Commentary Magazine


Topic: containment

The Debate We Should Be Having About Rand Paul and Sanctions

Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

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Rand Paul was put on the defensive this week over criticism stemming from comments he made last year, posted on Jennifer Rubin’s Washington Post blog, on Iran sanctions: “There are times when sanctions have made it worse. There are times–leading up to World War II, we cut off trade with Japan. That probably caused Japan to react angrily. We also had a blockade on Germany after World War I, which may have encouraged some of their anger.”

As with a great many conversations involving Hitler, the debate went off course almost immediately in ways that were unfair to Paul. The senator’s senior advisor told the Post in response: “World War II was a necessary war, a just war, a fully declared war, and an entirely victorious war; the megalomaniac Hitler was to blame for the war and the Holocaust.” So some of the sympathy for Paul is warranted: his recorded statements didn’t suggest that the United States was at fault for Hitler’s rise and the subsequent consequences.

“There’s a debate to be had on foreign policy,” David Harsanyi argues, reasonably. “This isn’t it.” Harsanyi goes on to make the following point:

What Paul never contends is that Hitler’s ideology hinged on the idea of opposing Versailles. He was talking about Germany and Germans. In front of me is Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, where the author basically makes the same case and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, in which she writes that though Versailles’ impact had likely been exaggerated by German governments, it allowed political parties like the Nazis to tap into widespread “anger” and resentment. Sounds like that’s what Rand was saying.

True enough, though it’s worth noting that in Modern Times, Johnson has much more to say about the grievances unleashed by Versailles, and they center on the ethnic strife sparked by transferring Europe to the individual nation-state model from the age of empires–“self-determination,” in Johnson’s writing, which created more restive minority populations because there were more states. Where economic factors played a role, Johnson seems to put emphasis on the fact that more states also meant more poor states, especially in the immediate postwar period, and he notes that Germany was considered to have defaulted on its postwar obligations as well. If any aspect of Versailles encouraged German expansionism, Johnson appears to blame the fact that “under the Treaty it was forbidden to seek union with Germany, which made the Anschluss seem more attractive than it actually was.”

But I think Paul’s defenders here are on less steady ground in dismissing Paul’s comments as they relate to Pearl Harbor. He prefaced his sanctions comments–at least on Pearl Harbor–by saying sometimes sanctions “have made it worse.” Taken individually, sanctions on a nation can be treated this way. But it doesn’t always apply, and it applies perhaps less to Japan than almost any other scenario (Germany, Iraq, Iran, etc.).

As some have said since Paul’s comments, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a sort of preemptive strike to at least temporarily avert an American response to simultaneous Japanese aggression throughout the region, including on Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. But another important facet of this is that the sanctions weren’t a surprise to Japan, because they were in response to Japanese action. As the historian Ian Toll writes, Japan took action its leaders–reminded by Admiral Yamamoto, who initially wanted to avoid an unwinnable war–knew would precipitate sanctions, and the whole process would bring them toward war:

From his flagship, Nagato, usually anchored in Hiroshima Bay, Yamamoto continued to warn against joining with the Nazis. He reminded his government that Japan imported around four-fifths of its oil and steel from areas controlled by the Allies. To risk conflict, he wrote, was foolhardy, because “there is no chance of winning a war with the United States for some time to come.”

But Japan’s confused and divided government drifted toward war while refusing to face the strategic problems it posed. It signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in Berlin in September 1940. As Yamamoto had predicted, the American government quickly restricted and finally cut off exports of oil and other vital materials. The sanctions brought events to a head, because Japan had no domestic oil production to speak of, and would exhaust its stockpiles in about a year.

Yamamoto realized he had lost the fight to keep Japan out of war, and he fell in line with the planning process.

Yamamoto warned against the process because he wrongly thought his leaders wanted to avoid war, when in fact they provoked it. This doesn’t mean Paul is “blaming” the U.S. for the attack on Pearl Harbor (and by extension, American entry into World War II). But it raises questions about Paul’s selective use of history–and bad history does not usually inform good policy.

I have raised this issue with Paul before. When he made his major foreign-policy address a year ago, he advocated a greater emphasis on containment. But he conflated the Kennanite version of containment with the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War, which was far from the truth. In reality, Kennan’s ideas were central to the Truman administration’s decision to embrace containment, but his version of containment was so different that Kennan adamantly refused to take credit for it.

It is far from clear that a nuclear Iran would be containable the way the Soviet Union was–in fact, it’s unlikely. But Paul’s version of containment would not have even contained the Soviet Union. Paul’s habit of cherry-picking history to create precedents for his own preferred strategy seems to be present with his comments on Japanese sanctions and Pearl Harbor as well. It certainly doesn’t make him a blame-America-firster. But it does suggest unsound strategic judgment.

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Isolationism and a Nuclear Iran

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

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Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Let’s first agree that diplomacy with Iran is a doubtful bet no matter whether it is being conducted by tough-minded leaders or weak ones. Both Obama and Kerry have little appreciation of the nature or goals of the Iranian regime and what little common sense they have is dwarfed by their hubristic belief in their own diplomatic prowess. As Will states, a deal that leaves in place Iran’s nuclear facilities and its stockpile of enriched uranium, and even grants it the right to create more is a formula for failure. It’s difficult to imagine any such scheme will not be either evaded or violated by the Iranians in a push to get the weapon their leaders have always dreamed of. The Iranians have spent the last 20 years deceiving and stalling Western negotiators. Any thought that the selection of a faux moderate in their fake presidential election presages a genuine shift on the part of the true rulers of Iran is a product of wishful thinking.

But however dubious we should be about Iran’s intentions, it is simply not true to claim, as Will does, that “any agreement” would be as futile as the one Obama has foolishly embraced. A deal that dismantled Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear plants and that resulted in the export of their uranium stockpile would be one that would prevent them from getting a bomb. Granted, the Iranians may well have more facilities than the ones under discussion. Intelligence agencies take it as a given that there are secret facilities where unknown nuclear activities are being conducted. Yet a negotiated end to the international sanctions on Iran that produced a genuine and strict inspection of the country might well root out most of the ayatollahs’ nuclear toys or at least enough to severely restrict their ability to reconstitute their program.

Such a deal might be possible if, rather than weakening sanctions in a vain effort to encourage Iranian moderates, the West tightened the economic restrictions on trade with Tehran and instituted a comprehensive embargo of Iranian oil. That kind of an embargo would be tough to enforce without the full support of Russia and China. But we’ll never know whether it could work or if such crippling sanctions would bring the regime to its knees until it is tried.

As for the use of force, Will is probably right that Israel may not be able to stop Iran on its own. It is also true that even a far more comprehensive strike by the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily end the threat for all time. But in dismissing the possibility that a series of strikes could stop Iran in the long run, Will is ignoring the fact that it is highly unlikely that a country already nearing bankruptcy could afford the massive costs involved in reconstituting a nuclear program it took them decades to build. There is no reason to believe that Iran could simply rebuild everything in a few years. And even if strikes did merely put off an Iranian bomb for a few years or a decade, that would buy the world badly needed time to prepare for the Iranian threat. It would also give the Iranian people an opportunity to perhaps unseat a tyrannical regime.

An armed conflict with Iran is not a scenario anyone should regard as anything but a last resort. But the assumption that it would be worse than a nuclear Iran is the real fallacy here. Will agrees with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack that the only choices the West has are containment or war and thinks the former a better idea than the latter. That’s why, despite his criticism of Obama’s diplomacy, Will likes the nuclear deal with Iran because he rightly believes it forestalls any use of force whether by Israel or the United States.

Will castigates those who call for a more vigorous response to the Iranian nuclear threat as being “gripped by Thirties envy” because they decry the Obama policy as a new appeasement. Obviously, the circumstances before us today are different than those faced by the West in 1938 when appeasement of Nazi Germany was on the table. But the notion that all that is at stake here is, as Will says, an attempt to  “alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders” is utterly misguided.

Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a domestic policy choice that the West regards with distaste (which was the way many in Britain and the U.S. regarded the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s), but a genuine threat to the stability of the regime and the security of the West. After all, the Iranians are not building ICBMs to hit Israel, whose existence would be placed in mortal danger by a bomb in the hands of an anti-Semitic regime pledged to its destruction. Those would be aimed at Europe and the United States. Such a weapon would also provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries in the region and allies such as Syria.

In this respect, Barack Obama’s understanding of the stakes in this question is greater than that of the venerable conservative sage. The president knows that a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe. He just lacks the will or the smarts to pursue the right policy to prevent it. Will is wrong to write off tough sanctions and diplomacy without their being tried. He’s even more wrong to think the use of force would be worse than a nuclear Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could not be neatly contained. Not could the U.S. or Israel be sure it could deter it with nuclear or conventional counter-attacks. But unlike liberals who labor under the delusion that the Iranians could be charmed out of their nukes, Will seems to think the issue doesn’t really matter. In making that case, he seems to be endorsing the mindset of isolationists like Rand Paul or trying to resurrect the foreign policy of Republicans of a bygone era like Robert Taft would have preferred. As such, his appeal for acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a distressing indication of the collapse of the consensus on the right about foreign policy that can only give comfort to America’s foes.

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The Paul Doctrine in Practice

The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

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The New York Times jumps into the lingering Rand Paul vs. the Establishment storyline today, purporting to examine what Paul’s popularity portends for the future of the GOP’s foreign policy. But in truth, such stories have been able to paint this as a significant rift within the party only by utilizing the same selective vagueness that Paul himself employs when discussing political ideology. Some of this is, of course, natural and understandable–at least on Paul’s part–because a worldview must have overarching principles.

But what Paul’s foreign policy would mean in practice is incredibly unclear in the Times piece. It devotes more than a thousand words to the subject and still manages to paint an extremely and frustratingly incomplete picture. This is to Paul’s benefit. Only a selective reading of history–by both Paul and the New York Times–gives the appearance of a philosophical divide in which the two sides are more evenly balanced than they really are. For example, the Times writes:

Some Republicans are less worried. They view Mr. Paul’s crusade as nothing more than the usual attempt by members of the opposition party to undermine the assertive foreign policy of an incumbent president.

In the 1980s, Democrats harshly criticized President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to arm Nicaraguan rebels. During the 1990s, Republicans derisively called President Bill Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo “Clinton’s war.” In Mr. Obama’s first term, critics assailed his expansion of the war against terrorism, including the expanded use of drones.

There are two omissions in that second paragraph of ostensible examples of partisan game-playing masquerading as honest policy criticism. The first omission is of the administration of George W. Bush and his domestic political critics. Excluding Bush from this list exempts Democratic criticism of the war on terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the ranks of cynical point scoring and elevates it to something more substantial. But in fact Democrats’ behavior on Iraq was nauseating. Democratic Party leaders stomped their feet demanding action to curb Saddam Hussein’s behavior for years during the Clinton administration, at a time when it became official American policy to support regime change in Iraq. They ramped up that rhetoric when Bush became president and could be painted as vacillating at a time of choosing. And they voted overwhelmingly for the war. Then they bolted.

The second omission is in referring to Obama’s “critics” of the drone program without party affiliation. The truth is that Republicans and conservatives support the drone program. Though many on the right appreciated Paul’s filibuster and his ability to easily win a round of publicity against the president, a great deal of those supporters actually disagreed with Paul on policy. Charles Krauthammer is the latest to express this clearly, writing in his Washington Post column today that the outlandishness of Paul’s one specific example of droning Jane Fonda meant that “Paul’s performance was both theatrically brilliant and substantively irrelevant.”

In fairness to Paul, he isn’t quite as vague about how to translate his principles into action as his defenders usually are, which indicates they know the limits of the Paul doctrine, such as it is. In his major foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation, Paul spoke at length about the need to incorporate a policy of containment into America’s broader foreign policy grand strategy, and he put that recommendation in the context of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. (He deserves credit, at least, for being honest about staking out a position to the left of the one currently claimed by President Obama.) He quoted George Kennan to this effect throughout his speech.

But he also quoted Kennan approvingly in Kennan’s critique of Harry Truman’s version of containment. This is an implicit acknowledgement that, pace Paul, it was not Kennan’s vision of containment that won the Cold War–and in fact Kennan’s version of containment was immediately and frankly rejected by Truman and his advisors who helped craft the Truman Doctrine. It is also not Paul’s version of containment, then, that was successful and it is highly misleading for Paul to try to pass his own policy off as the successful Cold War strategy utilized by presidents from Truman to Reagan (and the first Bush).

Paul will have much support on the right to try and move the GOP away from Iraq-style invasion and occupation; the public is noticeably war-weary. But the public also supports military action against Iran if the alternative is letting them get the bomb. Paul also complements Reagan’s foreign policy and tries to claim its mantle. But given Paul’s support for cutting the defense budget, does anyone honestly believe that Paul would have supported the crucial Strategic Defense Initiative? More likely, he would have argued against it as a waste of money and a tactic that made war more likely.

As I’ve written before, Paul is no crank or conspiracy theorist. But there is much room between that and mainstream conservative foreign policy. So far, Paul seems to get the easy questions–and only the easy questions–right. That’s better than nothing, but not by much.

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Containment That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Paul Hauptman writes that Chuck Hagel was correct when he described the Obama administration policy toward Iran as “containment.” “We are,” he writes, “approaching containment by deed, if not by label,” because the policy over the last four years has allowed Iran to reach the threshold of nuclear weapons capability. 

Hagel’s now famous testimony–reading his opening statement that he supports the president’s prevention policy; then saying in unscripted remarks that he supports the president’s containment policy; then reading a note handed to him to re-instate his prior statement (and bungling that too)–unfortunately reminds me of an apocryphal anecdote and an old joke. 

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In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Paul Hauptman writes that Chuck Hagel was correct when he described the Obama administration policy toward Iran as “containment.” “We are,” he writes, “approaching containment by deed, if not by label,” because the policy over the last four years has allowed Iran to reach the threshold of nuclear weapons capability. 

Hagel’s now famous testimony–reading his opening statement that he supports the president’s prevention policy; then saying in unscripted remarks that he supports the president’s containment policy; then reading a note handed to him to re-instate his prior statement (and bungling that too)–unfortunately reminds me of an apocryphal anecdote and an old joke. 

The anecdote involves the pliant politician Huey Long installed as governor, who was working in his office one summer day with the window open. A leaf blew in and landed on his desk. He signed it. The joke is the classic insurance one about the man whose friend tells him he heard about the fire that burned down the man’s store. The man responds: “shhh–it’s happening next week.” 

For a president planning a flexible foreign policy, it helps to have a guy at Defense willing to sign on to whatever it says on the statements prepared for him, or the notes handed to him. You just hope he doesn’t prematurely disclose how your policy is going to “evolve.” It would have been perfect if Hagel had leaned over and signed the note too, but only rarely does life completely imitate a joke. 

From the beginning, the principal problem with the Hagel nomination was not his view of Israel or Jews, but the signal the nomination sent to Iran. The signal is even clearer now that the White House still supports Hagel, notwithstanding a performance that should have disqualified him even if he had announced a previously unknown lifetime membership in AIPAC. Future historians will be surprised to learn that Hagel’s testimony was not apocryphal, but it will be useful in describing how an oft-stated policy of prevention became an unstated policy of containment. For an even more succinct explanation, Hauptman’s letter will suffice. 

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The Folly of Containing Iran

Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.

First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.

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Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.

First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.

A greater flaw is the broad over-generalization with which Paul, Chuck Hagel, and other self-described realists too often approach Iran. Iran is not a monolith, and ordinary Iranians would not be the ones to control any nuclear arsenal. Rather, command, control, and custody of an Iranian nuclear bomb would be in the hands not only of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the most ideologically pure unit within that organization. That no one has precise insight into the ideological allegiance of the commanders who would possess the bomb will worry regional rulers a great deal. After all, it’s one thing to talk about hardliners and reformers when it comes to politicians, but it’s another thing to fly blind when it comes to the predilection of those who we actually would face.

The Iranian regime might not be suicidal, but the nightmare scenario where Cold War-style containment and deterrence breaks down is this: What happens if there’s an uprising in Iran, like the ones in 1999, 2001, or 2009 but, instead of crushing the protestors, some units at least of the security forces join the people in the street? After all, some American analysts suggest the Revolutionary Guards is no longer so revolutionary, so it follows that they might react to the same outrage to some spark as their friends and neighbors. If momentum builds to the point where regime collapse is inevitable—think Romania in 1989—then can anyone guarantee that the guardians of an Iranian nuke wouldn’t launch it to fulfill their genocidal ideology? After all, their regime is finished anyway, so why not? Under such circumstances, containment and deterrence breaks down. Until these problems are addressed, Paul’s discussions about containing Iran fall flat.

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Rand Paul’s Dangerous Approach to Iran

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.

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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.

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