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against war are bizarre at a moment when the president — with no meaningful opposition from Congress — has completely withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq, allowed his intention to withdraw almost completely (or perhaps completely) from Afghanistan to be leaked, refused to support Syrian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.
But this discussion is, indeed, academic when it comes to the problem as Senator Paul posed it — namely, the response to radical Islam. His conflation of the state-based violent Islamism of Iran with the stateless violent Islamism of the Sunni Salafist movements is at the root of the problem. One could have an intelligent discussion about the prospects of containing Iran, even a nuclear Iran — indeed, we at the American Enterprise Institute examined this very problem closely in our report, “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran,” released in January 2012. But containing a stateless theo-ideology is a proposition so far afield from what Kennan had in mind that it would require a detailed theoretical exploration in its own right.
The core of Kennan’s historical model, after all, was that Russia and not Communism was the problem, and the solution was containing Soviet Russia rather than responding to all of the various manifestations of Communist ideology around the world. It was, in other words, the antithesis of what Senator Paul is proposing vis-à-vis the Salafists.
The real problem with the senator’s theory is that he misunderstands the nature of the Sunni Salafist challenge. Salafism — or radical Islamism — is not simply an ideology. It is a heresy. It has emerged in various forms throughout Muslim history — and been rejected as heretical every time because it argues for the right of self-defined “virtuous” Muslims to identify as apostate and kill other Muslims deemed to be practicing their religion incorrectly. The Muslim community has consistently rejected this mangling of the words of the Koran and the meaning of the traditions of the Prophet, despite attempts by vocal and violent minorities to resurrect it periodically. The threat from al-Qaeda and affiliated movements — and from other Salafist groups — has taken, as it usually does, the form of an insurgency within the Muslim world against which almost all Sunni Muslim states are now fighting.
The United States has an interest in the outcome of that fight, since Salafist ideology calls for our conversion or destruction after the righteous Muslim community has been reestablished. And, of course, the ideology practiced by Osama bin Laden called for attacks on the U.S. as a priority part of this insurgency, since he believed that our support to “apostate” regimes was the principal obstacle on the path to righteousness within the Muslim world. The Muslim community will reject and defeat this manifestation of brutal, self-righteous heresy, as it has before. But it is a fallacy to claim either that the U.S. cannot help or that the course of this conflict does not matter to Americans. It matters a great deal because its price will be paid in blood, including American blood, whether we consciously participate or not.
Senator Paul is right that there is no obvious strategy to respond to this threat. He is equally right that it is vital to develop, articulate, and execute such a strategy. And any sound strategy must balance, as Kennan would point out, means with ends. But a true realist, as Senator Paul describes himself, eschews doctrine. Of course the U.S. should not intervene everywhere. Neither should it avoid intervention at all costs. Should the U.S. view war as only a last resort to fall back on when all else has failed? No — that, too, is a declaration of inflexible doctrine. Sound strategy requires defining the environment, the threat, the objectives, and the resources that are or could be made available — and then choosing the best combination of tools in each circumstance to achieve goals with minimal negative side effects.
But Senator Paul’s most important intellectual error lies precisely in his notion of side effects. American support to the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda. But it was America’s complete and total inaction and disinterest in Afghanistan in the 1990s that allowed that movement to establish itself there to such a degree that it could plan and conduct the 9/11 attacks. Inactivity, too, has side effects, and those must be weighed as seriously as the side effects of proposed actions.
— Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.