Senator Rand Paul is everywhere: campaigning for Republican candidates during the crucial midterm elections, on Fox News explaining to Hannity why going into Iraq with ground troops is a mistake, teaming up with Cory Booker to call for reform of federal sentencing guidelines – and, as Olivia Nuzzi points out, the media is scrutinizing his every word as if he were already the GOP presidential nominee. When he gave his much-anticipated foreign policy speech to the Center for the National Interest, reporters were live-tweeting it as they would a presidential inaugural. And, unlike earlier media frenzies over such nonentities as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, and Chris "close the bridge" Christie, this level of attention is surely warranted.
Not since the days of Senator Robert A. Taft – another somewhat aloof, irascible, and highly intelligent GOP presidential wannabe – has the Eastern Republican establishment faced such an articulate and calculating challenger. And what annoys – and, now, frightens – GOP mandarins the most is Sen. Paul’s challenge to their failed foreign policy, which has given us so many years of bloodshed and misery, along with a multi-trillion bill we cannot possibly pay.
He started out taking some easy shots, reminding Francis Fukuyama that "history has not ended" – no kidding – and doing a little bit of pandering, albeit not to the people in the room. Russia, he averred, "slides backward vainly hoping to resurrect the Soviet Union" – a view not shared by many writers for The National Interest, who have mostly resisted Washington’s fashionable Russophobia. But this was just part of his Obama’s-foreign-policy-is-going-to-pot riff: also included was a vague warning about "the remarkable rise" of China’s "one-party state capitalism," and, in the Middle East, the "rise of radical jihadist movements" who "represent the antithesis of liberal democracy."
Seeking to explain these unsettling phenomena, the Senator attributes them ("in part") to Washington’s failure to precisely define our national security interest in a new era:
"Our allies and our enemies are unsure where America stands. Until we develop the ability to distinguish, as George Kennan put it, between vital interests and more peripheral interests, we will continue to drift from crisis to crisis."
Although I’m not sure how China’s rise can be at all attributed to anything having to do with Washington, Sen. Paul’s point is clear enough – especially as our current regime stumbles into Iraq War III, with no clear strategy or, for that matter, a believable rationale.
Paul’s peroration should dispel for all time the canard, spread by both John McCain and the tiny sectarian wing of the libertarian movement, that the Senator is compromising his anti-interventionist principles in the vain hope of getting a date with Jennifer Rubin. After the above-mentioned preliminaries, he strikes a theme continually repeated throughout:
"Americans want strength and leadership but that doesn’t mean they see war as the only solution. Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: ‘Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will.’"
Citing "the tragedies of Iraq and Libya" – and let us stop here, for a moment, and acknowledge the wondrousness of a candidate considered the Republican frontrunner describing George W. Bush’s war as a tragedy – Paul lets the War Party have it:
"America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate. America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory. America shouldn’t fight wars that aren’t authorized by the American people, by Congress."
Shouldn’t – don’t – think about it real hard: this is the woof and warp of the "conservative realism" the Senator espouses. But realism isn’t pacifism: indeed, it’s quite the opposite, as Sen. Paul makes clear:
"America should and will fight wars when the consequences….intended and unintended….are worth the sacrifice. The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world."
Even as he acknowledges the limits of the anti-interventionist impulse in an age of terrorism, you’ll note how the Senator also acknowledges what his warlike colleagues in Washington rarely admit: that even justified wars – i.e. defensive wars – are fraught with unpleasant possibilities. And while retaining – and emphasizing – his default opposition to overseas adventurism, he’s intellectually honest enough to admit that while "blowback" accounts for some degree of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, it surely isn’t the whole story.
Despite the threat inflation indulged in by the usual neocon suspects, there is indeed an enduring threat from an international jihadist movement that aims its main blow at the "far enemy," i.e. the continental United States. Sen. Paul points to a RAND corporation study claiming "a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups."
Here’s where Paul’s vision starts to cloud over: proliferation of jihadist groups could be a sign either of weakness or of increasing strength, depending on whether it’s due to ideological splits or geographic extension. Falling back on the standard evocation of Ronald Reagan, Paul cites the Great Helmsman as saying ‘we will act" if we have to "preserve our national security."
Simultaneously citing Reagan and an undefined concept of "national security" is the foreign policy equivalent of ordering combination plate #1 Chinese takeout: faced with the problem of deciphering the unknown, it’s always safe to go with what you think you know.
The problem is that what Sen. Paul and his advisors think they know about the "why do they hate us?" question isn’t exactly clear. "Will they hate us if we are less present?" asks Paul, whose speechwriters have developed the slightly dotty tic of having the Senator appear to be talking to himself. "Perhaps," answers Paul’s invisible doppelganger, "but hatred for those outside the circle of ‘accepted’ Islam, exists above and beyond our history of intervention overseas."
This is downright confusing. The phrase "outside the circle of ‘accepted Islam’" clearly refers to the internal conflicts of "radical Islam," so-called: the sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shia. Yet this has nothing to do with the question of our continuing presence in the region except insofar as that presence intensifies the internecine battle (as, perhaps, it’s intended to).
Things get even more confusing when, in his very next breath, Senator Paul’s nod to the essentialists – who argue Islam is inherently hostile to American interests – is rudely contradicted:
"The world does not have an Islam problem. The world has a dignity problem, with millions of men and women across the Middle East being treated as chattel by their own governments. Many of these same governments have been chronic recipients of our aid."
So which is it – do we have an Islam problem or don’t we? Some confusion is inevitable when speeches are assembled by committees, rather than written by individuals, but in this case the Senator is in danger of exacerbating his growing reputation – perhaps unfairly acquired – as a champion flip-flopper. Nuance is fine, but it doesn’t win hearts and minds – or elections.
However, there is one aspect of Paul’s "dignity problem" thesis that, as far as I know, has been totally overlooked and yet seems clear as day.
Mocked by both neocons and our babbling sectarians for supposedly trying to appease the GOP’s Israel Firsters, Sen. Paul himself may or may not have been aware of just how much his description of the Middle East’s "dignity problem" conjures the Israeli occupation of Palestine – but whoever wrote those words surely did. Yes, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab kleptocracies have been recipients of US aid – but so has Israel, which does indeed treat its Palestinian subjects like chattel. The lack of specificity as to which countries are suffering from a dignity problem lends itself to my preferred interpretation – and I’m just waiting for Jenn Rubin to pick up on this, if she hasn’t already.
In spite of my impatience with nuance, I have to respect the Senator’s thoughtfulness when it comes to filling the Washington policy void when it comes to the Middle East. And it’s clear that in trying to strike a balance between necessary belligerence and an instinctive aversion to intervention, President Paul would lean toward the latter. This was underscored by his reference to Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who stood up to both the Taliban and an American President ordering drone strikes on her country: for every terrorist killed by the Western alliance, she told Obama, "500 and 5,000 rise against it and more terrorism occurs."
"The truth is," says Paul, "you can’t solve a dignity problem with military force." Citing Secretary Robert Gates’s warning that our foreign policy is becoming "over-militarized," the Senator got in a shot at John McCain and others eager to arm the "good’ Syrian Islamist rebels: "Yes," Paul snarked, "we need a hammer ready, but not every civil war is a nail." This is presumably true when it comes to Ukraine as well.
While I doubt quoting Otto von Bismarck to libertarians skeptical of Sen. Paul’s bonafides is going to win them over, it’s hard to contradict Paul’s view that "policy is the art of the possible." And what’s possible, Paul avers, is "common sense conservative realism" which is, it turns out, a cancellation of the neoconservative project as enunciated by George W. Bush in his 2005 inaugural speech. With the neoconservative ascendancy in the GOP at its height, President Bush II ranted on about igniting "a fire in the mind" across the Middle East and indeed the whole world.
The conservative realism of President Paul, far from igniting any fires, would seek instead to tamp them down: "We can’t retreat from the world, but we can’t remake it in our own image either."
Yes, Paul says, the war in Afghanistan was justified because the effort to deny Al Qaeda safe haven and bring Osama bin Laden to justice directly served American interests. He endorses the overthrow of the Taliban, but then proceeds to denounce the nation-building project undertaken by the Bush administration and continued by the Obamaites. Yet these two aspects of American policy are inseparable: once we decided to widen our war aims beyond narrowly targeting bin Laden & Co. Afghanistan was inevitably turned into a nation-building construction site.
In any case, in expressing his frustration with this outcome, Sen. Paul gives vent to some of his strongest dissent from the bipartisan interventionist consensus:
"After the killing of Bin Laden and the toppling of the Taliban, it is hard to understand our exact objective. Stalemate and perpetual policing seem to be our mission now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. A precondition to the use of force must be a clear end goal. We can’t have perpetual war."
We can’t have perpetual war: there, in a phrase, is "conservative realism" – and the basis for a successful appeal to Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to rein in the American empire.
Unfortunately, the Senator doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he paves the way for perpetual war in Iraq by endorsing the first step down that road:
"I support a strategy of air strikes against ISIS. Our airpower must be used to rebalance the tactical situation in favor of the Kurds and Iraqis and to defend Americans and our assets in the region. Just as we should have defended our consulate in Benghazi, so too we must defend our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad."
To begin with, why is the United States the only power with "assets" in the region capable of launching air strikes against ISIS? Those elaborate weapons systems we sell the Saudis, the Jordanians, and the Gulf states surely ought to serve some purpose other than enriching our military-industrial-congressional complex. I can’t imagine why Sen. Paul is pretending he’s never asked this very same question himself.
Aside from the folly of encouraging the Kurds – and not revealing the exact nature of our other "assets" in the region – the absurdity of Paul’s argument culminates in the "we must defend our consulate/embassy" defense. This surely sets a new standard for US military intervention: is the Senator saying we should have bombed Tehran in response to the 1980 takeover of our embassy? Can he really be saying that anywhere we have a consulate we must commit ourselves to the military defense of the host nation? If so, that’s an awfully unrealistic position for an alleged "realist" to take.
Paul does a very good job of enunciating the core principles of a viable conservative realism: his big problem, however, is translating abstract ideas into credible and consistent policy options. And although this speech was supposed to be the Final Word on the question that’s been preoccupying the pundits and worrying the War Party – what would President Paul do in the Middle East, and what wouldn’t he do? – I rather doubt this is the last we’ll be hearing of it.
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.