Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) complains that he is misunderstood on the most important national security issue of our time, Iran. Unfortunately, with every utterance on foreign policy he confirms how bizarrely unfamiliar he is with recent history and foreign policy basics. What he calls “nuance” and “strategic ambiguity” amount to abject incoherence: We should not tell Iran or anyone else whether or not we would accept a nuclear Iran. Huh? We don’t draw a red line, he says, but we tell them we’d use force if need be (I suppose, if we decide it really is a red line). This makes Secretary of State John Kerry seem like a paragon of clarity.
Strategic ambiguity means we don’t reveal our strategy, not that we don’t reveal our position on a given issue, especially one as critical as this. I suppose we should rewrite the NATO charter as well to say an attack on a member state is maybe an attack on all and maybe not. (Seriously, Rand Paul in 2009 was dead set against letting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, and we know how that was seen in Moscow.)
There is a reason no politician of either party has a “don’t tell Iran what we will accept” approach to Iran. By refusing to say what we won’t accept, we would give Iran encouragement to proceed and would unnerve allies for whom a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. (Extended to other situations, we also shouldn’t tell Vladimir Putin if it is acceptable to invade his neighbors or China if it is acceptable to extend claims in the South China Sea.) Foes and friends shouldn’t have to guess at our bottom line. The senator likes to cite Ronald Reagan, but here he is forced to generically claim that the Gipper would agree with this “maybe we will/maybe we won’t” business. He resorts to vaguely claiming that Reagan didn’t always say what he would do; this must come from the same history textbook that suggests U.S. economic action against Japan in the 1930s “made things worse.” Reagan was rarely unclear about his objectives. As for the Strategic Defense Initiative, Paul is wrong; Reagan before, during and after negotiations insisted that we wouldn’t give up the right to research, develop and deploy such a system.
As for other nuclear powers, Paul doesn’t acknowledge the difference between a nuclear-armed China and a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran, as a state sponsor of terror and proponent of wiping Israel off the map, cannot be permitted, ever, under any circumstances to get nuclear weapons. Three presidents and hundreds of lawmakers over time have reiterated this, and to now say, well, maybe we could live with it and maybe not, would be a recipe for international havoc. For one thing, our Non-Proliferation Treaty would be out the window and every Sunni state would be sending in their order to Pakistan for a nuclear bomb. Imagine now how this would go in a debate:
Paul: We shouldn’t draw a red line on a nuclear-armed Iran. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.): This is the policy of spinelessness, of refusing to declare our intentions and check aggressors. The essence of deterrence is that we announce with perfect clarity what we will not tolerate.
Paul: Well, we’d prefer they not go nuclear.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie: You’re kidding, right? Ya know, when a bully comes on the playground, you don’t say we’d prefer you not beat up the other kids. We say — pow — we are going to smack you if you try it.
Rick Santorum: I had this argument with your father four years ago. I’m having another out-of-body experience.
Paul: You guys don’t understand what —
Christie: And if we don’t, how do you think our allies will?
John Bolton: I’m the only guy here who worked for Reagan. And let me tell ya, he would think this is bunk. Pure bunk. You tell anyone and everyone what our position is. That is what Israel does. You don’t have to say how you’re going to enforce it, but sometimes you even need to do that. But good golly, strategic ambiguity doesn’t mean “Guess my position!”
The campaign hasn’t begun and Paul is already unnerved that people don’t appreciate his “nuance.” President Obama likes to talk about “nuance” also, but Republicans, unlike libertarians and left-wing isolationists, generally like clarity and expect muscularity from their standard-bearers. As for Iran, the overwhelming number of Republicans in poll after poll say they expect the United States to be foursquare against allowing Iran to go nuclear and to be crystal clear we will use force if need be. Rand Paul may find reaction to his brand of ambiguity harshly negative, frustratingly unnuanced.