Memo to Rep. Ron Paul

In four Republican presidential debates, candidate Ron Paul has consistently stressed the need for the United States to adopt a less interventionist foreign policy. At the first debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, he argued that "we should have a foreign policy of nonintervention." In Columbia, S.C., in May, he stated, "It is the advice of the Founders to follow a noninterventionist foreign policy, stay out of entangling alliances, be friends with countries, negotiate and talk with them and trade with them." In New Hampshire, Rep. Paul made two important statements:

  • "We have a lot of goodness in this country. And we should promote it, but never through the barrel of a gun."
  • "We have to come to our senses about this issue of war and preemption and go back to traditions and our Constitution and defend our liberties and defend our rights, but not to think that we can change the world by force of arms and to start wars."

And in Iowa, he was the only candidate with the courage to criticize the fiasco of the Iraq War: "We shouldn’t be there."

Ron Paul is not alone in advocating a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy. My old boss at the Cato Institute, Ted Galen Carpenter, made the case for a policy of "strategic independence" in Peace and Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic (Cato Institute, 2002). Fellow columnist and Cato alum Ivan Eland argued for a "balancer of last resort" strategy in Putting "Defense" Back Into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World (Praeger, 2001). A third variation is "offshore balancing" as described by Stephen Walt in Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (W.W. Norton, 2005).

Critics of nonintervention are quick to call it a "do-nothing" policy (largely because they tend to advocate the Nike approach to policy – just do it, something, regardless of cost, effectiveness, or consequences). And they argue that in a post-9/11 world – even with the debacle of Iraq – the United States can’t sit idly by and simply do nothing. So they are dismissive of noninterventionist foreign policy as a prescription for what not to do but unable to offer anything constructive to do – especially against the threat of terrorism.

Here are few "to do" suggestions for Rep. Ron Paul to answer such criticisms.

Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars to occupy Iraq, a better investment would be intelligence-gathering, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), special operations forces (SOF), and language skills.

It is not necessarily a question of needing to spend more money on intelligence-gathering and analysis, but how to best allocate spending and resources. For example, about 85 percent of the estimated $40 billion spent on intelligence activities goes to the Defense Department, only about 10 percent is for the CIA, and the remainder is spread among the other intelligence agencies. If the so-called war on terrorism (what I call the un-war) is not primarily a military war, the intelligence budget should be reallocated between the Defense Department and other intelligence agencies – with less emphasis on nation-state military threats, since the conventional military threat environment is less severe than during the Cold War, and more emphasis on terrorist threats to the United States. Regardless of whether $40 billion is the right amount of intelligence spending and how that money is allocated, the un-war requires:

  • Less emphasis on spy satellites as a primary means of gathering intelligence, acknowledging that spy satellite images may have been an excellent way to monitor stationary targets such as missile silos or easily recognizable military equipment, such as tanks and aircraft, but may not be as capable at locating and tracking individual terrorists.
  • Recognizing the limitations of electronic eavesdropping, particularly the problem of intercepting and successfully monitoring the right conversations compounded by the inability to sift through the massive volume of chatter to determine which bits of information are useful.
  • Greater emphasis on human intelligence-gathering as a means to confirm or refute what satellite images, electronic eavesdropping, interrogations of captured al-Qaeda operatives, hard drives on confiscated computers, and other sources are indicating about the terrorist threat – which is perhaps the most critical missing piece in the intelligence puzzle in terms of anticipating future terrorist attacks.

As important as better human intelligence is, there is a proper place for technology. If parts of the un-war are to be fought in places such as Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Pakistan – especially if it is not possible for U.S. ground troops to operate in those countries – UAVs (remotely controlled aircraft) could be key assets for finding and targeting al-Qaeda operatives because of their ability to cover large swaths of land for extended periods of time in search of targets. Armed UAVs offer a cost-effective alternative to deploying troops on the ground or having to call in manned aircraft to perform combat missions against identified terrorist targets. One can only wonder how the world might be different today if the spy Predator that took pictures of a tall man in white robes surrounded by a group of people – believed by many intelligence analysts to be Osama bin Laden – in the fall of 2000 had instead been an armed Predator capable of immediately striking the target. Moreover, UAVs are relatively cheap – less than $20 million each for an armed UAV compared to over $100 million for an F-22 Raptor fighter plane.

To the extent that military forces will be instrumental in fighting terrorism, it will be U.S. special operations forces (SOFs) – units such as Navy SEALS (SEa-Air-Land) teams and Army Green Berets, Rangers, and Delta Force that can stealthily infiltrate hostile territory to find and take action against discrete targets (indeed, one of the costs of the Bush administration’s fixation on Saddam Hussein was that special forces personnel and units were taken away from the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to prepare for the eventual invasion of Iraq). Like UAVs, the cost of SOFs is relatively inexpensive. The FY 2007 budget for U.S. Special Forces Operations Command (USSOCOM) was about $6.2 billion, or about one-tenth of 1 percent of the total Defense Department budget (not including supplemental funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). Given the importance and unique capabilities of SOFs relative to the regular military in the war on terrorism, it would make sense to increase their size and funding – perhaps even doubling the force size (currently almost 44,000 military personnel).

In the timeless treatise of strategic thinking The Art of War, Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu stressed the importance of knowing the enemy:

"Knowing the other and knowing oneself,
In one hundred battles no danger.
Not knowing the other and knowing oneself,
One victory for one loss.
Not knowing the other and not knowing oneself,
In every battle certain defeat."

In order to truly know the enemy, the United States must train a cadre of experts to learn the relevant languages (as well as cultures) of the Muslim world – Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Farsi, Dari, and Malay, to name a few. The Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, Calif., is the largest language school in the world and provides 85 percent of the language training for the federal government. Yet more than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, out of a graduating class of over 1,000 students only 27 were Arabic speakers.

Ironically, the military’s own policies may hinder its ability to train and retain qualified linguists. For example, in May 2007, the Associated Press reported that 58 Arabic language specialists were discharged for being gay under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. So it may be possible to dismiss former petty officer Stephen Benjamin from the Navy for being gay, but we cannot dismiss or ignore the consequences of such actions. Although Ron Paul has come under some fire for his comments about the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy during the New Hampshire debate (he elaborated on the issue during an hour-long discussion with Google executive Elliot Schrage as part of the company’s Candidates@Google series) and there are those who wish he would have come out (no pun intended) against "don’t ask, don’t tell," it’s abundantly clear that Rep. Paul understands that the policy damages our ability to prosecute the un-war:

"Even though those words aren’t offensive to me, that ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ don’t sound so bad to me, I think the way it’s enforced is bad. Because, literally, if somebody is a very, very good individual working for our military – and I met one just the other day in my office, who was a translator – and he was kicked out for really no good reason at all. I would want to change that, I don’t support that interpretation."

So noninterventionism doesn’t mean a policy of sitting back and doing nothing. But it recognizes the limitations of what can and should be done. And most importantly, Rep. Ron Paul correctly understands that no matter how successful we might be at doing some things, fighting the un-war will be a losing battle if we do not change U.S. foreign policy – which is one of the primary reasons Muslims around the world hate us. Otherwise, there will be an endless pool of would-be terrorists.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.