After listening to Rand Paul speak at National Review’s Washington office, Bob Costa concludes that the senator is leading one side of what is “nothing less than a fight for the soul of the GOP on foreign policy.” Let’s hope so.
Whether what emerges is also a conservative foreign policy depends as much on which Senator Paul wins as on whether he wins. If it is the Rand Paul who perceived the common hegemonic denominator between Soviet totalitarianism and Islamic-supremacist totalitarianism in a provocative speech at the Heritage Foundation last month, there is cause for optimism. Not as hope-inspiring is the Rand Paul portrayed in Bob’s NRO report. It is already clear, though, that Senator Paul’s agitations serve conservative ends more consistently than does the erratic adventurism of his opposite numbers in the GOP’s intramural brawl: John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
Bob describes these Beltway establishment figures as “the foreign-policy grandees in the Senate Republican conference,” standard-bearers of what is said to be “the Bush-Cheney approach to foreign policy.” The latter claim is not entirely fair, particularly to the Cheney component of the ledger; but that is a story for another day. For now, the point — mine, not Costa’s — is that Senators McCain and Graham are not conservatives. They are progressive-lite populists who bend with the wind, an occupational hazard of service to a fuzzy global-stability agenda rather than to vital American interests pursued within a constitutional, limited-government framework.
Paul proudly claims the conservative tag that seems to embarrass the media-manic McCain except during those dolorous primary seasons when even a maverick must appeal to the GOP base. And once Paul outmaneuvered them (and the Obama administration) in the recent dust-up over U.S. drone-missile strikes, McCain and Graham became strident in their efforts to marginalize the Kentuckian — branding Paul “ill-informed” and a “wacko bird” of the Right. But Paul is far from a “wacko” — or, for that matter, the “extremist” I once made the mistake of describing him as. I was referring to a libertarian position he took against indefinite detention for American citizens suspected of being enemy combatants. The “extremist” descriptor did not fit the man, and it exaggerated the position he’d taken, which extended discussion showed to be less detached from wartime exigencies than it initially seemed.
In the senatorial name-calling, one senses a certain desperation, a fear on the part of McCain and Graham that the ground beneath them is shifting. There’s good reason for that.
You won’t ever hear Paul echoing McCain’s assertion that the way to get foreign policy “back on track” would be to put John Kerry and Joe Biden in charge of it. You won’t find Paul, like McCain and Graham, toasting Qaddafi one minute, then in the next calling for his head; or condemning the Muslim Brotherhood’s sharia totalitarianism one minute, then in the next calling for Americans to work with and subsidize the Brothers. You won’t find Paul, in vertiginous McCain fashion, blathering about democracy-promotion and global stability while championing the secession from Serbia of a Muslim state — Kosovo, which now stands as a breakaway inspiration to Islamic-supremacist insurgents the world over. You won’t find Paul lamenting, à la Graham, that “free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war”; to the contrary, Paul appears to grasp that if you are prepared to subordinate the First Amendment to a desire not to pull the hair-trigger savagery of your enemies, then you have already lost the war.
In this sense, Dr. Paul perfectly diagnoses the GOP’s sorry condition after years on the McCain/Graham regimen: “When you saw the debate between President Obama and Romney on foreign policy, they sounded pretty similar. In the vice-presidential debate, Biden was more assertive, but Ryan didn’t disagree with most of his positions.”
Bingo: It has been a while since Republicans were led by a Reagan — by someone who looks totalitarianism in the eye and calls it what it is. You don’t hear today’s GOP saying of the Muslim Brotherhood and its sharia-supremacist allies, “We win, they lose.” Today’s GOP is more likely to tell the Muslim Brotherhood, “We’re here to partner with you.” Today’s GOP looks at ideologues who promise to conquer the West and sees not an “evil empire” but a “Religion of Peace.” Yes, it was Obama who opted to arm and fund the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt — where a new sharia constitution has been imposed, women are thus reduced to a lower caste, and minority Christians are systematically persecuted. But it was Republicans who voted decisively to approve these measures.
To his great credit, Senator Paul tried to stop our government’s transfer of F-16 aircraft and Abrams tanks to Egypt. He certainly has that half of the equation right. At Heritage, he observed that while “the war is not with Islam but with a radical element of Islam — the problem is that this element is no small minority but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority.” I’d say “minority” is hopeful — at least in the Middle East, where, as Paul further noted, the enemy ideology grips “whole countries, such as Saudi Arabia.” Islamic-supremacism — what he called “radical Islam” — is, as he described, “no fleeting fad but a relentless force.” To empower Islamic supremacists is a grave mistake.
In his National Review interview, Senator Paul rightly faulted the 2012 GOP ticket for banking on the fallacy that victory lay in allowing no daylight between its own positions and Obama’s abominable foreign policy. But his critique then skipped the rails. The Romney/Ryan platform, he complained, “was sort of like, ‘We’ll . . . come a little bit slower out of Afghanistan. . . . ’ But Biden had a good response, ‘We’re coming home.’ And I think that’s what people want; I think that’s what people are ready for, that we’re coming home.” And why does Paul think Americans want to come home? Because of “war weariness.”
Americans are clearly not pining for our troops to come home from Europe, Japan, Korea, the Persian Gulf, or other locations where their presence assures the peace through strength on which our prosperity depends. In Afghanistan, Americans are not weary of war; they are weary — as they were in Iraq — of our government’s misconception of the war, the very thing Paul’s Heritage speech undertook to correct. They are weary of expending the lives and limbs of our best young people — and of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars in a time of existentially threatening debt — on nation-building experiments premised on the fiction that Islamic and Western cultures desire the same things.
Like Senator Paul, Americans are not anxious for war. But when it is necessary and fought for our vital interests — particularly our liberty and security — we are extremely supportive. Paul is right that war should be a limited-duration exercise. What he described at Heritage as a foreign policy that balanced our vital interests, our desires, and our strapped resources, is indeed one that, as he put it, “would target our enemy, strike with lethal force,” and exit expeditiously.
If that is truly where he is coming from, though, he ought to study what former Bush Justice Department official John Yoo actually says instead of using a Yoo caricature as a piñata — the tack he took in the NR interview, regrettably reminiscent of the way McCain and Graham have disserved Paul himself. I doubt my friend Professor Yoo would dare dabble in ophthalmology, but in trying his hand at constitutional law, Dr. Paul predictably commits malpractice. He has confused Yoo’s scholarship on the “unitary executive” with advocacy of the executive lawlessness known as the “imperial presidency.”
Yoo’s take on the meaning of the power to declare war that the Constitution vests in Congress is more narrow than mine, but, contrary to Paul’s intimation, Yoo most certainly does not “believe there is no limitation” on executive power. (Senator Paul might peruse “The Presidency Redefined,” Yoo’s essay in the March 11 edition of National Review, in which he contends, inter alia, that “conservatives would be more consistent in their quest to rein in the administrative state if they foreswore the vigorous use of executive power.”) What Yoo argues is that once war is commenced — whether by unilateral presidential response to threats against U.S. interests or by congressional authorization — the “target our enemy, strike with lethal force” approach that Paul commends is an executive responsibility. On that, both law and American history are firmly on Yoo’s side.
Any successful conservative foreign policy is going to marry the clarity about the enemy that animated Rand Paul’s Heritage speech with the clear distinction John Yoo draws between fighting war and fighting crime. And we’d better get about it because the stakes are high.
Foreign policy, inextricably intertwined with national security, must be a core concern of the political Right. It must derivatively be seen by voters as an issue on which trust is better reposed in the GOP — the major party that, in theory at least, is responsive to the Right. If this is not the case, then, as David Horowitz persuasively contends, Republicans are sure to lose elections. Ronald Reagan made the struggle against Soviet totalitarianism central to his campaigns. Mitt Romney regarded the struggle against Islamic-supremacist totalitarianism as something too politically incorrect to mention amid platitudinous five-point economic plans. There are reasons why eminently winnable elections are lost.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, which is published by Encounter Books.