Senator Rand Paul is introducing a bill to authorize the war against the Islamic State for one year, but at the same time terminate the authorization to use military force passed after the 9/11 attacks. Senator Paul has been reading 1984 again, because labeling this bill a declaration of war is akin to naming the Defense Department the Department of Peace. It doesn’t really add to the president’s authorities, which already exist under his commander-in-chief power under the Constitution and the 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use force after the 9/11 attacks and in Iraq. Its real purpose is to end U.S. involvement in the Middle East, but without being honest about it.
If not, then Senator Paul’s proposal shows his naive understanding of war, one shared by President Obama. War does not begin and end solely on our time. War also ends when the enemy agrees it ends. Does anyone seriously think that the Islamic State will be defeated in a year? If so, maybe he will be President Obama’s choice to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. Paul’s belief that the conflict with the Islamic State will end in one year shares the same flawed worldview that underlies President Obama’s decision to withdraw our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan on an artificial timeline that — as we have learned now with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq — has little to do with conditions on the ground and the state of our enemies.
Senator Paul’s deeper problem, symbolized by his proposal, is that the American people already embraced his foreign policy — six years ago, when it elected President Obama. Obama has followed the same isolationist instincts: He withdrew the U.S. from Iraq, has set a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan, put up little resistance to the rise of China and a revanchist Russia, and has overseen an incredible reduction in spending on the armed forces. The midterm elections concretely demonstrate that the American people realize that Obama’s foreign policy has been a mistake and that our national security is under worse threat now than it was six years ago.
Paul can only distinguish himself by seeking the small amount of daylight to the antiwar left of President Obama. Hence, Paul has embraced unrealistic views on the Islamic State, surveillance, and drones. But as our security declines, our allies fall under pressure, and interests abroad suffer, further downsizing of American influence and forces from the world is the worst possible step at this time that no responsible American chief executive could adopt. Paul is only ensuring that his views remain on the margins and that he will continue to complain from the Senate, rather than decide from the White House come 2016.