The Rubio vs. Paul Foreign-Policy Debate and a Call to Get Real

by David French

It seems the Republican civil war du jour (judging by the wave of media reports) is the alleged budding fight between senators Rubio and Paul over foreign policy. Here’s how the National Journal’s Tim Alberta describes the divide:

As the 2016 Republican presidential race simmers beneath the surface, contenders are beginning to carve out policy identities that can be sold to voters and campaign donors. Nowhere will this positioning be more unpredictable than on the subject of foreign policy. After eight years out of power – following seven years of Republican adventurism abroad – the GOP in 2016 will have something of a blank slate on which to craft a modern approach to international relations. Paul, whose isolationist streak appeals to a war-weary slice of the GOP electorate, stands in one corner of the party’s foreign policy fight heading into the presidential election. The other corner, one that appeals to traditional defense hawks and interventionists, is presently unoccupied.

Enter Rubio. The Floridian claims to reject the “obsolete” labels of hawk and dove, interventionist and noninterventionist. But the common theme of Rubio’s months-long, transcontinental foreign policy proselytization tour is articulating a strong America that is active and engaged in every part of the world.

Speaking for a not-insignificant number of veterans of the last dozen years of war, may I raise a point of order? Before we go too far down the road of discussing whether and how interventionist we shall be, can we at least discuss how much we failed in the execution phase of the last round of interventions? A philosophy of muscular engagement fails when the execution of that engagement is — how shall I put this charitably? — lacking. We spent literally years losing ground in Iraq until the Surge. In Afghanistan, for all of our exertions, we’ve been unwilling (militarily or diplomatically) to deny the Taliban a safe haven, we’ve given our soldiers an impossible task (yank a culture out of the stone age), and then saddled them with utterly absurd rules of engagement.

On that last point, read Into the Fire by Dakota Meyer and Bing West and try to keep your temper in check.

Even the most muscular and bold foreign policy will fail when the tip of the spear is blunted by poor strategy, poor tactics, and a huge pile of politically correct nonsense about the cultures we’re engaging. I’ll never forget reading diligently the piles of briefings, handbooks, and other materials about Iraqi culture so lovingly prepared by the State Department and other bureaucracies only to laugh out loud at the dichotomy between the ancient and respectable culture they described and the reality we experienced day by day in Diyala. 

But this experience does not mandate a non-interventionist policy, especially when that policy may rest on utterly fantastical presumptions about the nature of our enemies and the roots of their rage against our nation and our allies. We can pull back to a more “modest” foreign policy, but we should understand the real-world costs and the potential for our own increased vulnerability. Power vacuums will be filled, and we cannot necessarily foresee who will fill those vacuums and whether we will ultimately find ourselves at greater risk. We must see the world as it is and not as we want it to be.

We’ve educated ourselves into politically correct ignorance. We’ve bureaucratized ourselves into ineffectiveness. A foreign policy debate is meaningless — a mere chasing after the wind — if we refuse to understand the world as it is or are incapable of effectively formulating and then executing a coherent strategy.

Non-interventionism that rests on false presumptions about our enemies is dangerous, utopian dreaming.

Interventionism that is steeped in incompetence and its own politically correct presumptions means quagmires, lost prestige, and failure.

Yes, let’s debate philosophies. But let’s also discuss the hard lessons of failed execution. Until we do both, the debate is boring — and potentially destructive.