In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.
That’s the conceit of Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which he joins the pile-on against both Bush and Obama. According to Paul, the main lesson to be derived from recent developments in Iraq is that anyone connected to or supportive of the original invasion as well as those who support the president’s disastrous retreat from the region need to admit their errors and cease advocating for what he considers to be failed policies. Fair enough. But once everyone who was for the war and also those who urged withdrawal say they’re sorry, what does the man who must be considered one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 think the U.S. should do in Iraq now? The answer is apparently, not much. Paul seems to be skeptical about any action to try and push back against the ISIS advance, a position that may be wrong but is not irrational. Not unreasonably, he also believes any presidential decisions should seek authorization from Congress for any new initiative.
What is not reasonable is the context of Paul’s position. Though he continues to insist that what he is proposing is analogous to the policies carried out by Ronald Reagan, having opposed virtually every U.S. initiative in the Middle East, it is hard to see his proposal as anything but a prescription for U.S. abandonment of both its interests and allies in the Middle East. This may have some superficial appeal to war-weary Americans who have grown tired of dealing with the region’s problems. But doing so will neither enhance the nation’s security nor allow it to ignore the threats that regularly emerge to challenge it.
Paul’s harping on the idea of others admitting their mistakes is a not-so-subtle way of asserting that he has made none. It is true that he bears no responsibility for getting the U.S. into Iraq or for President Obama’s bungling of a war that the administration claimed had been successfully concluded in his first term. But to claim that simply staying out of Iraq would have avoided all the problems of a rising Islamist tide in the region is to miss the point of the events of the last few years. By passing on an early intervention in Syria that might have toppled the Assad regime and avoided having the country fall into the hands of Islamists, President Obama set in motion a chain of events that has not only left the country in ruins, created more than a million refugees, and left more than 100,000 dead. He also helped create the circumstances that have fueled the chaos in Iraq. In doing so, Obama was doing just as a President Paul would do, only with the pretense that he was actually in control of events as his “lead from behind” mantra tried to indicate.
It is one thing to advocate for the U.S. to adopt a Reaganesque stance of only using force when U.S. interests are directly threatened, as Paul counsels. But Paul’s consistent position is always for the U.S. to stay out of the fight against Islamist terrorists, no matter where they are or what they are doing. He opposes drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and even U.S. aid to regional allies like Israel as well as less friendly and stable countries. Though he couches his position in “realist” terms that evoke Republicans of the past, a Rand Paul foreign policy would signal a retreat from the defense of the U.S. interests that Ronald Reagan would never have countenanced. Far from being an alternative to the follies of both the last two presidents, Paul would take U.S. foreign policy far to the left of what most Republicans already rightly think is Obama’s retreat from the world stage.
There is clearly no appetite in the country now for a new commitment to ground combat in Iraq, but Paul’s isolationism represents a dangerous extension of Obama’s cut-and-run philosophy. Though foreign policy will always take a back seat to domestic concerns, as Republicans begin to think seriously about 2016 they need to start thinking about whether they really want a presidential candidate who wants to abandon America’s interests and allies even more than Obama has done.