Rand Paul: Let's face it, Republican hawks created ISIS

The word “created” is … awfully strong, which is why this is getting buzz on righty sites this morning. (That, plus the fact that the “hawks vs. Paul” 2016 primary battle is starting to sharpen up.) If you’re willing to cut him slack for the exaggeration, though, then he’s not saying anything here that he hasn’t said before. Re-read his op-ed on ISIS from August of last year, succinctly titled “How U.S. Interventionists Abetted the Rise of ISIS,” for a fuller treatment of his argument. It’s true that ISIS has seized weapons supplied by the U.S. to more moderate Syrian rebels — that’s what Paul means below when he refers to hawks arming people “indiscriminately” — but whether it’s true that “most” of those weapons were seized and whether they made a major difference on the battlefield is unclear. (My guess is that the heavy weaponry and reinforced vehicles supplied to the Iraqi army by the U.S., which Paul presumably doesn’t object to, has been more useful to ISIS after being seized than anything they got by way of Syria.) It’s also true that bombing Assad in 2013 for gassing Syrians, as Obama and various GOP hawks wanted to do, would have benefited ISIS in theory by weakening the regime in Damascus to some, probably small, degree. But opponents of bombing won that argument, and two years later Assad is in retreat anyway, with ISIS poised to overrun the Sunni parts of the country.

That’s the weirdest part of this: By and large, it’s the non-interventionist approach that’s prevailed in Syria. We didn’t bomb, we didn’t send in an invasion force, we didn’t move quickly to build a proxy army. We sent some weapons, but even Rand Paul isn’t opposed to arming ISIS’s opponents categorically. (He supports sending weapons to the Kurds despite the risk that some of their fighters will also be overrun and their weapons confiscated.) In fact, Rand also supported airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, raising the question of what, exactly, he’d do differently from Obama’s obviously failing current strategy. Now it’s hawks, usually on defense in public debate after having gotten their way on policy, who get to play what-if. If the U.S. had made a determined effort to build up a moderate force in Syria at the outbreak of war, maybe that force would have been strong enough to hold onto its weapons and maybe they, not ISIS, would have Assad on the run now. Or maybe Assad and ISIS would be locked in a war of attrition while the “moderates” consolidated gains elsewhere in the country. Remember, for a long time, Assad and ISIS had an unstated agreement that each would target “moderate” Syrian rebels in their areas of control while leaving the other largely alone. That worked to their mutual advantage: Assad knew that international powers would reconsider ousting him if the only alternative was ISIS running Syria and ISIS knew that Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who might otherwise chafe at being ruled by the “caliphate” would tolerate ISIS’s government if the only alternative were being reconquered by Assad and his Shiite marauders. I think hawks are kidding themselves that we ever could have scraped together enough “moderates” to produce a good outcome in Syria, but now they have the consolation of counterfactuals after having lost the debate and watched the winners’ strategy turn to shinola. If disengagement from Syria has produced what we’re seeing now, what would engagement in the form of a proxy army have produced?

Exit question: Remember when John McCain said that Rand had become acceptably hawkish to be the GOP’s nominee? I wonder how he feels about that now.