Quotes of the day

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul might be onto something…

As troubles mount overseas, the Republicans’ once-steadfast support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has crumbled since President Barack Obama was sworn in for a second term, according to the results of a June Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll and a related Journal/NBC/Annenberg Survey…

These deteriorating numbers for both wars coincide with a growing belief in the country as a whole that the U.S. should shrink from the world stage, as Iraq erupts in sectarian violence, tensions simmer in Ukraine and a civil war grinds on in Syria. For years, the wars were in Iraq and Afghanistan were a polarizing issue, “but now there’s a surprisingly level of agreement,” said Micah Roberts, a Republican who helps conduct the Journal poll.


The preemptive strikes suggest that many in GOP fear Paul is winning the foreign policy argument with the American people — and that that could make him a formidable candidate in 2016. After all, second-tier presidential hopefuls don’t usually get shouted down this way.

“I think the general fear on the part of a lot of leaders in the Republican Party is that there’s an isolationist temptation after two big wars, an isolationist temptation in the American electorate,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. “And I think people are genuinely concerned about it and desirous of trying to stop it before it spreads further.”…

The hawks don’t doubt that there are some Republicans who share Paul’s views. But they’re concerned that, in the heat of a presidential campaign, the coverage will make the foreign policy debate within the GOP sound more evenly divided than it really is.

“I think there is a fear that you’re going to see a million stories saying the Republican Party is divided between two views — the Rand Paul view and the other view — as if it were a 50-50 thing, rather than Paul being isolated on the fringe,” Abrams said.


Other foreign policy experts within the party seized the opportunity to suggest that the GOP needs, as a matter of both national security and electoral strategy, to move beyond the interventionism of the Iraq War era. Paul himself is fond of noting that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly told former Vice President Cheney, in an on-air interview last month, that that “history has proven that you got it wrong” on Iraq.

“He’s doing a lot to spark debate and to not just fall into step with the traditional military-industrial complex establishment,” said Elise Jordan, a former State Department speechwriter during the second Bush-Cheney term. “I don’t think that anything about Rand Paul is necessarily that different from the classical realist, which is how I would categorize Condoleezza Rice and a lot of the bright stars of Republican foreign policy over the years.”


What Paul is proposing is that he is the Republican candidate willing (and able) to handle the party’s long-delayed reckoning with the war in Iraq. That conflict, premised on the false idea that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, has never been fully litigated within the GOP. President George W. Bush spent his time in office defending this rightness of the effort, and the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was arguably even more hawkish than Bush on Iraq. In the aftermath of the 2008 loss, the voice that filled the leadership vacuum for Republicans was former Vice President Dick Cheney, who steadfastly defended the policies of the Bush Administration. Four years later, the struggles of the domestic economy pushed discussion of Iraq (or any other foreign policy issues) out of the public’s collective consciousness…

What Paul is arguing is that the war in Iraq was a mistake because his party (and many Democrats) didn’t take the time to think through all of the consequences of it beforehand. And that being the most powerful nation in the world doesn’t mean that always taking the most muscular option when it comes to dealing with other countries is the right thing to do.


“This whole thing comes down to one Nevada billionaire,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who worked on Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. “This is the Sheldon Adelson primary playing out. [Perry] is drawing a distinction between two very different visions of the party.”

Adelson, a casino magnate, helped bankroll Newt Gingrich’s and later Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, and is a fervent supporter of Israel. Hence the persistent line of attack on Paul that his lack of support for beefing up the American military would endanger the Jewish state…

“Ten years ago the right of the party was the hawkish part of the party. That has changed,” said Doug Stafford, a former Paul chief of staff who now runs a Paul super PAC. “The base, the Tea Party, conservatives see the overreach and costs, and they don’t want endless foreign interventions, and good luck running for president out of step with the right of the party.”…

“He is pulling away, so they have to start attacking him,” said Wead. “I think there is a little bit of panic setting in.”


Perry’s attack on Paul is obviously tactical. He has noticed that a lot of hawkish Republicans are furious with Paul, so he has decided to leverage himself some media attention and political support by going on the offensive…

The debate between these two men is distracting because one senses that neither will be their party’s nominee in 2016. Perry because, whatever his accomplishments as a governor, he comes across on the national stage as shallow. Paul because he is too philosophical and can be too easily labeled a maverick libertarian…

All of which suggests that the Republicans are in danger of forgetting who their real enemy is: the Democratic Party. Fascinating though these intellectual back-and-forths are, they contribute to the impression that the Republicans are cracking up as they obsessively strive for an official conservative ideological purity that they will never actually discover — because it doesn’t exist.

Conservatism is traditionally about a spirit or an approach to governing, not a list of commandments that must be defined every four years in an internal party spat that has all the ferocity and counting of angels on a pinhead of a religious war.


Perry is right that in other ways, Paul is hardly Reagan’s foreign-policy clone. Paul, for instance, zealously advocates congressional limitations on a president’s national-security powers. Reagan, by contrast, oversaw the Iran-Contra scheme, which subverted Congress’s efforts to bar aid to Nicaragua’s anti-communist rebels.

Paul likes to quote George Kennan on the importance of distinguishing between those parts of the world where America has vital interests and those where it does not. That wasn’t Reagan’s style. As Perry points out, Reagan “identified Soviet communism as an existential threat to our national security and Western values, and he confronted this threat in every theater” (my emphasis). For Reagan, confronting Soviet communism meant denouncing it rhetorically and arming anti-communist rebels and regimes, not sending U.S. troops into other countries. But he took this approach virtually everywhere. For a Kennanite like Rand Paul, it doesn’t much matter who controls Angola. For Reagan, it absolutely did. Unlike Paul, Reagan also wasn’t concerned about how much his foreign policy cost.

So what would a Reaganite strategy against “radical Islam” look like? Based on Reagan’s record, particularly in his first term, it would be expensive, indiscriminate, rhetorically aggressive, hostile to congressional oversight, and cautious about deploying U.S. troops. It would, in other words, be a mess. Reagan was lucky enough to take office after Richard Nixon had exploited the Sino-Soviet rift and stopped treating communism as a unified menace. Even so, Reagan turned nearly every third-world civil war into a showdown between East and West, dramatically escalating the brutality of these conflicts even though struggles in places like Angola and Nicaragua were ultimately irrelevant to the course of the Cold War.


Unlike Perry, I oppose sending American troops back into Iraq. After a decade of the United States training the Iraq’s military, when confronted by the enemy, the Iraqis dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and hid. Our soldiers’ hard work and sacrifice should be worth more than that. Our military is too good for that.

I ask Governor Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country—a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves? How many Texan mothers and fathers will Governor Perry ask to send their children to fight in Iraq?

I will not hold my breath for an answer. If refusing to send Americans to die for a country that refuses to defend itself makes one an “isolationist,” then perhaps it’s time we finally retire that pejorative.