Senator Rand Paul focused his highly popular speech last week at CPAC on his constitutional objections to U.S. national-security policy. But he has broader plans for a more libertarian, non-aggressive foreign policy and he’s considered a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, so he laid out what President Paul would do about the Ukraine crisis in an op-ed for Time. As Jonathan Chait points out, he doesn’t seem to have thought this out very well.
President Paul would suspend its plans for this summer’s G-8 summit — which President Obama’s already done. He would urge “our European allies to leverage their considerable weight with Russia,” something President Obama has surely tried, and when their weight and ability to act here really is not very considerable at all (with the exception of Britain).
Paul “would reinstitute the missile-defense shields President Obama abandoned in 2009 in Poland and the Czech Republic, only this time, I would make sure the Europeans pay for it.” This makes no sense: Poland and the Czech Republic could never dream of affording the cost of missile defense and were politically reluctant about accepting it for free. But let’s assume in some other universe, Europe as a whole wanted to pay for the system — except that President Obama replaced what was going to be placed in Eastern Europe with other missile-defense systems, which are slightly less effective but noticeably less costly and less likely to antagonize Russia when we were trying to. (See update below.) If Paul had any desire to implement missile defense in Europe in line with his stated goals, he might well have done what the Obama administration did.
But maybe he wouldn’t, since he believes America is so broke it can’t afford to spend a dime on this situation. His most dramatic proposal conveniently saves money:
We should also suspend American loans and aid to Ukraine because currently these could have the counterproductive effect of rewarding Russia. Ukraine owes so much money to Russia that America would essentially be borrowing from China to give to Russia.
This is how Paul wants to support an incredibly fragile pro-Western government running out of foreign currency and therefore teetering on the brink of default. Ukraine desperately needs to raise more debt to make loan payments, which was the whole reason it had to pick between Russia and the West in the first place. Suggesting that the West shouldn’t loan to Ukraine now because some of that will go out the door to Russia is literally suggesting that the government default on its external debts. If that happens and the West isn’t there to help because President Paul thinks we can’t afford it, there basically won’t be a Ukrainian government left to regret choosing our side.
He does have at least one serious-sounding proposal: “Economic sanctions and visa bans should be imposed and enforced without delay.” So far, so good, except that Paul offers no more discussion of what sanctions he’s suggesting. This is the same senator who slow-walked sanctions on Iran, a bellicose country in flagrant violation of international agreements, and opposed them outright when GOP senators were suggesting more should be passed to raise the costs of our enemies’ breaking such agreements (which is the idea here with Russia and Ukraine, that Russia violated the Budapest declaration but the U.S. wasn’t legally obligated to do much about it).
Maybe Paul will support specific sanctions at some point. For now, the senator’s only other suggestion in his op-ed is to deregulate American oil and gas policies. His proposals, which Speaker John Boehner has made too, are decent ideas irrespective of Ukraine, and at the margins, should help a little by loosening global supply and cutting prices, or at least improving expectations. But we can’t just by fiat decide to back up Europe’s oil and gas supplies instantaneously — transport capacity has to be built and markets decide where product goes (unless Paul would like to commandeer American energy companies).
Paul’s enthusiasm for the oil-and-gas answer nicely illuminates the problems with a seriously libertarian foreign policy: If you believe in non-intervention, your ability to intervene in a crisis is pretty limited. Paul may not comprehend this — or he may not care and simply be trying to fake it. Either one hardly makes him look like a serious candidate for the presidency.
Of course, the U.S. doesn’t have a ton of good options in Ukraine, but Paul is talking up terrible or delusional ones. The other things he’s been saying about foreign policy lately don’t make a whole lot more sense: In his Breitbart column today, he tries to claim Ronald Reagan would be on his side of the foreign-policy battle, arguing the Gipper was more dovish than you’d think and might adopt Paul’s attitude toward the Ukraine crisis. It’s a little unclear why Paul thinks Mr. “Evil Empire” and “Tear Down This Wall Mr. Gorbachev” is the right ally to recruit while also complaining, as he did a couple weeks ago and repeated in his Time op-ed, that Republicans have to be sure not to “tweak” Russia.
But even if Paul thinks encouraging free trade and engagement sans Reagan’s loud moral condemnations would work with Putin, he doesn’t even take his own advice seriously.
His full chiding of Republican rhetoric, offered to the Washington Post on February 25, was the following: “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.” In his Breitbart column last week, he wrote this: “The Soviets (I mean Russians) may roll into Ukraine without firing a shot, for now. Surely, though, some among the renewed nationalists of Moscow must remember the Mujahedin?”
But remember, Paul has the policies to back up his tweaking: “Awaken the sleeping giant in America at your own peril,” he wrote. “Unleashed, America might just produce enough oil and gas to supply all of Europe.”
UPDATE: When writing this post, it slipped my mind that the missile-defense system the president picked to replace the Poland/Czech Republic installation was not actually completed. Its final stage was canceled to fund the placement of interceptors in Alaska that would protect the U.S. from North Korea. So there wouldn’t be absolutely no point to going through with the Central/Eastern Europe plan, but Paul’s comments on it still reflect zero understanding of the geopolitical realities. Deploying missile defense there would be a way to show strength to Russia without putting ground troops in Central/Eastern Europe, but it’s a pretty substantive “tweak” — in fact, it’d be in line with some of Reagan’s most hawkish instincts. If Paul really were first and foremost concerned protecting the homeland and avoiding unnecessary foreign entanglements at the lowest possible cost to the federal budget, again, he should love Obama’s missile-defense strategy.