Why Rand Paul Can’t Be President

Rand Paul is one of the most promising new Republican politicians, with impeccable small-government credentials, a fanatical grassroots following, and the charisma to appeal to mainstream voters and even, potentially, to reach across party lines.

So it’s an awful shame that he can’t be president.

Senator Paul cannot be president because of his disastrous approach to foreign policy, as displayed in his recent op-ed laying out his policy—or lack thereof—for dealing with Iraq.

The title of his article blares: “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War.” He is not so unequivocal in the body of the article, but he devotes most of his time to arguing against any use of military force or support, except for one: our military can be used to “evacuate US personnel and diplomatic facilities.” So the only military action he approves of is to fly the last helicopter out, providing us with another iconic image of American retreat.

Rand Paul’s policy for Iraq is to do nothing. Thanks, but we were doing that already. That’s how the current disaster happened. Here’s the latest news: everyone was warned by the Kurds that the al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS was about to launch a big offensive, and they ignored it. They ignored it because it would have required action that, for political reasons, they didn’t want to be bothered with.

But Senator Paul seems unaware of any of these details. Instead, he presents a simplified history that glosses over everything that actually happened in Iraq: “The US spent eight years training the Iraqis and nearly a decade of war has brought us to this point.” So the whole war in Iraq, with all its ups and downs, it reversals and eventual successes, is written off as the direct, inevitable product of President Bush’s original intervention.

This allows Paul to take facts totally out of context: “Those who say it was a mistake to leave are forgetting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government was demanding we leave in 2011.” Well, there was a reason Maliki was demanding this: because we had let him defy election results the previous year and cling to power by becoming an Iranian client—and it was the Iranians who were demanding that he kick out American troops. As war correspondent Dexter Filkins lays out in detail, the Obama administration knew about all of this at the time, and to the frustration of soldiers and diplomats who had given their all to create a stable Iraq, the administration did nothing and let Iraq slip away.

To those who would remind us of this history, Paul explains: shut up. “Many of those clamoring for military action now are the same people who made every false assumption imaginable about the cost, challenge, and purpose of the Iraq war. They have been so wrong for so long. Why should we listen to them again?” This attitude of wanting to write off opponents as discredited and exclude them from the debate before it begins—anyone recognize that?

What Senator Paul might have learned from the real history of Iraq is what you do when you have no good options: you take action to get better options. President Bush had very bad options to choose from in 2006, the last time Iraq was descending into a Sunni-vs.-Shia, al-Qaeda-vs.-Iran civil war. After the military, diplomatic, and political effort of the surge, which reversed this disaster, Bush left President Obama with excellent options—so much so that Obama kept boasting about how stable Iraq was. But then Obama refused to exert any American effort, not even a diplomatic effort, to maintain stability in Iraq, and he let it fall apart again. So the current disaster in Iraq is the consequence of exactly the kind of passive, non-interventionist foreign policy Paul proposes.

The same is true of Syria, where Paul also gives us an inaccurate view of US policy. He complains that the administration “has already indirectly aided al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria—the very group some now propose to counter with US troops.” In fact, the administration toyed with the idea of supporting non-jihadist rebels in Syria, then did nothing and instead cut a deal with the regime.

Paul follows up his distorted history of Iraq and Syria with a distorted presentation of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

It is the fate of deceased politicians to be endlessly invoked as an authority by people with utterly irreconcilable views, but Paul’s invocation of Reagan is particularly egregious. Senator Paul backs cuts in military spending, while Reagan pushed through a huge military buildup. I got a good appreciation of this recently on a trip to the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, where we saw an impressive array of enormous warships—most of which were commissioned in the early 1980s, launched in the late 1980s, and used in 1991. The Gulf War was a vast demonstration of the projection of American military power, which was the goal of Reagan’s policies.

In his own era, Reagan was viewed, not as a cautious skeptic of intervention, but as a wild-eyed warmonger hell-bent on provoking the Soviets. He pushed for military interventions in Grenada, Beirut, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. He provided covert, non-military assistance to dissidents in Eastern Europe. Taking sides in a foreign civil war? We did it under Reagan, more than once. We did it when it served our interests and helped to defeat a geopolitical threat.

Rand Paul knows, or ought to know, this history, because his father denounced Reagan and switched to the Libertarian Party in 1988, citing Reagan’s interventionist foreign policy as one of his grievances. But Rand Paul needs to gloss over this history, because he has a political incentive to split the difference between Reagan and his father, to try to maintain the loyalty of Ron Paul’s anti-war libertarian base without alienating mainstream conservatives.

But the only way he can do it is through vague sloganeering, not through a serious engagement with overseas threats and with America’s substantial interests in the world. Paul assumes, for example, that there will be no consequences from allowing ISIS to establish an anarchic quasi-state in Syria and Iraq, despite what we know about the consequences of allowing al-Qaeda a haven in Afghanistan—and despite warnings that ISIS may be even more dangerous than al-Qaeda. And he assumes that we can ignore the consequences of an expansionist theocratic regime in Iran, which is exploiting the chaos in Iraq to make its bid to dominate the Persian Gulf.

See if you can recognize Rand Paul’s approach: a politician who panders to a world-weary public for short-term political gain; who assumes that if we ignore the rest of the world, it will go away; who gives us a false alternative between military intervention and total passivity and dismisses political opponents with glib putdowns; and a politician who sticks to his ideology and his political slogans without learning from events. Guess what? We already have someone just like that in the Oval Office.

When it comes to foreign policy, Rand Paul will be running for Barack Obama’s third term. Given how Obama’s second term has turned out, that isn’t an acceptable option.

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