- - Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Wall Street Journal last week published a piece exploring what the reporter described as Sen. Rand Paul’s evolving foreign-policy views. The website headline: “Rand Paul Adjusts Foreign Policy Stance: Kentucky Senator’s Position Brings Him More in Line with GOP Mainstream.” The reporter, Beth Reinhard, seeks to enumerate perceived shifts in Mr. Paul’s views on such matters as defense spending and the use of airstrikes in the enflamed Middle East. No doubt some of these perceived shifts are real, particularly on defense spending.

Ultimately the article misfires because Ms. Reinhard fails to see the fundamental distinctions that are driving the Paul foreign-policy outlook. She isn’t alone. Much of today’s political discourse on the subject similarly fails to note these distinctions. It boils down to this question: In the post-Sept. 11, 2001 era, who are America’s true enemies?

Ms. Reinhard notes that Mr. Paul’s current stance favoring U.S. airstrikes against the so-called ISIS movement in Syria and Iraq represents the first military action he has supported since winning election. She quotes a former George W. Bush administration official named Brian Hook as saying that Mr. Paul is “trying to reconcile his past statements with the current crisis, and it’s not working.” Mr. Hook describes Mr. Paul’s foreign-policy thinking as ad hoc and inconsistent — a “day-to-day” approach that has him “playing catch-up.”

Ms. Reinhard also quotes Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, as taking a thinly veiled swipe at Mr. Paul, suggesting his current advocacy for firm action against ISIS is motivated largely by poll numbers.

This is all good reporting that reflects the ferment within the Republican Party on matters of foreign policy. What’s missing is an exploration of how Mr. Paul has sought to explain his foreign-policy views in the past and whether his recent advocacy conflicts with that formulation or is consistent with it.

In his famous speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation in early 2013, Mr. Paul carefully articulated an outlook designed to guide America along a middle path between the boundless national ambition of neoconservatives and the isolationism of his father. He pointedly described himself as a “realist,” which isn’t a label that many Republicans have embraced in recent years. This has particular significance in the matter of U.S. policy toward Islamist radicalism of the kind that drove al Qaeda to kill Americans on American soil and is now driving the ISIS effort to establish a territorial caliphate in the Middle East.

In his Heritage Foundation speech, Mr. Paul accepted the conventional view that the West was not in a conflict with Islam itself, but rather with radical elements within Islam. He added: “The problem is that this element is no small minority, but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority.” Whole countries, he noted, adhere to certain radical concepts of Islam, and the Muslim peoples are animated by powerful political sentiments born of a long history of frustration and passion. “Radical Islam,” he declared, “is no fleeting fad, but a relentless force,” one that makes up for its military weakness “with unlimited zeal.”

Inherent in this description is skepticism toward the idea that this threat can be met with the kind of friendly outreach embraced by President Obama early in his first term. It also seems to reject the notion that Mideast stability can be achieved through the spread of Western-style democracy in those lands. A realist view looks at this challenge with a cold eye, recognizing the cultural realities inherent in the centuries-long tension between the West and Islam and seeking a measured approach that recognizes the true enemy, seeks to neutralize the enemy and refrains from unnecessarily enflaming the region.

In this view, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, as brutal and vulgar as he was, wasn’t the enemy. He was a secular thug of a ruler who feared and hated the threat of Islamist radicalism. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi wasn’t the enemy, as he had been neutralized as a threat by Western pressure. Syria’s Bashar Assad wasn’t the enemy and in fact became the enemy of the West’s enemy when he sought to destroy the radical Islamist forces that had carved out territory in his country and then spread into Iraq.

Mr. Paul opposed the Iraq war, the Libya bombing campaign and all suggestions that we should arm the Syrian opposition because those arms likely would fall into the hands of Islamist radicals seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad — and also seeking to establish a territorial caliphate in Syria and Iraq. He still opposes arming the opposition for the same reason.

The consistency here is that Mr. Paul always opposed military actions aimed at countries and forces in the Middle East that weren’t aligned with the true enemy, which is Islamist radicalism. Not only are such policies errant and wasteful, but they unnecessarily arouse anti-Western passions in an unstable region, thus increasing the instability. This is the story of American foreign policy since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Paul does support military actions aimed at curbing the spread and power of Islamist radicals positioned to establish a territorial base in the heart of Islam from which they can threaten the rest of the Middle East and eventually the West.

There’s nothing inconsistent or ad hoc in this policy formulation. In fact, it makes more sense than the ideas and concepts that have been driving American foreign policy — and generating ever greater Mideast instability — over the past 14 years.

Robert W. Merry, political editor of The National Interest, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy, most recently “Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians” (2012).

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide