Justin’s column will return Monday.
I was always made a little bit nervous every time I heard Ron Paul – and other libertarians – inveigh against the modern practice of going to war without a formal declaration of war. Well, yes, it’s unconstitutional, and, yes, process is important, but what made me uneasy is that I was always worried someone would actually take Ron up on his suggestion – that is, introduce a formal declaration of war. And when my worst fears were finally confirmed, and someone did introduce just such a resolution, wouldn’t you know it would be Ron’s son – Sen. Rand Paul!
Okay, I totally get what Sen. Paul is trying to do. As the New York Times report on Sen. Paul’s resolution puts it:
"Mr. Paul, a likely presidential candidate who has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most cautious voices on military intervention, offered a very circumscribed definition of war in his proposal, which he outlined in an interview on Saturday. He would, for instance, limit the duration of military action to one year and significantly restrict the use of ground forces."
Well, yes, but there are several problems with Sen. Paul’s resolution. To begin with, the junior Senator from Kentucky claims a state of war exists because
"The Islamic State presents a clear and present danger to our diplomatic facilities in the region, including our Embassy, in Baghdad, Iraq, and our consulate in Erbil, Iraq."
Sen. Paul is here establishing a whole new principle: the rather loopy idea that we are compelled to go to war whenever one of our "diplomatic facilities" is endangered. Which means we should’ve declared war on Iran when they took over our Tehran embassy in 1979 – and bombed the heck out of the Egyptians when they besieged our Cairo embassy in 2012. If we attacked every country where our embassy or consulate has been surrounded with threatening protesters screaming "Yankee Go Home!" we’d have invaded the whole of South America and half of Asia by this time.
There’s absolutely nothing in Paul’s resolution that justifies a declaration of war. Nor is there any attempt to show how the Islamic State represents a "clear and present danger" to the US: indeed, this claim is plainly comical, rather like an elephant being brought to its knees on account of the intimidating presence of a fearsome mouse.
One wonders if it occurred to the geniuses advising Sen. Paul that a formal declaration of war by the US against the Islamic State would be a huge propaganda victory for the jihadists. After all, we haven’t taken such a step since World War II: do we really want to elevate this makeshift "Caliphate" to the status of a threat on the order of Hitler and the Axis powers? It seems to me that the very people the Paul campaign wants to impress – the diplomatic-intelligence community – are bound to be appalled by the very idea of it.
As for the alleged limits on ground troops enumerated in the resolution, these are easily gotten around: an exception is carved out in the case where it is "necessary for the protection or rescue" of US soldiers or US citizens – which means we can send in the Marines to "protect" the Marines (and CIA) who are already there. Another exception is to capture or take out "high value targets" – a term wide open to interpretation. Yet another exception covers "advisory" and "intelligence operations." In short, these exceptions are big enough to drive several armored divisions through.
In introducing this resolution, Sen. Paul is missing an important point: a declaration of war is an emotional signpost as well as a constitutional requirement. It is a people declaring not only that a state of hostilities exists but also that they intend to fight it through to the very end. That’s why the self-limiting language in Paul’s war resolution will never stand the test of time – because wars don’t recognize limits. Once started, a conflict tends to spread, ignoring national borders and increasing in intensity.
Once war is formally declared, the goal is victory – but how will we know when we’ve won the war against the Islamic State? When their "Caliphate" is no more? When the Sunni insurgency against the central government in Baghdad comes to an end? Paul’s declaration expires after a year – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be renewed, with the limits on ground troops edited out.
Sen. Paul is developing a habit of practicing political jiu jitsu. In the martial arts, a common trick is to turn the weight and strength of one’s enemies against them – or, in political terms, to appropriate the rhetoric of one’s adversaries and use it to your own advantage. Paul has done this before: during the Ukraine hysteria, after advising Obama not to "tweak" Putin he declared that he would "stand up to" the Russia leader – but when pressed as to what he would actually do, Paul said he would … cut off aid to Ukraine! (Only Jonathan Chait noticed this little ploy at the time.)
This time he’s pulling the same routine, generating news stories headlined "Rand Paul Wants to Declare War" – with "not so much" appended in a fine print footnote. One has to admire his boldness: it’s perhaps the first time a declaration of war has ever been used to prevent a wider war. Yet this tactic is ultimately self-defeating if the very effort to limit the conflict winds up legitimizing it. Far from putting a brake on the violence, a formal declaration of war would pave the way for its future escalation far beyond anything imagined or intended by Sen. Paul.
I understand and appreciate Sen. Paul’s sincere effort to limit the impact and duration of Iraq War III, and yet there is a curious evasiveness in the way he’s going about it that underscores his weakness as a politician. He has so far spent a good deal of time and effort telling us what he’s not: he not an "isolationist," he’s not a typical Republican, he’s not his father. Eventually, however, he’s going to have to stop reacting to the attacks, stop appeasing his enemies (it only emboldens them) and start telling us who he is.
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.