeah. So the thing is what we’ve elected or what they’ve gotten in Egypt is a very radical government that I think can’t be counted on not to attack Israel and we shouldn’t be giving them weapons. Absolutely. Until there’s some kind of stability, and even then we don’t have the money to be doing it anyway."

Aside from the wisdom of selling F-16s to the Egyptians, this cozy little conversation sent a clear message to Beck’s dwindling fan club, the same one he used to broadcast tirelessly when he was at Fox News: The Caliphate is coming! The Caliphate is coming! That has been the rallying cry of Beck and his frothy-mouthed fans, and the theme song of the loony-tunes far right in the post-9/11 era. The neo-Know-Nothing Party in America, instead of lynching Catholics, is out after them thar Mooslims, who – as every one of Beck’s devoted fans knows – are out to take over the world.

Sunni, Shi’ite, Salafist – it’s all the same to the Beckians, and, apparently, to the ambitious Senator. In the theology of the Republican ultra-right – and it is a theology, or, at least, an ideology wrapped inside a sectarian religious canon – the rise of both Israel and Radical Islam prefigure events foretold in the Bible. The End-times are upon us, the "born-again" Christian fundamentalists insist, and the Biblical clock is ticking. The emergence of a Global Caliphate is a sign of the coming of the Anti-Christ, whose appearance augurs an attack on Israel: what’s coming next is the battle of Armageddon, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Christ.

That’s why it is useless to apply the lens of international relations theory to the young Senator’s foreign policy expostulations. Better to look at it as a political calculation – the only way to understand Rand Paul’s various zigs and zags along the road to 2016.

Rand Paul and his advisors have made a political decision to align themselves with the furthest-right fringe of the GOP. We’re not talking here about the most radical of his father’s followers, who tend toward the secular – and hate him for endorsing Mitt Romney at the GOP’s Tampa Bay convention, just as the elder Paul’s convention delegates were being stolen out from under him.

His new allies are the folks he recently traveled with to Israel, a gaggle of born-again fundamentalists active in the American Family Association: the Mississippi-based AFA is one of the more extreme Christian Right groups, whose spokesmen have said "the jihadists on 9/11 were the agents of God’s wrath in order to get our attention as a people,” and likened gays to Nazis.

While in Israel, Sen. Paul gave his blessing to the government’s aggressive "settlement" program, and attacked his own government for trying to interfere with this thinly disguised ethnic cleansing campaign.

One would think a supposed "libertarian" would be standing there right by the Palestinian olive groves as the IDF bulldozes them, along with privately owned Palestinian homes, defending the property rights of the dispossessed, and speaking out against this brazen exercise of eminent domain – as he would if it happened in this country.

But no – because that doesn’t fit in with the theology of those who paid for the good Senator’s trip. They believe Israel must be unconditionally supported on the grounds that it’s God’s Will. Israel has a special place in their hearts because the ingathering of the Jews to their historic homeland is seen as one more sign that we are truly living in the End Times – and war between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness is imminent.

Although he never gives religious import to this foreign policy views, this lunacy is really the basis of Sen. Paul’s "realism." It is the subtext of his campaign to defund Egypt, Pakistan, and indeed any country "where they’re burning our flag," while giving Israel a pass because they aren’t doing that (yet). As he and Beck sat there exchanging data points about the rising Anti-Christ – did you know the capital of the Caliphate is going to be in Jerusalem? Well, of course I do – the message went out to all the tithe-paying, Israel-loving, gay-hating born-agin’ers: Rand Paul is one of us.

This crowd is looking for a leader, and Sen. Paul has applied for the job. During the Bush years, this radical fringe grumbled on the margins: they seethed when the President made a point of saying the jihadists are a minority, and a tiny one at that, reassuring American Muslims that they need not fear suffering the fate of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This convinced the fringies that the administration had itself been infiltrated by "Radical Islam," a conspiracy theory taken up by professional haters like David Horowitz and Frank Gaffney. While avoiding the more obvious excesses of this crowd, Sen. Paul nevertheless echoes their analysis of, as he puts it, "the landscape of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be." His brand of "realism" brushes aside all distinctions, and sees Radical Islam – don’t forget to capitalize it! – as the true face of the Muslim world:

"As many are quick to note, the war is not with Islam but with a radical element of Islam – the problem is that this element is no small minority but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority. Whole countries, such as Saudi Arabia, adhere to at least certain radical concepts such as the death penalty for blasphemy, conversion, or apostasy. A survey in Britain after the subway bombings showed 20% of the Muslim population in Britain approved of the violence."

So why do they hate us? His father had – has – an answer to that: it’s "blowback" for decades of intervention in their internal affairs, including not only the Iraq and Afghan wars but the long history of American meddling throughout the region. Rand goes out of his way to disagree:

"Some libertarians argue that western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam – I agree. But I don’t agree that absent western occupation that radical Islam ‘goes quietly into that good night.’ I don’t agree with FDR’s VP Henry Wallace that the Soviets (or Radical Islam in today’s case) can be discouraged by ‘the glad hand and the winning smile.’"

According to Beck, Horowitz, Gaffney, and Sen. Paul’s new-found friends at the American Family Association, Islam – like Marxism – is inherently hostile to America, and its adherents are out to destroy us. Rand has become the voice of those folks back home in Kentucky who claim, "Islam builds mosques at the sites of their conquests and victories." The Senator doesn’t quite put it that way, but says instead:

"Americans need to understand that Islam has a long and perseverant memory. As Bernard Lewis writes, ‘despite an immense investment in the teaching and writing of history, the general level of historical knowledge in American society is abysmally low. The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it.’

"Radical Islam is no fleeting fad but a relentless force. Though at times stateless, Radical Islam is also supported by radicalized nations such as Iran. Though often militarily weak, Radical Islam makes up for its lack of conventional armies with unlimited zeal.

"For Americans to grasp the mindset of Radical Islam we need to understand that they are still hopping mad about the massacre at Karbala several hundred years ago. Meanwhile, many Americans seem to be more concerned with who is winning ‘Dancing with the Stars.’"

Here is a rhetorical jambalaya that combines all the themes of the backwoods born-gain types with the more sophisticated paranoia of the Israel lobby’s neoconservative intellectuals. Never mind that it makes no sense to conflate Iran with Egypt’s Sunni radicals: this dish, served up piping hot, is what Sen. Paul and his claque hope will whet the appetite of far-right activists for Paul in 2016.

Sen. Paul is no Pat Robertson, however, and the media wouldn’t like it if he was, and so it is necessary to dress up what is essentially a religious doctrine in a secular suit-and-tie. After making vague noises about "restraint," and pointing to his efforts to ensure that he’ll have a chance to vote on whether we go to war with Iran, the Senator trots out George Kennan and the cold war strategy of "containment." This is meant to be the bridge between his father’s non-interventionist loyalists and his new friends in the "born again" milieu, but it is a rickety structure that shows signs of collapse before it is even erected. It is, however, a necessary expedient on his road to the White House, along which he zigs – we need a foreign policy of "restraint" – and he zags – "Iran does need to know all options are on the table" – arriving, somewhat dizzy and disheveled, back where he started:

"Containment, though, should be discussed as an option with regard to the more generalized threat from radical Islam. Radical Islam, like communism, is an ideology with far reach and will require a firm and patient opposition."

He cites Kennan’s biographer as describing containment as "a path between the appeasement that had failed to prevent WWII and the alternative of a third world war." Eager – nay, desperate – to find "a middle path," as he puts it, between his father’s movement and the larger far-right constituency he wants to cultivate, he gloms on to Kennan, hoping that will sufficiently impress the policy wonks at Heritage while also pleasing his buddy Beck. The war against Radical Islam is just like the cold war, avers Sen. Paul: a Long War in which the patience and perseverance of the Christian West is to be tested against those "relentless" Mooslims still angry about what happened in Karbala all those years ago.

Containment is not isolationism, he is quick to point out: it’s choosing your battles and your battlefields, as Kennan advised, on the basis of drawing the "distinction between vital and peripheral interests," and using military force in selected situations, i.e. when "’A) [t]here is a sufficiently powerful national interest’ and B) when ‘we have the means to conduct such intervention successfully and can afford the cost." To the evangelical crowd he’s befriended, no cost is too great if it’s spent in defense of Israel, and Sen. Paul has obliged them by declaring that any attack on Israel is to be considered an attack on the United States. Whether this means rockets from Gaza, or an allegedly imminent threat from Iran is left to the imagination.

This leaves Senator Paul right where he wants to be when it comes to Iran – on the fence – while giving him the opportunity to pose as the voice of "restraint." Adopting the cold war paradigm as the backdrop to this essentially religious narrative also gives him credence with the Glenn Beck crowd, while to the neocons he offers a revised version of the old anti-communist demonology of the 1950s and 60s, populating it with radical Islamists rather than red devils.

The absurdity of equating a few jihadists hiding in a cave somewhere with the nuclearized might of the former Soviet Union aside for a moment, it is worth going back in history and looking at how the cold war transformed the conservative movement. Conservatives weren’t always carping warmongers: they used to be unapologetic advocates of what is now derided as "isolationism." It was the right-wingers of the 1930s and 40s who inveighed against the folly of "collective security," and warned that we’d be drawn into a European war at the cost of both prosperity and liberty (not to mention countless lives). It was Sen. Robert A Taft, "Mr. Republican," who opposed NATO, looked askance at the Marshall Plan, and foresaw the folly of fighting a land war in Asia.

Such views are heretical on the right today, but how did this great transformation occur – and so quickly? The answer is that the right’s rabid anti-communism got the better of them: the McCarthyite fever that infected even the best of them eventually led conservatives into advocating a global struggle against the Kremlin. The war on commmies at home soon became a war on commies abroad – and we can see the same evolution taking place in the person of Senator Paul. From his father’s stance of no intervention anywhere, unless we are directly attacked, the son now advances a new "middle way." Already halfway down the slippery slope, the Senator opined:

"I recognize that foreign policy is complicated. It is inherently less black and white to most people than domestic policy. I think there is room for a foreign policy that strikes a balance.

"If for example, we imagine a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time that would be one polar extreme. Likewise if we imagine a foreign policy that is nowhere any of the time and is completely disengaged from the challenges and dangers to our security that really do exist in the world – well, that would be the other polar extreme.

"There are times, such as existed in Afghanistan with the bin Laden terrorist camps, that do require intervention. Maybe, we could be somewhere, some of the time."

Somewhere, some of the time. What does this mean, exactly? Well, he doesn’t want you to know the details. Because, you see, like Ronald Reagan, he believes in the principle of "strategic ambiguity." As he explains:

"Reagan himself wrote, ‘I have a foreign policy. I just don’t happen to think it’s wise to tell the world what your foreign policy is." Reagan’s liberal critics would descry a lack of sophistication but others would understand a policy in having no stated policy, a policy of strategic ambiguity If you enumerate your policy, if you telegraph to the Soviets that the Strategic Defense Initiative is a ploy to get the Soviets to the bargaining table, the ploy is then made impotent."

Translation: no need to telegraph to your rivals (such as Marco Rubio) exactly what your stance is on, say, Iran. If you get too specific, they’ll pigeonhole you early on: better to have no stated policy, and play it safe.

One can almost hear the Devil whispering in Paul the Lesser’s ear: Lure in the rubes with Beckian rhetoric, and turn them into workhorses on behalf of your boundless ambition. Talk about "restraint" out of one side of your mouth, while issuing threats about "counterforce" and reminding us of that ultimate option under the proverbial table.

A more dramatic demonstration of my thesis that foreign policy is but the expression of domestic political expediencies could hardly be imagined.

This "strategic ambiguity" is supposed to be very "smart," and one can imagine the Senator’s advisors and close supporters congratulating themselves on their sheer canniness. But how "smart" is this really? If all the fawning over Israel was supposed to appease the neocons, the jeers of Jennifer Rubin – who once found a soft spot in her heart for him – and the disdain of Jonathan Tobin ought to cure him of that delusion. As for those fundamentalist shock troops he’s counting on to fight with him in the trenches, come 2016, there are plenty of suitors for their favors, and Sen. Paul is likely to win over but a small fraction, at best. Short of changing his name to Paul Rand, he’ll never convince them he isn’t his father’s son – and that is Rand Paul’s dilemma.

Because he is his father’s son, at least genetically, he was catapulted into high office in spite of his callow youth and lack of political experience. The money and human resources placed at his command were all made possible by his father’s long history as the archetypal outsider in Congress, whose principled and increasingly radical stance inspired a whole generation of young libertarians into a frenzied bout of political activism.

That he is now frittering away this promising legacy in a futile quest to recruit the looniest faction of the GOP into the service of a premature presidential run is nothing short of a tragedy. By alienating his base – his father’s hardcore supporters – and running after the fundamentalists, the Senator’s political promiscuity is bound to get him in trouble with both groups.

Paul’s advisors think they’re being "practical," but there was never such an impractical person as an opportunist with no sense of timing. Climbing on board the Glenn Beck-"global caliphate" bandwagon at precisely the time when Osama bin Laden has been eliminated and al Qaeda is on the wane, is hardly evidence of strategic genius. Paul’s marriage of George Kennan and Pamela Geller is likely to produce an offspring of limited attractiveness.

Yet this hardly matters. For most of Sen. Paul’s claque, it’s not about actually winning the GOP primaries, let alone the presidency in 2016 – a distant and I would venture impossible goal. It’s really all about the money: the big fees they’ll be paid for advising the candidate in how to sell out, and to whom, and the resources they expect to come pouring into the coffers of their various organizations. They’re already writing the fundraising letters: if you’re a libertarian reading this, expect to get one in your inbox soon, if you haven’t already.

I have paid a lot of attention Rand Paul in this space because, after all, we here at Antiwar.com are unabashed libertarians, and protecting the brand is part of my job. As a longtime supporter of his father, although never an uncritical one, it is sad for me to see the spectacle of his son turning the Paulian movement into the vehicle of his quest for self-actualization – and, in the process, lining up with some of the worst elements in the Republican party.

It is a setback for our movement, no doubt about it, but let us at least learn something from it. Let Sen. Paul’s desperate efforts to merge libertarianism with Glenn Beck-ism serve as an example of what it means to throw one’s principles to the wind. Let him serve as a negative model in the textbook of practical libertarian politics, which yet remains to be written.


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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).

Buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books,2000), here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].