Rand Paul has finally found his war. “If I were president,” he said, “I would call a joint session of Congress. I would lay out the reasoning of why ISIS is a threat to our national security and seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.” In case it wasn’t clear enough, Senator Paul said the same thing twice more, in an interview with Sean Hannity and an op-ed in Time.
Senator Paul says that no one should be surprised by his position. If others listened to his words rather than branding him as an isolationist, they would know that Senator Paul does “support intervention when our vital interests are threatened.” Yet for all his clarity on the question of whether to fight the Islamic State, his justification for going to war remains thoroughly opaque. Why, in a matter of hours, did Senator Paul go from questioning whether the Islamic State is a threat to insisting that war is imperative?
This is hardly the first time that Senator Paul’s position on key national-security issues has rapidly evolved. If his rivals can’t call him an isolationist anymore, they will call him an opportunist. “He is starting to put John Kerry to shame when it comes to flip flops,” said a Republican operative who supports one of Senator Paul’s rivals for the 2016 nomination.
A hawkish position on the Islamic State also undercuts one of the main arguments for why Senator Paul is the Republican most capable of taking back the White House. “I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most,” Paul explained, “is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, ‘You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war.’”
Yet Paul is now the self-appointed champion of precisely that war. Perhaps, like others accused of inconsistency, Paul will invoke John Maynard Keynes’s apocryphal observation, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The challenge for Paul will be to demonstrate that his new opinions are the result of new facts, rather than a change in the temperature of public opinion.
Anti-Interventionists and the Weinberger Doctrine
Three months ago, Rand Paul advised, “America shouldn’t choose sides in Iraq’s civil war.” Clearly, that piece of advice is now a dead letter. More important, Paul elaborated a very specific set of criteria for when he would support an intervention. In particular, Paul cited the doctrine elaborated by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984. With Vietnam in mind, Weinberger insisted, “When we commit our troops to combat we must do so with the sole object of winning.” To ensure support for a fight to the finish, the proposed use of force must have “the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress.” Similarly, there must be “clearly defined political and military objectives” that are “vital to our survival as a free nation” and our national-security interests.
Although elaborated by a hawkish secretary of defense, the Weinberger Doctrine has become a touchstone for anti-interventionists from across the political spectrum because it seems to set an extremely high bar for the use of force. Yet every president since Reagan has launched a war that was limited, controversial, or peripheral to the country’s hard security interests. Although Weinberger insisted that the 1983 invasion of Grenada conformed to all of his principles, that was mostly wishful thinking.
Long before the rise of the Islamic State, Senator Paul invoked the Weinberger Doctrine and identified Weinberger himself as a source of inspiration in foreign policy. In short, the doctrine has formed an integral part of the senator’s thinking. To slay the accusation that he is an opportunist, he must explain how developments in Syria and Iraq have led him to the conclusion that a war against ISIS is consistent with Weinberger’s principles.
The Weinberger Doctrine and the War on the Islamic State
Even Paul himself does not appear to have the unflinching commitment to victory that Caspar Weinberger thought to be essential. The first time Senator Paul answered questions about his call for war, he specifically objected to any strategy that entailed putting U.S. combat forces on the ground. On this point, Paul is consistent. In June, Texas governor Rick Perry said Paul was an isolationist because he wanted to ignore the threat from the Islamic State. The Kentuckian shot back, “I ask Governor Perry: How many Americans should send their sons or daughters to die for a foreign country — a nation the Iraqis won’t defend for themselves?” Senator Paul’s assessment of Iraqi forces suggests that airstrikes and intelligence support will not be enough to destroy the Islamic State. Thus, he seems to rule out the very actions required to win.
Nor has Senator Paul offered a clear rationale for why victory over the Islamic State is a vital national interest. His sharpest critic on this point has been the libertarian editor Jacob Sullum, who quickly blasted Paul for justifying a war on the Islamic State by saying, “We’re not gonna let our enemies behead our journalists. We’re not gonna let them become strong enough to attack our embassy.” Covering foreign wars is an inherently dangerous activity. If an embassy is threatened, it can be fortified while drawing down the number of personnel on site. Sullum’s fury rose only over Paul’s offering a humanitarian justification for the war on the Islamic State: The senator said he was “also persuaded by the plight of massacred Christians and Muslim minorities.” For Sullum, there is simply no way to reconcile this concern with Paul’s aggressive criticism of President Obama for intervening in Libya on humanitarian grounds.
With regard to the necessity for clearly defined objectives, Paul has little to offer. Destroying the Islamic State is unlikely to be any simpler than destroying al-Qaeda. The war against al-Qaeda began with boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Those forces were never sufficient to finish the job, only to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country. Since 2009, the escalation of drone strikes has done considerable damage to the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, yet the extremist cancer had already begun to spread across the Middle East, spawning offshoots such as the Islamic State. To destroy a terrorist organization, military operations must leave behind a viable political system, not a vacuum of power. Yet Rand Paul has been the most vociferous critic of such social-engineering projects. Shortly before announcing his support for war, Senator Paul condemned the delusion “that we can basically build nations overseas, that we can construct a whole nation out of nothing. It just hasn’t worked.” The question remains, what will replace the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq after the offensive Paul wants to authorize?
Finally, there is the question of popular and congressional support for the war. This is the strongest point in Paul’s favor. If even the toughest anti-interventionist in the Senate can get behind a war, a bipartisan consensus is probable. The newest polling data shows that the American public wants a tougher foreign policy. The more important question is whether Congress and its constituents would continue to support victory at all costs if the war lasted for years and required substantial ground forces. In August, polling data showed a strong majority in favor of air strikes, matched by an equally strong majority concerned about excessive involvement in Iraq. In his recent dust-up with Rick Perry, Paul cited a poll showing that 69 percent of Americans opposed sending combat troops to Iraq. Given Senator Paul’s opposition to putting boots on the ground, one may infer that he does not expect public support to be forthcoming, nor will he work to build it.
Few voters will change their minds about Rand Paul because of his departures from the Weinberger Doctrine. Some may be sensitive to the accusation that he is a flip-flopper. Yet John Kerry came within a hair’s breadth of ousting an incumbent president despite his reputation for inconsistency. Leaving aside its intellectual awkwardness, Rand Paul’s new approach to the Islamic State may have put him on the right side of a pivotal issue. Once his current rationale for war disintegrates, Paul may employ the simple and persuasive argument that the Islamic State must be destroyed because it will launch or facilitate mass-casualty attacks on the United States if it isn’t stopped now. If air strikes and intelligence support are moderately effective, the question of whether to deploy combat troops may not arise until after November 2016. With the Republican nomination in hand, Senator Paul may discover that he has the same position on the Islamic State as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Yet that won’t matter because he can blame them for the rise of the Islamic State in the first place.
Of course, the politics of foreign policy may give rise to an entirely different scenario. Republican primary voters may remember that, for years, Senator Paul favored a hands-off approach to the Middle East just as President Obama did. If Ted Cruz throws his hat in the ring, primary voters will have the option of choosing a candidate who combines a more credible foreign policy with a similar antagonism toward big government. If the Kentuckian prevailed anyhow, he might face a well-oiled and lavishly funded Democratic machine that will blast him as an isolationist and a flip-flopper while the Islamic State rampage continues in the Middle East. The DNC has already claimed that the Paul Doctrine amounts to “Blame America. Retreat from the world.”
When there is no incumbent running for reelection, presidential contests become notoriously unpredictable. In the summer of 2007, experts anticipated a titanic Hillary vs. Giuliani showdown. It’s entirely possible that the threat from the Islamic State won’t be a focus of debate in 2016. But if it is, Rand Paul’s unexplained conversion to the war-hawk faction may compromise the campaign for which he has already begun to lay the groundwork.
— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.