Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) certainly blew his cover today, or what was left of it. He has been claiming he’s a Reaganite on foreign policy, but in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal he revealed that he is far, far outside the mainstream of both parties on the establishment of an al-Qaeda state in Iraq. He doesn’t think we have a dog in that “civil war” there.
Paul says we shouldn’t do things without the support of Congress (but the president does have support on this) and the American people (whom he assumes don’t care if we face a launching pad for another 9/11). Understand that he doesn’t merely say we shouldn’t put boots on the ground; he argues that we don’t have an interest in the outcome. He manages to get through an entire op-ed without recognizing that a state dominated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would represent a bigger threat to the United States than Afghanistan did pre-9/11. Paul observes that the Iraq war was harder than anticipated but ignores the success of the surge and the peaceful, stable state in which the George W. Bush administration left Iraq. He also borrows President Obama’s false talking point that we couldn’t leave forces there. (Paul incidentally doesn’t understand or is deliberately misleading readers when he says our actions in Syria contribute to the rise of ISIS there; in fact, had we swiftly pushed out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there would have been no – zero – ISIS fighters there.)
By contrast, retired Gen. David Petraeus, who led the surge in Iraq, asserts: “If President Obama and other leaders conclude that the threat posed by ISIS is significant then I would support actions to target high value ISIS elements. If ISIS is seen as a terrorist organization with the potential to engage in terrorist acts beyond the Middle East, then that could warrant the targeting of high value targets. . . .We must realize that ISIS poses a threat not only to Iraq but to the UK and other countries as well. ISIS poses two challenges, to the stability of Iraq, and also the emerging threat it poses beyond Iraq and Syria.”
So who is right – David Petraeus or Rand Paul?
Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, who has advised presidents of both parties, says, “Fortunately, there is a very broad consensus in both parties, in Congress, and in the administration that the US has a clear and direct interest in preventing the establishment of a jihadi state in the Middle East.”
Indeed, consider the contrast between Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.):
The most acute security threat to the United States is the aggressive movement of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces out of Syria and into Iraq over the last six months. These vicious Sunni fanatics may be relatively small in number but they make up for it in sheer brutality. Although President Obama dismissed their aggression into Fallujah in January of this year as the terrorist equivalent of the junior varsity, recent events suggest they are of a much higher capability. . . .
ISIS is in fact much more than a local or even a regional threat. They are among the worst of the radical jihadists who attacked us on 9/11/01 and 9/11/12—so bad in fact that “core al Qaida” as President Obama likes to call the terrorist cells in Pakistan and Afghanistan have renounced them. Their goal is to establish a new caliphate in the Middle East and northern Africa, and they have publicly announced that when they achieve their ambitions in Syria or Iraq, their goal is to move on to Jordan. To Israel. To the United States.
Because of their actions and their stated intentions, it seems that a concise but decisive mission to degrade the lethality of ISIS would be in the national security interests of the United States.
Unlike Paul, Cruz has also been clear that under no circumstances should we partner with Iran. (“Just because Iran fears the ISIS jihadists, it does not follow that we should partner with them in this fight. The enemy of our enemy, in this instance is not our friend.”) One of these senators is acting in a Reagan mode, and one sure isn’t.
I asked Michael O’Hanlon, an early critic of the war strategy pre-surge and a respected analyst of the surge’s impact, why it was not a good idea simply to sit on the sidelines. He replied that then “we get a prolonged period of sanctuary for al-Qaeda in the region.” He explained, “So it’s not just about outcomes, but about how long the chaos and the conflict persist, as well. What’s happening now already hurts our interests badly I’d argue, and with each passing day/week/month, we are at greater risk of direct attack.”
So what is Rand Paul for? He doesn’t want to disrupt formation of an al-Qaeda state, he doesn’t want to back non-jihadi rebels in Syria, he doesn’t want to use drones to kill American jihadists in the area and he doesn’t want a National Security Agency surveillance system to detect jihadist plots. He is giving Obama and his hapless secretary of state “time for diplomacy” with Iran, as Iran races to its nuclear threshold and its economy rebounds. (About the only thing left is to buy more ambulances for the next attack.) This is isolationism and irresponsibility of the worst order.
David Adesnik, an expert on U.S. isolation, agrees in a piece thoroughly debunking Paul’s position:
Rand Paul has difficulty understanding why Al Qaeda safe havens threaten those interests. It’s hard to imagine [former Defense Secretary Casper] Weinberger or [President Ronald] Reagan being so naive. Finally, the Weinberger Doctrine insists on the use of force only as a last resort. In principle, that’s an entirely uncontroversial idea. The problem is to determine in reality when the last resort has been arrived at. When ISIL controls large swathes of territory? When it sets up a government? When Ayman al-Zawahiri arrives for a visit?
Something noticeably absent from Rand Paul’s column and interview are any constructive suggestions for how to deal with the threat we face. Of course, those who can’t understand a problem are unlikely to recommend solutions. In effect, Sen. Paul embraces a policy of denial. He’s glad to wait and watch.
In that regard, Paul’s views are closest of any GOP senator or congressman to the president, although in his defense, Obama has figured out that it would be bad to have a terrorist state smack dab in the middle of the most volatile place on the globe. Maybe Paul should run for the other party’s presidential nomination; he’s clearly to the left of Hillary Clinton on all of this. The University of California at Berkeley crowd would love it.