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The Mostly Mainstream Foreign Policy of Rand Paul: Washington Can Sleep Easy

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Senator Rand Paul by Rand Paul

Introduction  

One thing you can say about Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is that he's a crafty politician. His thirteen-hour filibuster to protest President Obama's nomination of National Security Advisor John Brennan as CIA chief caused a stir across the political spectrum. Paul's action was the high point of the brief debate about Obama's reliance on drones that Brennan's nomination sparked. Paul was flabbergasted and angry that he could not get Brennan, Attorney General Eric Holder, or any other administration official to answer his question as to whether the President believed he had the power to kill by drone on American soil an American accused of being a terrorist bent on imminent harm. Several senators on both sides of the aisle used the occasion to pressure the President to release the legal rationales underlying the drone program (an associated, unclassified memo leaked to the public), which he finally did after much foot dragging, and attempts to release but some of the documents.

A sad spectacle in opaqueness it was. Sad was the need for the United States Senate to hold a top-level appointment hostage in order to receive documents that were its due. Sad is the administration's continued power to play, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, "accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner . . . powers . . . exercised in the dark." Sad is Congress's failure to substantially challenge the drone program following release of the memos (there are a few bills floating around to limit executive drone power, and to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, legislation that will, sadly, go nowhere).

One thing you cannot say about Paul is that he has a foreign policy that differs much from that of the Republican and Democratic mainstreams, despite the clamor from the neo-conservative wing of the Republican Party.  

Lindsey Graham and John McCain worked themselves into twinned frenzies at Paul's chutzpah over drone targets. These guys, and their echo chamber in the media, dearly love Hellfire-armed Predators, even when directed by Obama. McCain went so far as to refer to Paul, and his Tea Party compatriot Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas, who joined the filibuster after encouragement from party chair Reince Priebus, as "wacko birds." Paul poses a mostly personal (not policy) challenge to the Republican dinosaurs. It's telling that McCain's epithet came not following Paul's disavowal of the Civil Rights Act, but when he appeared to break with the reigning Washington foreign policy consensus over drones.

How big a threat does Paul pose to Washington's foreign-policy-as-usual? Not much of one (though this hasn't stopped consensus defenders from arguing the contrary). Take a look at his official website, his voting record, and his February 6, 2013, speech to the Heritage Foundation. There's also the unofficial transcript of his filibuster, available (in one hour blocks) on his website. As Paul votes with his party 68% of the time (with the occasional surprise, as when he voted to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense--one of only four Republicans to do so) and his filibuster zeroed in on Obama's galling civil liberties record and the potential for domestic drone strikes against Americans (but not on the use of drones elsewhere, even against Americans; an analysis of the filibuster is available here), I'll focus on his website, and his one big foreign policy speech.

The Website

Paul devotes but a single outdated page of his site to "foreign policy and national defense." Would Paul send your daughter into combat? You betcha: "If the military action is justified and there is no other recourse, I will cast my vote with a heavy heart." He believes war requires Congress to declare it; and that "we fight to win" (which is code for the application of massive, unrestrained levels of violence). He like nearly all of the rest of his colleagues contends that the US ought not to fight under the UN banner. He includes a nuanced reference to Obama's participation in the campaign to remove Col. Gaddafi, critical only of the President's "understanding of constitutional checks and balances."

Paul acknowledges that the president is commander-in-chief, albeit "not a king." He is critical of the failure of the country to pay for its recent wars (as is this analyst): "it would be interesting to know how many Americans believe we should continue borrowing money from countries like China and saddling future generations with debt to pay for our current actions in Libya." He continues: "to involve our troops in further conflicts that hold no vital US interests is wrong." Paul suggests no method whereby citizens might sort vital from non-vital interests.

What's distinctive about Paul's site, but ought not to trouble the foreign policy elite, is that he quotes James Madison in support of the legislative branch's role in "the question of war," and stresses the fiscal cost of war. While the page's tone is tea stained, you will get no argument from other national legislators about these positions (their actual behavior, of course, is another matter).

The Speech

In the first paragraph of his address to the Heritage Foundation, Paul adopts the mantle of the "realist," and rejects those of "neo-conservative" and "isolationist," a self-description shared by the vast majority of his colleagues of both parties. John McCain's suggestion during the 2008 presidential campaign that the US might need to stay in Iraq for a hundred years shocked Paul, but he admits that the US "is in for a long, irregular confrontation, not with terrorism, which is simply a tactic, but with Radical Islam." The reference to terror as tactic is a sign of greater sophistication than one sees from many of his colleagues in both parties and both houses, but the focus on a religious ideology as the enemy is both eminently conventional and out of bounds for most self-described "realists."

He takes pains to say the struggle is with "a radical element of Islam," and not the whole religion (a boilerplate claim). But the radicals make up "no small minority, but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority." "Whole countries, such as Saudi Arabia, adhere to at least certain radical concepts" such as the death penalty for religious offenses. He does not call for abrogation of the US-Saudi alliance, or an end to US drone strikes in Pakistan (another place where "radical concepts" meet with approval). He agrees with his libertarian allies that "western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam," but quickly counters that short of occupation, Radical Islam will not "go quietly into that good night." To reinforce the point, he resurrects Vice President Henry Wallace, and slaps him for being naïve about the Soviet threat.

He deploys the standard descriptors when referring to Radical Islam: "relentless force," "unlimited zeal," "supported by radicalized nations like Iran." He compares unfavorably the historical knowledge and memories of Americans ("more concerned with who is winning "Dancing with the Stars'") to that of "Islam." He tries but fails to connect the historical ignorance of the American public ("over 50% still believe Iraq attacked us on 9/11") to the effectiveness of defense against "our enemies:" "Until we understand the world around us, until we understand at least a modicum of what animates our enemies, we cannot defend ourselves and we cannot contain our enemies." Using the standard Washington definitions, pervasive stupidity is not an obstacle to "defense' or "containment.'

He evokes another ghost from the early Cold War--"where are the [George] Kennans of our generation?"--to complain about how calls for foreign policy "moderation" and "restraint," simple questioning of the "bipartisan consensus," results in "immediate castigat[ion],  "rebuke," and "challenged patriotism" for the person foolish enough to do it. He cites a current case: "the most pressing question of the day, Iran developing nuclear weapons is allowed to have less debate than it receives in Israel." He names the several Israeli intelligence officials who publically broke with Netanyahu and his amen corner in the US over the imminence of an Iranian bomb and the wisdom of attacking Iran to forestall it. The upshot? "I have voted for Iranian sanctions in the hope of preventing war and allowing for diplomacy." He anticipates how this will sound, and quickly adds: " I did, however, hold up further sanctions unless Senator Reid allows a vote on my amendment that states, "Nothing in this bill is to be interpreted as a declaration of war or . . . authorization of force.' The debate over war is the most important debate that occurs in our country and should not be glossed over."

He's dubious of the value of the sanctions he voted for: "I'm persuaded that for sanctions to change Iran's behavior we must have the commitment of Iran's major trading partners, especially, China, Russia, Japan, and India." Why vote for sanctions you don't believe will work? In case the relative reasonableness on sanctions gets him slammed by Likudniks at home and abroad, he bows before the consensus: "No one, myself included, wants to see a nuclear Iran. Iran does need to know that all options are on the table." In case that sounds too close to the current policy consensus, "In a recent Senate resolution, the bipartisan consensus stated that we will never contain Iran should they get a nuclear weapon. In the debate, I made the point that while I think it unwise to declare that we will contain a nuclear Iran, I think it equally unwise to say we will never contain a nuclear Iran.  War should never be our only option."  

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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Not on foreign policy. Paul's policy is mostly mid... by Steve Breyman on Monday, Mar 25, 2013 at 7:59:10 PM