Robert Kagan: Rand Paul’s conventional dissent on foreign policy

February 7, 2013

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a monthly columnist for The Post, is most recently the author of “The World America Made.”

People who care about U.S. foreign policy should be grateful for Rand Paul. From his new perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and in what may be a sign of a future run for the White House, he wants to spark a national discussion about the United States’ role in the world and to challenge what he regards as a broad bipartisan consensus that has gone unchallenged for too long.

That’s all to the good. The upholders of the consensus are too comfortable with their assumptions; indeed, it is not always clear they know what their assumptions are. Americans need to think about what we are doing and why — not just why we are in Afghanistan but also why we are anywhere. What are we trying to do in the world? Paul (R-Ky.) is the spokesman for Americans unhappy with the depth and breadth of U.S. international involvement. It is useful to know what troubles those voters about current policies and what they would propose instead.

Yet if Paul’s speech Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation is any indication, they don’t quite know. Despite presenting himself as a brave dissenter from the reigning orthodoxy, Paul and his attempt at an alternative sound remarkably conventional.

With Polonius-like wisdom, he calls for a strategy that “balances but does not appease,” that is “robust but also restrained.” He does not want America to be “everywhere all the time” or “nowhere any of the time” but thinks that “maybe, we could be somewhere, some of the time.”

He acknowledges that “there are times, such as existed in Afghanistan with the bin Laden terrorist camps, that do require intervention.” But he doesn’t want to put “boots on the ground and weapons in the hands of freedom fighters everywhere.”

Fair enough, but since U.S. foreign policy occurs precisely in the wide space between doing nothing anywhere and doing everything everywhere, these recommendations are not very helpful. How do we determine where and when to act, and in response to what dangers?

Here, too, Paul sounds conventional. He calls himself a “realist,” but unlike many realists, he sees the overriding threat to America as “radical Islam,” which he describes as a “relentless force” of “unlimited zeal,” “supported by radicalized nations such as Iran” and with which the United States is indeed at “war” and will be for a long time. Unlike critics during the Cold War, who argued that anti-communist “paranoia” produced a self-destructive foreign policy, Paul embraces the dominant “paranoia” of the post-9/11 era. He may have a realist’s contempt for the supposed ignorance of the average American, who, he claims, is “more concerned with who is winning ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ ” But he nevertheless shares the average American’s view that radical Islam is today what Soviet Communism was during the Cold War — “an ideology with worldwide reach” that must, like communism, be met by “counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points.”

Paul believes he is making a big point when he argues that “counterforce” does not “necessarily” mean “large-scale land wars with hundreds of thousands of troops,” nor does it “always mean military action at all.” He is opposed to “limitless land wars in multiple theaters” and prefers that “we would target our enemy; strike with lethal force.” Yet in saying this, he is describing U.S. foreign policy as it has been conducted: Sometimes, though rarely, the United States has dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops; far more frequently, it has not responded militarily at all. When it has, it has tried to target the enemy and strike with lethal force. The one novel suggestion Paul makes is that “when we must intervene with force, we should attempt to intervene in cooperation with the host government.”

Even on Iran, where Paul claims to feel that all dissent is muzzled, he is not much of a dissenter. He insists that containing Iran should not be “preemptively” ruled out, but he does not argue that containment is the right policy, even though many realists do. Instead, he repeats the mantra that “all options are on the table.”

A true dissenter would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table.

Of course, we are all supposed to know what Paul wants. He wants less — less American involvement around the world, “less soldiers stationed overseas and less bases,” less defense spending, less foreign aid and, above all, less war. He wants a foreign policy that is more restrained, more “reluctant,” more balanced.

The problem is, his speech did not offer a worldview or strategy that necessarily gets us there. What overseas commitments ought to be jettisoned? What dangers must we tolerate? If he wants to pull U.S. forces out of Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy and Turkey, he should say so. Let’s have that debate. But if even Paul is unwilling to rule out military action against Iran, how can we safely equip ourselves with less than might be required to carry out such a mission?

Paul insists that his foreign policy is nothing more than a continuation of the policies of Ronald Reagan. That is a problem, too. Reagan ordered the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history, deployed a new generation of nuclear missiles in Europe, tried to build his “Star Wars” missile-defense program and refused to trade it for an agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. He toppled dictatorships in the Philippines, Haiti, South Korea and Chile; provided hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to rebels (including radical Islamists) seeking to overthrow regimes in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Cambodia; founded the National Endowment for Democracy; and increased foreign assistance spending to the highest levels since the Truman administration. He invaded Grenada, sent troops to Lebanon and bombed Libya. Yet Paul describes Reagan’s foreign policies as the model of the “restraint” he favors.

So what are we to make of all this? Is this the extent of Paul’s dissent from the dominant view he claims to want to challenge? Perhaps we will learn more as this discussion unfolds. Perhaps some of Paul’s Senate colleagues will take up his challenge, draw him out, lay out their own approaches and engage in the public debate that he has begun. For the senator is surely right: This is the debate we need to have.

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