Anti-Interventionism and Its Discontents

The ISIS crisis has given the War Party a new lease on life – or so they want us to believe. It seems like only yesterday that they were in the doldrums, and with good reason: their Syrian adventure was aborted after a long propaganda buildup – thanks to a cry of outrage from the American people – and they’ve been chafing at the bit ever since.

This setback, combined with all the polls showing how disgusted the American people are with our foreign policy of global intervention, coincided with the rise of the man Politico magazine recently called the country’s most interesting politician: Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. It was Rand who was one of the leading voices against our disastrous intervention not only in Syria but also in Libya – where, today, jihadists cavort in our former embassy as they decimate that woefully "liberated" land. It was Rand who co-led the fight against the NSA in the Senate, standing with Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and libertarian Republican congressman Justin Amash to expose and bring down the Surveillance State. And it was Rand whose filibuster against the droning of American citizens won him the respectful attention of civil libertarians on the left as well as the right – and the utter disdain of war birds on both sides of the aisle.

Polls showing Rand Paul as the frontrunner in the GOP presidential sweepstakes have the neocons in a lather, with their online media phalanx frantically attacking him at every opportunity. It’s kind of funny to watch: the first fusillades were aimed at labeling him an "isolationist," while more recently they’ve pointed out how he deviates from his father’s more angular policy positions. If you can’t smear and marginalize, then there’s always the strategy of cutting him off from his base.

Yet even with all this, the War Party is trying hard to pick itself up off the floor, and the eruption of this latest ISIS "crisis" – accompanied by the most hysterical stream of war propaganda since the dark old days of September, 2001 – is cutting them some slack. The pushback is on with this piece in the Washington Post which sets out to prove the interventionists are riding higher than they actually are. Entitled "Rise of Islamic State Tests GOP Anti-Interventionists," the theme is clear from the get-go:

"A roiling national debate over how to deal with the radical Islamic State and other global hot spots has prompted a sudden shift in Republican politics, putting a halt to the anti-interventionist mood that had been gaining credence in the party."

That’s quite an assertion, going against numerous polls taken in the last few years or so – why, even a majority of Republicans have answered "no" when asked, for example, if the Iraq war was worth it. Stay in Afghanistan? The answer is still no, and not just from Americans in general but from Republicans specifically. So where’s the evidence that the anti-interventionist trend has been "halted"?

Authors Sebastian Payne and Robert Costa say the Big Halt is "evident on the campaign trail ahead of the November midterm elections." GOP candidates, they say, are touting their military expertise as veterans – but is this really evidence of anything other than the traditional eagerness of candidates to claim such "expertise" and tout their military experience? They’ve been doing that since time immemorial. So there’s no there there, as Gertrude Stein would put it.

But that’s not all Payne and Costa have up their sleeves. Another bit of "evidence" is a recent gathering of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), where "the loudest applause came when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a potential presidential candidate, called for bombing the Islamic State "back to the Stone Age."

Aside from the unintentional humor of Sen. Cruz citing the Stone Age in any context – his status as a Flintstone Republican doesn’t need to be underscored – measuring support at the polls by the noise level at an AFP event hardly qualifies as solid evidence of anything.

And then we get to the "even Rand Paul" argument, which is the most interesting:

"Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a leader of the GOP’s anti-interventionist wing who is seen as a top-tier contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, has joined in the calls for a more hawkish approach."

I see Senator Paul’s stealth anti-interventionism is succeeding, and I suppose that’s a good sign. So what’s the "more hawkish approach" the Senator is supposedly advocating? Let’s go over to his recent piece in Time magazine, where he says:

"If I had been in President Obama’s shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.

"Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily. They shouldn’t be. I’ve said since I began public life that I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist. I look at the world, and consider war, realistically and constitutionally."

Sounds pretty hawkish, eh? But look at what he’s actually proposing:

1) "I would have called Congress back into session – even during recess." So what would that have accomplished? The same thing the mere threat of doing so did during the Syrian "crisis" – ensured that there would be no American boots on the ground. For all the rhetorical hawkishness, the Biden-esque "we’ll follow them to the Gates of Hell!" posturing, when it comes right down to it members of Congress know perfectly well the American people aren’t going to go for re-invading Iraq. So calling Congress back into session would’ve succeeded in limiting the President’s options, reining in the temptation to go in there guns blazing, and no doubt put a time limit on current operations in progress.

2) "The military means to achieve these goals include air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria." Taken out of context, this could be seen as a flinch on Sen. Paul’s part: after all, aren’t air strikes intervention? Well, yes, but then you get to the next sentence in his little essay:

3) "Such air strikes are the best way to suppress ISIS’s operational strength and allow allies such as the Kurds to regain a military advantage." Shorter Rand Paul: let the Kurds do it. This is even less of an interventionist stance than President Obama, whom he criticized for waffling: after all, Obama is sending in troops, and more practically every day. Yet Rand is saying we don’t need to directly intervene on the ground when there are already forces in the field capable of fighting and defeating ISIS.

This, however, is where things get a bit dicey. I don’t think Rand Paul fully understands the implications and probable consequences of his proposal that "We should arm and aid capable and allied Kurdish fighters whose territory includes areas now under siege by the ISIS."

While I don’t expect the Senator to be up on the history and character of Kurdish nationalism, if he’s going to put himself on the record in these matters then I would urge him to Google "Greater Kurdistan." The territory claimed by the Kurds isn’t limited to the relatively small area now governed by the Kurdish Regional Government: they covet lands extending from western Iran to the eastern half of Turkey, including a good half of Syria and even reaching all the way to distant Armenia (!).

This expansionist vision is not the province of a fringe element in Kurdish politics: every major Kurdish politician at least pays lip service to it. As Kurdish parliamentarian Farsat Sofi of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) puts it:

"A greater Kurdistan is the dream of every Kurd. But for now we want to set up a state in this country."

Sofi isn’t just any old member of the Kurdish parliament: he’s head of the majority KDP bloc. With the fading of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the other main party, the KDP has maintained its dynastic hold on the region’s governmental apparatus. The other parties, in any case, are no better on this issue than the KDP: all are vehemently nationalistic, and none would dissent from the vision of Greater Kurdistan.

Are these the people we really want to arm to the teeth?

As Sen. Paul points out in his Time article, the Obama administration armed the Syrian rebels and this led directly to that country becoming "a jihadist wonderland." As he writes:

"In Syria, Obama’s plan just one year ago – and apparently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s desire – was to aid rebels against Assad, despite the fact that many of these groups are al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated. Until we acknowledge that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria allowed ISIS a safe haven, no amount of military might will extricate us from a flawed foreign policy."

That last sentence should put to rest the idea that Sen. Paul is bowing before the winds of war blowing from the direction of Washington.

Arming the Kurds could have – I would say will definitely have – a similar "blowback" effect as Paul ascribes to the Syrian case, but that’s not the whole of his proposal. He also asks why can’t other regional allies take on ISIS: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, which – he notes – have actually been aiding ISIS. "This must stop immediately," he avers.

Well, good luck with that, Senator.

There are "no good options" in the region, says Paul, and in that he is exactly right. We cannot undo what we have done in Iraq and Syria: the former is splitting apart, and the latter is besieged by jihadists the US has armed and unleashed. And I must say air strikes, which the Senator endorses, won’t stop ISIS: some kind of Sunni state will arise in that part of Iraq (and Syria). The only question is how, and by whom.

This "even Rand Paul" meme only seems to make sense – but when you look closely at what the Senator is actually saying the argument that anti-interventionists are in retreat falls apart at the seams. What also falls apart is the contention, made by Payne and Costa, that the electorate, and especially the GOP sector, is appreciably more hawkish. They point to a Pew poll which shows a plurality of Americans think the US is doing … too much abroad. Ah, but they somehow manage to put an interventionist spin on these numbers:

"As the public’s views of global threats have changed, so too have opinions about America’s role in solving world problems. On balance, more continue to think the United States does too much, rather than too little, to help solve world problems. But the share saying the U.S. does too little to address global problems has nearly doubled – from 17% to 31% – since last November, while the percentage saying it is doing too much has fallen from 51% to 39%."

That’s pretty weak tea: what it means is that the War Party’s current propaganda blitz has had some effect on public opinion, albeit not enough even given the intensity of it. The Pew folks pull the same sleight of hand in their analysis of the Republican electorate – a statistic that might concern the Rand Paul campaign in particular – by inventing a mythical category of "Tea Party Republicans" and telling us the majority (54%) now favor global meddling by Washington while 33% say we meddle too much. As for regular Republicans – by far the most numerous, one would imagine – a plurality (46%) is anti-interventionist, saying we "do too much."

So where’s the "big change"? It’s nowhere.

Yet that doesn’t stop the usual suspects from chiming in with the "hawks are back" mantra. Payne and Costa cite one Brian Walsh, former National Republican Senatorial Committee apparatchik, claiming "Things are moving back in that [hawkish] direction, reflecting the mood of most Americans who are angry at what they’re seeing. Candidates are responding to that, and it is a product of the atmospherics." It’s hard to tell what these unnamed candidates are responding to – pressure from big donors? Talk around the golf links? – but have any of them won their races yet? Get back to me when they do.

Naturally, Payne and Costa cite Bill Kristol, the little Lenin of the neocons, who claims Republicans are "moving back to their ‘inner hawkishness.’ Kristol avers "some in the party had been ‘a little intimidated for a while . . . by the so-called libertarian moment’ but that GOP candidates are now showing a greater willingness to extend their foreign policy statements beyond mere attacks on Obama." Kristol goes on to bloviate:

"What heartens me is that [candidates] are going beyond that criticism and talking about the need for a different approach, about how we can’t freak out when someone mentions potentially putting boots on the ground."

Who, exactly, is Kristol talking about – Rick Perry, whose presidential ambitions are just as realizable as they were last time around? Maybe he’s talking about John Bolton, whose role as the neocon stand-in for Kristolian interventionism is precisely what makes his presidential campaign a joke? Is he counting on Chris Christie – whose Bridgegate scandal has effectively eliminated him from the GOP presidential sweepstakes? (I doubt he could get reelected as New Jersey governor at this point.)

As usual, Kristol is full of it – but he’s so full of himself that he’s incapable of knowing why and how he’s dead wrong, just as he couldn’t see how wrong he’s been about every major foreign policy issue for the past 20 years.

The War Party is pushing back, and the ISIS "crisis" has given them some leeway. As usual, however, they’re pressing their temporary advantage too far and projecting trends that aren’t there, or are so ephemeral as to be practically nonexistent. You want to cite Pew polls? Well, then, go look at their polls measuring public support for interventionism for the past few years: an overwhelming majority of Americans of both parties say we should "mind our own business."

Pew, by the way, also polls what it calls "elite opinion" – as opposed to the essentially worthless opinions of ordinary peons like you and me – and they are for US intervention practically everywhere, the more the merrier. So if you’re looking for the source of this "anti-interventionism is over" meme, one need look no farther than Washington, D.C., and in the media center of New York City, where our "elites" work and play.

The War Party may get a shot in the arm from this or that manufactured "crisis," but in the long run – and not very long at that – they are in retreat. We, on the other hand, are making rapid advances – and that’s what has them scared. So scared that they’ll do anything – and I do mean anything – to stop the progress of the anti-interventionist movement that is winning hearts and minds in America. They are especially frightened that their traditional base, the Republican party, is moving away from the authors of the Iraq war disaster as fast as it can: they fear that "libertarian moment" Kristol is trying to downplay, and wish it would just go away.

But wishing doesn’t make it so, and they know that as well as I do. The libertarian trend in the GOP is here, it’s growing, and it’ll take more than a few opinion pieces in the Washington Post to stop it. The neocons and their "progressive" allies are well aware of all this, and their anti-libertarian campaign is just beginning. They’re starting by denying our importance, and they’ll wind up declaring us a threat to civilization as we know it. I just hope our standard-bearers in Washington and elsewhere are ready for what’s sure to come.


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.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, 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].