Rand Paul’s efforts to establish foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 presidential campaign escalated yesterday with a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Paul defined himself as being neither an isolationist like his extremist father Ron nor a neoconservative. He hopes that this address, like his recent trip to Israel, will make it clear that he cannot be dismissed as an outlier on defense and security matters. But his campaign to cast himself as the second coming of Reagan is not believable. Judging by his remarks, his real role models are Cold War containment strategist George Kennan and James Baker, secretary of state under the first President Bush whose “realist” policies did little to prepare the country for the post-Soviet world or the threat from Islamist terror.
Unlike Baker, who made little secret of his contempt for Israel, Paul is being very careful these days to give the Jewish state some love even though his position on aid to it misses the point about its strategic dilemma. But on the most important issue facing Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat—Paul placed himself clearly outside of the mainstream. The key takeaway from the speech was that the Kentucky senator wants to put containment of a nuclear Iran back on the table. Though he tries to couch this in terms that make it seem as if he is being a tough advocate of a true conservative foreign policy, he has put himself even to the left of Barack Obama on Iran.
Paul’s premise is that the U.S. should be unpredictable, but by raising doubts as to whether the Iranians should fear a military action to prevent them from gaining nuclear capability, he is actually telegraphing exactly what he would do about this threat if he were president: nothing. Though he tells us he doesn’t want Iran to go nuclear, his primary objective is to avoid any foreign military entanglements, even those, like Iran, that wouldn’t necessarily involve boots on the ground or a long-term land war. As such, all this talk from him about considering containment is merely an excuse for ignoring a problem that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East, undermine Western security, and pose an existential threat to the state of Israel.
The senator’s attempt to claim that Israelis are having a debate about Iran that Americans are not also misunderstands what is happening in Israel. It is true that some former intelligence officials there have criticized the Netanyahu government on Iran. But their disagreement is not about whether Iran should be contained but whether Israel can or should act on its own. There is little dissent there about the idea that the U.S. should act to stop Iran, and it is on that point that Paul would like to inject some ambiguity rather than the certainty that is needed if Iran is ever to step back from the nuclear brink.
Just as important as this potential blunder is his misapplication of Kennan’s containment ideas to the conflict with radical Islamists. Kennan’s idea worked to some extent because the two superpowers of the postwar era were prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons from engaging in a traditional direct war against each other. Containment allowed the U.S. to try, not always successfully, to prevent the spread of Communism around the globe without triggering World War III. If, in the end, the West prevailed it was because its efforts to combat Soviet expansionism and its raising of the ante in the arms race made it clear to the Russians they couldn’t win. But the current struggle with the Islamists is nothing like that. Neither the Iranians nor their terrorist auxiliaries and allies can be counted on to behave with the relative restraint exercised by Moscow.
Paul’s call for an unpredictable American policy in which force could potentially be used in some situations and not in others misunderstands the lessons of containment. Though some of the U.S. responses to Communist encroachment, like Vietnam, didn’t turn out well, the results from American decisions not to respond in Africa and Asia were just as disastrous and encouraged further trouble. Though Reagan did not try to liberate captive peoples, a strategy that he derided as unrealistic, he also made sure that the Soviets were resisted everywhere. The long-term impact of these interventions–such as U.S. support to the resistance in Afghanistan–was unfortunate, but allowing them a free hand there would not have advanced American security and might have put off the date of Soviet collapse.
Paul says he wants a strategy to deal with our foes that does not appease them. Some of his instincts on this topic are right, such as his vote against the sale of F-16 aircraft to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt as well as his general opposition to providing arms to Arab countries that might use them against our ally Israel. But an America that disengages from the Middle East in the way that he envisions and which signals, as he would, that it may tolerate a nuclear Iran, is just as dangerous as appeasement. The only thing about this that is credible is his dedication to avoiding war. Everything else in his vision is merely a rationalization for the principle of non-intervention no matter how grievous the consequences of that stand might be.
The path that he would chart for the country is not a middle way between certain war and appeasement. It is, at best, a charter that would enable Iran to assume regional hegemony without having to worry much about U.S. force and a threatened Israel. At worst, it is a blueprint for American decline that will make the world a much more dangerous place.
Though his speech demonstrates a certain grasp of history and the desire of Americans to avoid replays of Iraq and Afghanistan, when the elements are boiled down to their essentials, it must be seen as merely a sophisticated gloss on the libertarian ideas that his father presented in a much more primitive manner. His call for what he thinks is a Reagan-like constraint abroad is merely an excuse to reduce defense spending and to refuse to engage in conflicts that cannot be wished away.
As wrongheaded as this foreign policy manifest may be, it is a good deal more presentable than Ron Paul’s woolly isolationism and thus will make his quest for the GOP presidential nomination more viable. But it should also end the brief flirtation with the senator that some in the pro-Israel community have been engaging in since November. Paul’s desire to put containment of Iran back on the table is a refreshing change from Chuck Hagel’s inability to articulate the administration’s nominal stand. The administration’s stand on Iran has been all rhetoric and no action so far, but even that is better than what Paul has proposed. Anyone looking to Rand Paul for a fresh Republican face that can put forward a sensible foreign policy strategy needs to keep looking.