Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) has learned his lesson, and it is this: it’s better to be bold. He’s exchanged the mealy-mouthed equivocations of his ill-fated presidential run – when he actually met with Bill Kristol, presumably to negotiate getting a break from his neoconservative nemeses – with a full-on frontal assault against the War Party. As I write, he is standing in the well of the Senate, making the case for his amendment to the Defense Authorization Act that would nullify the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that gave the green light to the Afghan and Iraq wars and subsequent American aggressions.
In marked contrast to the carefully modulated rhetorical tone he affected during the 2016 primary – never that convincing to begin with — Sen. Paul seems to have found his voice. Here’s an excerpt from his earlier Senate speech:
“I rise today to oppose unauthorized, undeclared, and unconstitutional war.
“What we have today is basically unlimited war – war anywhere, anytime, any place on the globe.
“This vote will be to sunset, in 6 months, the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force.
“No one with an ounce of intellectual honesty believes these authorizations allow current wars we fight in 7 countries.
“Some of the more brazen advocates of war maintain the President can even fight war in perpetuity without any Congressional authority.”
A wonderful word, brazen – it brings to mind the brassiness of a whore and the wanton evil of a serial murderer, both being characteristics of the War Party and its camp followers. And certainly brazen is fairly descriptive of how, as Sen. Paul contends, the US Congress has failed in its constitutional duty to debate and vote on the many wars we have initiated since September 11, 2001. The War Party doesn’t want a debate, and that much was underscored when Sen. Bob Corker rose to table the Paul amendment, so that in the end the Senate never voted on the actual resolution but only on whether to cut off debate.
This was a noble effort on Sen. Paul’s part, and yet does anyone doubt that, even if the amendment had won, a fresh AUMF would’ve been cooked up, one sufficiently broad to cover all possible bases? Surely Congress has a constitutional duty to declare war, but be careful what you wish for: I think our assembled solons would be more likely to go to war at the drop of a hat than even our bombastic commander-in-chief, whose “isolationist” tendencies (however faint they are by now) have been duly noted.
The final vote was 61 nays, 36 ayes, a respectable enough showing, but many of those aye votes were a) about closing off debate, not the amendment itself (i.e. as in Diane Feinstein’s case), and b) were due to aspirations on the part of Senators Tim Kaine and Jeff Flake to pass their own AUMF, authorizing war against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Taliban, with limited congressional oversight. Which means: the President can send troops to wherever the heirs of Osama bin Laden raise a rag on a stick.
Far more powerful than the constitutional formalism of the AUMF amendment was another amendment Sen. Paul tried to get through the Senate, and that was his “America First” measure that would have used the “foreign aid” money available — $20 billion in “unobligated” funds – to pay for aid to Americans affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
That amendment failed, 82-10, but its failure was potentially much more politically toxic for those who voted against it: the only problem was that hardly any attention was paid to it. The very idea that we have to send billions overseas to our “allies” while Americans are in dire straits due to natural disasters is inexplicable to the ordinary citizen: only a US government official or a liberal could possibly rationalize it.
Sen. Paul’s “America First” measure demonstrates his growing political savvy: unlike most libertarians, it looks like he understands the power of the wave of Trumpian nationalism that is sweeping the country – and, most importantly, he realizes that it doesn’t have to be antithetical to libertarian goals and ideas. Indeed, as Paul pointed out in his remarks on the Senate floor, “Candidate Trump repeatedly argued that the Afghan War was a disaster and should end. Once in the White House, however, President Trump is escalating the war in Afghanistan just as President Obama did.”
President Trump promised to pursue a policy of “America First” in foreign affairs – so why are we spending $20 billion-plus on “foreign aid” while Texans lose their homes? Why are we pouring money – and American lives – down that Afghan rathole when the President himself admits his first instinct was to get the hell out?
The “Never Trump” crowd can’t and won’t make these arguments because they reject Trumpism root and branch. Sen. Paul, to his credit, hasn’t joined his virtue-signaling suck-up-to-the-left libertarian comrades in making the President into a bogeyman.
At the root of this strategic mistake is a fundamental theoretical error: the militant anti-nationalism of our self-described “cosmopolitan” libertarians. It is ignorant nonsense to assert that all nationalism is statist: it depends on the context. And in the American context, such a sweeping generalization is especially absurd: after all, the Founders were American nationalists. The constitutional principles invoked by Sen. Paul in his AUMF speech would never have been operational if not for the fact that they founded a nation, one based on explicitly libertarian principles. The American Revolution was the first – and, so far, only – successful libertarian revolution in history: properly understood and placed in its historical context, American nationalism is libertarianism.
Libertarians fail to understand this at the risk of consigning themselves to a sectarian existence, one that is necessarily isolated from history and from the woof and warp of life as ordinary Americans experience it. Worse, this failure aligns them with the internationalist elites, who disdain the very idea of nationhood and national sovereignty – and who, for that reason, have no problem with a constantly expanding borderless empire on which the sun never sets.
It’s not for nothing that the biggest antiwar movement in American history – one demonized by both the liberal-left and the neoconservative right – chose “America First” as its moniker. As the left goes full-bore interventionist, the past is rising up to shape the future. Libertarians must either get on board the “America First” train, or else get left behind in the dust.
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.