Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.
In one way, Paul’s proposal makes a great deal of sense. For decades presidents have carried out military campaigns without a declaration of war, creating an imperial presidency that gives the executive more power than the Founders would have liked. A declaration would create, at least in theory, more accountability as well as restoring some needed constitutional balance to the way foreign and defense policy is carried out.
But as much as this makes some superficial sense, Paul’s intentions have more to do with both restricting the scope of the war against radical Islamist terrorist and posing as a responsible would-be commander in chief than it does with actually winning the war against ISIS and its allies in Iraq and Syria.
Paul’s proposed declaration, like some of the other potential new authorizations of force circulating in Congress, would preclude the use of ground troops against ISIS except in highly restricted circumstances. That actually dovetails nicely with President Obama’s stance on the war that has been carried out in a half-hearted way that makes it hard to envision the kind of rollback of ISIS gains in both Iraq and Syria that will be required for victory against the group.
Like Obama, Paul’s objective here is not military victory—the object of any real declaration of war—but giving the country the impression that the U.S. is doing something about a problem that has rightly scared the American public without actually fighting a war.
But unlike Obama, Paul’s goal is also to convince the majority of Republicans that he is not an isolationist. Since Paul began his planning for a presidential campaign after the conclusion of the 2012 campaign, the Kentucky senator’s goal has been to rebrand himself as an old-fashioned foreign-policy realist instead of being seen as the son of the leader of a rabid band of extremist libertarians. Rand is a smarter, slicker, and cooler version of his father Ron, a fire-breathing radical who lamented on Twitter the victory of his son’s party in the midterm elections because he envisaged that it would lead to “neocon wars” with “boots on the ground.”
The senator’s approach to foreign and defense policy doesn’t have the same feel as that of his father. Unlike Ron, Rand does not use rhetoric—or at least not anymore—that makes him seem to the left of Barack Obama and liberal Democrats on foreign policy. In that sense, a declaration of war is a twofer for Rand in that it enables him to look like someone serious about fighting terrorists that the public fears while also sounding some of the Constitutional arguments about presidential overreach that endeared him to conservatives last year when his drone filibuster galvanized the nation.
But the declaration is more a matter of posturing than a genuine foreign-policy alternative. In the unlikely event that it passed, it would serve to limit not just presidential abuses of power but take away the leeway that any president needs to defend the nation in an age where threats and enemies are very different from the ones Franklin Roosevelt’s America faced in 1941.
That’s why Senator James Inhofe’s idea of a new resolution authorizing force that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to use against ISIS while requiring the White House to regularly report to Congress on the war makes far more sense than Paul’s declaration in terms of what is needed to actually win the conflict.
Thanks to ISIS and Obama’s disastrous Middle East policies, the libertarian moment that convulsed American politics in 2013 is over. In seeking to position himself as someone willing to fight wars, Paul has made progress toward becoming more of a mainstream political figure, something that is necessary if he is to have a chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But what this discussion illustrates is that the real problem is not whether Congress passes a declaration of war or a new resolution authorizing the use of force but what kind of a commander in chief the country is saddled with. With an Obama or a Rand Paul, America will have someone who doesn’t want to be seen as weak but who is not interested in a serious effort to defeat threats to the country’s security. That is something Republicans who rightly take a dim view of the president’s policies should think about before they buy into Paul’s proposal or his bid for the nomination.