20 June 2014

Rand Paul and the 'Weinberger Doctrine'

Sen. Paul of Kentucky published an op-ed yesterday in which he opposes U.S. military intervention in Iraq. This is consistent with his previous anti-interventionist position, which the senator shares with his father. It makes you wonder how some people can be relatively reasonable on foreign policy yet relatively unreasonable on domestic policy. After all, it looks like the Paul Doctrine in foreign policy is to protect American lives by avoiding needless war. Shouldn't protecting American lives be the priority in domestic policy, too? But that apparent discrepancy is old news. Meanwhile, Paul's foreign-policy statements are also admirably non-partisan. While many fellow Republicans are exploiting the Iraq crisis to attack the President for perceived weakness, Paul recognizes that the trouble started long before Obama took office. He clearly has no patience for the likes of Dick Cheney now re-emerging from the wilderness to blast Obama for ruining some great thing they put together during the Dubya years. Paul's own conclusion seems indisputable: "For former Bush officials to blame President Obama or for Democrats to blame President Bush only serves as a reminder that both sides continue to get foreign policy wrong."

What did Obama do wrong? Paul clearly doesn't object to the President withdrawing from Iraq in 2011; his position, after all, remains that we shouldn't have gone there in the first place. Obama's mistakes, Paul contends, took place elsewhere. "Saying it is [only] President Bush's fault is to ignore all the horrible foreign policy decisions in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere under President Obama, many of which may have contributed to the current crisis in Iraq," he writes. In other words, Paul has a problem with the "Arab Spring" concept, or at least he feels that it was not Americans' business to encourage it. Syria, of course, is the key. Everyone recognizes that the ISIS army threatening Baghdad is blowback from outside support for the uprising against the Assad regime. The anti-Obama storyline currently developing is that ISIS is his fault because he failed to give the necessary support to the good Syrian rebels, whoever they may have been, and left ISIS to fill the vacuum. Paul doesn't seem to be saying that, however. He blames Obama to the extent that the President gave any encouragement to any rebels when it wasn't this country's business who governed Syria. Paul's consistent narrative seems to be that any aggressive "democracy promotion" by the U.S. in the Middle East can have only destabilizing consequences that do more harm than good. Libertarians, the most fanatical about liberty in their own land, presumably, are less fanatical about liberating other lands and peoples than others in this country.

The only potential false note in Paul's article is his appeal to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, or more specifically to the legacy of Reagan's defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. Paul believes that Weinberger set down guiding principles that would have prevented George W. Bush's adventurism and Obama's clumsy handling of the repercussions:

In 1984, Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger developed the following criteria for war, primarily to avoid another Vietnam. His speech, "The Uses of Military Power," boils down to this: The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the U.S. or its allies are involved and only "with the clear intention of winning." U.S. combat troops should be committed only with "clearly defined political and military objectives" and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives and with a "reasonable assurance" of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress and only "as a last resort."

It does sound sensible until you recall that under Reagan and Weinberger the U.S. invaded Grenada and overthrew its government. That was a war, more or less, we definitely could win, but did it meet Weinberger's own criterion of "vital national interest?" The point of asking is not to question Rand Paul's foreign policy principles, but to question his tracing them to Reagan. That looks a little like pandering to Republican Reaganolatry, while it ignores the many ways Reagan interfered with other countries to wage the Cold War. If Obama is wrong to have supported rebels in Libya or Syria, wasn't Reagan just as wrong to support rebels in Nicaragua and other places? For all I know, Paul might agree. But a lot of 21st century anti-interventionists on the right said or did little to temper the American impulse to intervene globally against the International Communist Conspiracy during the 20th century. Does it simply boil down to some people feeling less threatened by militant Islamism than by international Communism? While some people clearly should feel less threatened by Islamism, it is fair to ask whether opposition to interventionism today is simply a matter of impulse rather than a matter of principle. It'd be hard to tell in Rand Paul's case unless an aggressively revolutionary Communist party actually takes over a government somewhere. For now, I can only regret that his dad didn't steer him onto a career diplomatic track. The best of Ron Paul's own legacy might have been better served that way.

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