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Is Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy “Libertarian”?

Chris Christie’s criticism of the brand of libertarian foreign policy championed by Rand Paul, and Paul’s immediate response to Christie, seemed to energize Paul’s supporters and touch off an intra-party debate on national security long in the making. But the parameters of that debate were far less significant than the tone suggested. As Jonathan wrote, Christie made the comments on a panel with other Republican governors and was in the minority not for his beliefs but for his willingness to state them (in Christie’s classically confrontational style, no less).

The other governors at the event–Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker–may not have been willing to engage Paul but neither did they seem opposed to Christie’s general perspective on foreign affairs. Indeed, the issue at play is domestic surveillance–an issue that was part of Paul’s memorable filibuster. But beyond concerns about the surveillance state, there isn’t much indication that even those assumed to be on Paul’s side actually believe in American retrenchment from the world. The most interesting politician on that score is not Christie or Marco Rubio (or the others, like Paul Ryan, on record supporting a robust foreign policy) but rather the congressman who spearheaded the attempt to curb the NSA’s scope: Justin Amash.

Amash was recently profiled by National Review’s John J. Miller, in which Miller noted that Amash was touted by Reason magazine as “the next Ron Paul.” In his interview with Miller, however, Amash made a point of differentiating himself from the elder Paul on issues including foreign policy. (Amash said “Ron Paul was an important educational figure, not a typical politician,” quite far from a ringing endorsement of Paul’s congressional activity.)

In an earlier interview with Reason, Amash provided much more insight into how he views his libertarian foreign policy. Here is a telling series of exchanges between Amash and Reason editor Nick Gillespie:

reason: What about in Afghanistan and Iraq? Because there was an authorization for the use of military force. Is that still binding? What’s wrong with that as a blank check for the president to keep prosecuting the war on terror?

Amash: I think it’s okay for Congress to give authorizations that—it doesn’t have to read “Declaration of War.” I think what the Founders really intended was that Congress would be the starting point for all this. So whether you call it an authorization or a declaration of war is not as big a deal to me. But the war in Afghanistan, that’s the longest war in U.S history, and now—

reason: Should we have invaded Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, at the time. And it should have been for a limited purpose: to take out the terrorists who targeted us on 9/11.

reason: You have been an outspoken critic of the use of drones, particularly in countries we’re not officially at war with. But going after bin Laden in Pakistan, say: Is that legal under the authorization that sanctioned intervening in Afghanistan?

Amash: I think so, to go after bin Laden. He was clearly in charge of the operation and I think it was legal to go after him. There are a lot of other situations where it’s more questionable. If we’re going after people who have nothing to do with 9/11, whether they are terrorists or not, it’s the president’s job to come back to Congress and say, “This is who we’re going after and this is why,” and for Congress to give the authorization.

That was Amash justifying the legality of the Iraq War while supporting the invasion of Afghanistan and sending the military into Pakistan to get bin Laden. Elsewhere in that same interview, Amash struck a thoughtful balance on Syria, and gives the following answer when asked about sanctions and military action against Iran:

Iran is a much more real threat. They speak out against the United States on a regular basis; it’s pretty clear they’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Sanctions that are directed toward preventing them from getting weapons of mass destruction, I think those sanctions are useful and helpful in the short run. I’m not sure you’d want to use them for 20 years.

But there are other sanctions that are targeted at the people of Iran. Those are not beneficial to the United States. If I felt Iran was a genuine threat to the United States, I would give the president authorization to do what’s necessary.

Amash also spoke about the emotional significance of the 9/11 attacks to him and how the event spurred his increased interest in politics. None of this is to suggest that Amash’s foreign policy priorities are indistinguishable from those of, say, John McCain. But it’s important to understand the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA. It has obvious populist appeal and is well worth the discussion Paul has raised.

But the question of whether Paul’s opposition to drones and wiretapping portends a libertarian shift in GOP foreign policy obscures the more important question: What, exactly, do we mean when we say “libertarian foreign policy”? Rand Paul has been vague enough on his own worldview, aside from the use of drones, to keep this question unanswered. But if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself–and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.


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