A foreign policy speech, billed as a major address to analyze the major issues of the day, barely mentions the word “Iran.”* Sure, we should destroy the Islamic State but: “Although I support the call for defeating and destroying ISIS, I doubt that a decisive victory is possible in the short term, even with the participation of the Kurds, the Iraqi government, and other moderate Arab states. In the end, only the people of the region can destroy ISIS. In the end, the long war will end only when civilized Islam steps up to defeat this barbaric aberration.” But what if in the meantime the Islamic State acts as a launching pad for attacks on the United States or a magnet for hundreds of American and European jihadists planning on returning home to kill innocents? What if it kills every nonbeliever in its midst? Whatever.
The words of President Obama? Secretary of State John Kerry? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)? Nope. It is the latest effort by Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, to convince us he is something that he is not. He can call his ideology “common-sense conservative realism” or whatever else he pleases. But a pol who aspires eventually to end all foreign aid (even to Israel) and would leave the United States’ vital national interest in destroying the Islamic State to others rather than commit the required force is simply a garden-variety isolationist.
We are in a world of lone-wolf terrorists, foreign jihadists and terrorist groups too numerous to remember. It is not the time to unilaterally destroy our anti-terror architecture or mislead the American people that the National Security Agency is listening in on their calls. (Data mining is not the same as listening in on the content of calls, senator.) It is not the time to decide that an American jihadist in Syria or Yemen cannot be droned because he isn’t right on the cusp of a terrorist act. These are not even close calls, and yet in every instance Paul’s instincts lead him to the wrong result, the result that increases the risk to Americans.
Unfortunately, we already have had one freshman senator with zero military or foreign policy experience (but a deep-seated preference for inaction) talk himself into the White House. We have learned the hard way that campaign rhetoric is useless in discerning politicians’ true foreign policy inclinations. The best guides are their votes, the statements made before they decided what they were saying was scaring people, their intellectual influences and their basic beliefs about the role of the United States in the world and how (or even if) it should wield influence.
National security will and should be our most pressing issue. It is the first obligation of the federal government. It cannot be achieved by inaction, nor can a president, as Obama did on Syria, declare something to be a national security threat and then punt to others. It cannot be sublimated to hostility toward our own government. Eight years of passivity, neglect of our armed forces and naive reliance on engagement of foes will leave us and the West in 2016 in a position more dangerous than when Jimmy Carter (who finally woke up when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan) left office. If nothing else, we should find — Republican or Democrat — the best potential commander in chief among the available candidates to reverse, not echo or double down on, the Obama foreign policy.
*CORRECTION: This post originally said Paul’s speech “does not contain the word ‘Iran.’” It does in fact contain one brief paragraph about Iran. The post has been corrected.