By Juan Cole
When the Senate passed a resolution in September pledging never to accept an Iranian nuclear weapon, there was only one dissenting vote: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
“A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive war,” the libertarian-leaning Republican said.
On Saturday, Paul emerged as the winner of the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Although none of the straw poll winners has gone on to become president, Paul can’t be ruled out as a GOP standard-bearer in 2016.
But what would a libertarian foreign policy look like? Would it be, as Paul’s critics say, merely a retreat into isolationism?
Paul most recently made headlines with his nearly 13-hour filibuster of the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan, an architect of the Obama administration’s drone program. He wanted assurances that the administration forswore the use of drones against U.S. citizens on American soil. His longer-term strategy to rein in the drone program is to try to have the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution repealed. Paul complains that the resolution is far too expansive and has authorized U.S. involvement in “20 countries.”
Paul’s strand of libertarianism, insofar as it deeply distrusts big government, typically opposes policies that increase the size and power of government, chief among them ones pertaining to war. He insists that Congress must authorize going to war, and he opposed the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya on those grounds. Paul, however, rejects the label “isolationist,” and his vision of the challenges facing the United States has an Islamophobic tinge to it. He underscores that the problem is not with Islam as a religion or with the Muslim mainstream, but with radical, political Islam.
However, Paul does not see the latter as a tiny fringe. Rather he views what he calls Islamic radicalism as a large element in the Muslim world and among Muslims in the West, perhaps even a plurality. He lumps in conservative, pro-American Saudi Arabia with anti-American guerrilla groups such as the Taliban, and Iran’s theocratic Shiite state with the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt.
The front-burner issue that is now at the most risk of igniting hostilities is Iran and its civilian nuclear enrichment program, which Washington and Tel Aviv insist is aimed at producing a nuclear warhead. Iran’s supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has forbidden the construction, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons as incompatible with Islamic law, but his denials are discounted by Washington hawks and the Israel lobbies.
In February, Paul insisted that the option of avoiding war and simply containing a nuclear Iran, if the country did develop that capacity, should not be ruled out. He appealed to the model of how the U.S. handled the Soviet Union, a position that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel came under intense fire for from GOP senators during his confirmation hearings.
Paul sees containment as the key to fighting not just Iran but the general challenge of what he calls “radical Islam.” Although Paul positions himself as neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative, his reading of radical Islam takes a leaf from the neocon notion of it. On some occasions, he defines radicalism as support for traditional, if Draconian, laws such as the death penalty for apostasy (a law to which evangelicals with missionary ambitions in the Muslim world particularly object). At other times, he defines it as small guerrilla groups that take up arms against U.S. interests. Paul’s solution to what he sees as a challenge to the U.S. from radical Islam differs from that of the neoconservatives, lying in containment (diplomacy and strategic occasional applications of force) rather than war and occupation of the Muslim world.
Although Paul denies being an isolationist, the tenor of his positions is a profound American disengagement and withdrawal from the Middle East. He wants a quick and complete military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Paul is a deep critic of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and recently attempted to block the sale to that country of F-16s and Abrams tanks, on the grounds that President Mohamed Morsi hails from the Brotherhood and the nation is politically unstable. He characterizes Egypt as a place “that burns our flag and chants ‘death to America,’ ” which is not actually typical of that country. He has derided the elected Libyan government as helpless to organize the nation’s 100 major tribes (that largely urban Libyans are mostly “tribal” is a shocking piece of Orientalism).
Paul, of course, is entirely opposed to U.S. entanglement in the Syrian civil war, and it was one of his points of disagreement with the Romney campaign. He points to the anxieties of Syrian Christians (who make up about 10 to 14 percent of the population) about whether the fall of the secular Baath government in Damascus would place them at the mercy of Muslim radicals. He cautions, “There is ample evidence the rebels are being funded and armed by the most extreme Islamist elements and governments in the region. Is that where we want our funds and weapons to end up? We need to stop and think before we act.”
There is much in Paul’s proposed foreign policy that will appeal to progressives. The American left typically also opposes war as anything other than a very last resort, and would favor withdrawal from Afghanistan and avoidance of a Syrian quagmire. Containment of Iran as a policy is obviously preferable to bombing it. Questioning of President Obama’s rather lawless drone strikes and an aspiration to finally end the Authorization for Use of Military Force are all to the good. Still, the grounds of Paul’s foreign policy should raise alarums. His expansive notion of “radical Islam” sweeps up many movements and countries that are not playing an adversarial role against the United States and do not need to be contained. In some ways, Paul wants to replace the neoconservatives’ war on terror with a containment of terror, yet he shares many of their mistaken premises about the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Sometimes his dismissiveness toward other countries, as with his reduction of Libya to 100 tribes, is almost racist.
Despite his disavowal of isolationism, Paul’s policy prescriptions would often have that exact effect. Would it be better to give aid to revolutionary Egypt in hopes of thereby remaining in a position to influence Morsi’s directives, or to cut it off because the country’s electorate dared to vote for a Muslim fundamentalist? There is also a danger that Paul’s instinct to disengage without delay could have the opposite effect of the one he is seeking. He acknowledges that after getting abruptly out of Afghanistan, the U.S. might have to go back in with aerial bombardment if the Taliban regroup. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a President Rand Paul one day had to initiate drone strikes on Kandahar and Khost? Moreover, some of the grounds of his reluctance to engage with the Middle East also have a whiff of prejudice and Islamophobia.
Ultimately, Paul’s favored tool for U.S. foreign policy is trade and the promotion of corporate interests. In this regard, he is a throwback to the principle of 1950s Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson that what is good for the United States is good for General Motors and vice versa. Paul holds that “all of us are corporations.
“They’re us,” he said. “They’re the middle class.”
Paul wants deep tax cuts for corporations, and a reduction of services—including those of the State Department and American diplomacy—for the rest of us. Like most libertarians, Paul is naive about the power and abuses of corporations and uninterested in the welfare of ordinary people. The U.S. should not trade its overly muscular Middle East policy for one that seeks to allow American corporations to ride roughshod over the workers and middle class of the region.