It is hard to square the speech of Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) at the Heritage Foundation yesterday with the global and political context in which he spoke. The speech was an erudite exposition of a foreign policy of restraint, retrenchment, and containment as described by George Kennan at the start of the Cold War. It was a warning against foreign entanglements and the threat posed to the separation of powers by the presidential practice of avoiding formal declarations of war when sending American troops overseas. It was, above all, a call to avoid backing ourselves into a corner that would make war with Iran inevitable. It was, in other words, a more artful defense of the foreign policy of the Obama administration than that administration has ever made itself.
Passing for the moment the wisdom of the foreign policy Senator Paul is proposing, we note that the shrillness of his warnings against war are bizarre at a moment when the president — with no meaningful opposition from Congress — has completely withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq, allowed his intention to withdraw almost completely (or perhaps completely) from Afghanistan to be leaked, refused to support Syrian rebels in any meaningful way, removed the U.S. from playing any significant role in the unraveling of Egypt, and indicated his intention to reduce the American military dramatically. He has allowed Iran to pass so many “red lines” in its pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability that it is hard to imagine what line he would not allow Tehran to cross. America’s foreign policy today is hardly one of militaristic, imperialistic determination to intervene. Apart from the evil “neocons” — virtually none of whom, it should be noted, have advocated attacking Iran, invading Syria or Yemen, or launching other adventures that Senator Paul seems so to fear — it is hard to understand against whom the senator is arguing.
Senator Paul’s digression into Cold War history is important and illustrative, even if ultimately mistaken. George Kennan was a brilliant theorist who was responsible for an extremely articulate (if historically erroneous) depiction of the Soviet challenge as well as a detailed description of a policy of containment. It was not, however, the policy of containment that the United States actually pursued during the Cold War. The architects of its actual strategy were Paul Nitze and the authors of one of the most insightful and important documents of modern times, NSC-68.
Nitze differed from Kennan on a number of important issues, including some of those highlighted by Senator Paul. Where Kennan accepted the prospect of limited Soviet gains with some equanimity, NSC-68 established the principle that a Soviet gain anywhere was a loss to the free world. Where Kennan argued for the virtues of a multi-polar system in which America’s allies could and should go their own ways with limited coordination with (and limited support from) the U.S., NSC-68 argued for the imperatives of keeping the free peoples of the world united in opposition to the great danger that faced them. And where Kennan argued that the limitations of America’s economic power must and would constrain America’s ability to shoulder its burdens, NSC-68 was the product of a team of economists and strategists who looked hard and realistically at what American power actually could support and why. Ronald Reagan’s approach, which Senator Paul praises, was fully consonant with the Nitze theory and much less so with Kennan’s vision.