What Do Libertarians Think About Rand Paul and ISIL? Let's Ask Them

Prominent libertarian writers weigh in.


Rand Paul
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Sen. Rand Paul's hawkish turn on ISIL surprised and dismayed some non-interventionists libertarians who thought the likely Republican presidential candidate's foreign policy views were closely aligned with their own. I agreed with my colleague Jacob Sullum, who wrote:

To his credit, Paul insists that any military action against ISIS must be authorized by Congress, and he continues to highlight the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention in Libya and Syria (as he did on Hannity). Furthermore, his endorsement of war against ISIS may provoke an illuminating debate among libertarians and others who tend to be skeptical of foreign intervention about what counts as a threat to national security. But given his sudden conversion and the weakness of the reasons he has offered, it is hard to take Paul seriously on the subject.

Having no idea if this reaction was common among libertarian folks, I posed the following question to a few prominent libertarian writers:

"Rand Paul recently articulated support for U.S. military intervention against ISIL. What's your reaction?"

"Does this complicate the narrative that Rand Paul is a libertarian noninterventionist? Or is Rand Paul's argument for the necessity of bombing ISIL ultimately persuasive?"

Their responses are below. Some were disappointed that Paul came to this conclusion but remained broadly supportive of him; some hesitantly agreed with Paul's stance; and some took a strongly negative view.

David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute:

"I think Rand Paul and I agree that American meddling in the Middle East, particularly the Iraq war, led to the rise of ISIL. I conclude from that that we should stop meddling. He now believes that U.S. vital interests are at stake, and we should protect them with air strikes and other measures. I am not persuaded that any good will come of that, so I'm disappointed that Paul has come to this conclusion.

Rand Paul is not an isolationist. Hardly anyone is. He may not even be a noninterventionist. He is clearly a person with libertarian inclinations and an aversion to unnecessary foreign intervention. But few noninterventionists say 'no intervention, ever, under any circumstances.' In this case I think his argument for intervention is unpersuasive, but I do believe he has sought and continues to seek to rein in U.S. military intervention. On the whole he's the best influence on American foreign policy around these days."

Jack Hunter, editor of Rare and a former advisor to Rand Paul:

"Rand Paul calls himself a realist, which means he is somewhere between the interventionist hawks he is constantly criticizing and 'isolationism,' as lazy journalists constantly label him. He supported going into Afghanistan in 2001, but he has been against every other military intervention since, carried out or proposed. Opposing the war in Iraq and new wars in Libya and Syria was enough to have critics continue to slander him as an isolationist. ISIS apparently represents a significant threat in his mind, far greater than what the hawks pretended Gaddafi and Assad were. Now some libertarians are quick to say Rand's a hawk, a neocon, or worse.

It seems to me he's proving that he is the realist he has always claimed to be. Libertarians can take issue with the senator calling for these specific interventions. They can argue over where lines should be drawn when deciding to intervene. But they cannot argue that Paul is reluctant to go to war. That doesn't mean he won't intervene when he deems it necessary. I know libertarians who wouldn't even have gone into Afghanistan after 9/11. Obviously, libertarians differ.

I put ISIS in a separate category precisely because if it were not for the U.S. invasion in 2003, we would not be dealing with this mess right now, something Rand has repeatedly emphasized. In fact, this was my Facebook status just last night: 'Rand Paul: Don't poke hornet's nest. Hawks: We must poke hornet's nest! Rand Paul: Idiots, what do we do about these hornets now? Hawks: Rand Paul supports poking hornet's nests!'

The bipartisan foreign policy consensus has been, as Rand puts it, shoot first and ask questions later for some time. Rand Paul asks far more questions than he ever shoots. But sometimes he will shoot. If that's not a realist approach to foreign policy, I don't know what is."

Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist:

So I've been more interested in encouraging us to have a proper framework on how we discuss this issue more than advocating for a particular strategy, as I wrote about here.

And so, while people keep saying Rand Paul's perspective is changing, I think it's more like the 'New shit has come to light, man!' scene from Big Lebowski. It's not a changed view so much as that when you have a given framework, you might have a different plan of action based on the changing facts on the ground. So I see a consistent philosophy responding to different threats.

I've always felt it's been a false caricature of libertarians that we could never support military strikes against terrorists or other bad guys. We by and large don't accept the progressive understanding of man where we'll someday have a utopian world without war. We're not all singing 'Imagine' while sitting in a kumbaya circle. Small government types may be much less likely to see military strikes as the answer to questions that have little to do with our security interests, but bombing a makeshift Islamist army engaged in actions—and threats—against Americans may be such a time. Paul wants the folks who believe in such military action to make the case and have Congress sign off, which makes his approach more Constitutional than anyone else who is a presidential contender today.

Is the view that ISIS/ISIL must be bombed persuasive? Here are two positions that many of us find unpersuasive: 1) That it's our job to rid the world of bad guys, even if those bad guys aren't engaged in terrorist acts against us or even if they're responding at least in part to unnecessary meddling on our part. 2) That the global situation isn't a threat if we pretend it's not. Those have basically been the two main options offered in American discussions of late. I think Americans are clear that they find these options weak-sauce and they're kind of intrigued by a view such as Paul's that we don't fight unless we have a legitimate interest in doing so and we must—but then we fight hard. This is the thing so many foreign policy professionals miss when they mischaracterize those of us who oppose our recent high level of interventionism. It doesn't mean we're putting our head in the sand or afraid to fight, it means we know what a huge sacrifice it is to do these things and do them well and that we should only do it when we must.

OK, so the growth of ISIS/ISIL may have been aided by American-led removal of previous dictators, which is an excellent reminder about the wisdom of restraining our interventionism. This has been one point Paul has made. 

But speaking as someone who strongly opposed war with Iraq (but did, of course, support bombing Afghanistan), and as someone who thinks our model of nation-building instead of enemy-defeating is a fool's errand, here's why I'm at least open to hearing about a military response to ISIS. The group wishes to create a renewed Caliphate bent on aggressive military action against important allies in the Middle East as well as the United States, according to its stated goals. If you look at the course of history, you can at least puzzle out how this type of regime poses a threat to our self-government and how dealing with it now may be preferable to dealing with it when we're weaker and they're stronger in the years to come. I would hope that as part of this discussion we would make it very clear to Qatar and Turkey that they would be unwise to support this Caliphate and that we'd make it very clear to Jordan and the Saudis that this is more their problem than ours and that they should act on it if we are to remain allies. Really those countries in the region should be taking care of the legit threat in their midst. Assuming that these guys will fail to get the job done, which is not an unreasonable assumption, we should perhaps make the case for Congressionally and Constitutionally authorized action to decisively eradicate this threat. At the very least, we should be talking about the precise nature of the threat they pose—in the short and long term—and our options for handling that threat."

Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com:

"I see Senator Paul's stealth anti-interventionism is succeeding, and I suppose that's a good sign. So what's the 'more hawkish approach' the senator is supposedly advocating? Let's go over to his recent piece in Time magazine, where he says:

'If I had been in President Obama's shoes, I would have acted more decisively and strongly against ISIS.

'Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily. They shouldn't be. I've said since I began public life that I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist. I look at the world, and consider war, realistically and constitutionally.'

Sounds pretty hawkish, eh? But look at what he's actually proposing:

1) 'I would have called Congress back into session—even during recess.' So what would that have accomplished? The same thing the mere threat of doing so did during the Syrian 'crisis'—ensured that there would be no American boots on the ground. For all the rhetorical hawkishness, the Biden-esque 'we'll follow them to the Gates of Hell!' posturing, when it comes right down to it members of Congress know perfectly well the American people aren't going to go for re-invading Iraq. So calling Congress back into session would've succeeded in limiting the president's options, reining in the temptation to go in there guns blazing, and no doubt put a time limit on current operations in progress.

2) 'The military means to achieve these goals include air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.' Taken out of context, this could be seen as a flinch on Sen. Paul's part: after all, aren't air strikes intervention? Well, yes, but then you get to the next sentence in his little essay:

3) 'Such air strikes are the best way to suppress ISIS's operational strength and allow allies such as the Kurds to regain a military advantage.' Shorter Rand Paul: let the Kurds do it. This is even less of an interventionist stance than President Obama, whom he criticized for waffling: after all, Obama is sending in troops, and more practically every day. Yet Rand is saying we don't need to directly intervene on the ground when there are already forces in the field capable of fighting and defeating ISIS.

This, however, is where things get a bit dicey. I don't think Rand Paul fully understands the implications and probably consequences of his proposal that 'We should arm and aid capable and allied Kurdish fighters whose territory includes areas now under siege by the ISIS.'

As Sen. Paul points out in his Time article, the Obama administration armed the Syrian rebels and this led directly to that country becoming 'a jihadist wonderland.' As he writes:

'In Syria, Obama's plan just one year ago—and apparently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's desire—was to aid rebels against Assad, despite the fact that many of these groups are al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated. Until we acknowledge that arming the Islamic rebels in Syria allowed ISIS a safe haven, no amount of military might will extricate us from a flawed foreign policy.'

That last sentence should put to rest the idea that Sen. Paul is bowing before the winds of war blowing from the direction of Washington.

There are 'no good options' in the region, says Paul, and in that he is exactly right. We cannot undo what we have done in Iraq and Syria: the former is splitting apart, and the latter is besieged by jihadists the U.S. has armed and unleashed. And I must say air strikes, which the senator endorses, won't stop ISIS: some kind of Sunni state will arise in that part of Iraq (and Syria). The only question is how, and by whom. This 'even Rand Paul' meme only seems to make sense—but when you look closely at what the senator is actually saying the argument that anti-interventionists are in retreat falls apart at the seams."

W. James Antle III, editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation:

"I don't want Iraq War III or involvement in a Middle Eastern civil war. My preference would be for this to remain the regional governments' war rather than ours for as long as possible—if Iran and ISIL are going to fight each other, that seems like a win-win scenario to me. It at least recalls Henry Kissinger's line about the Iran-Iraq war: can't they both lose?

But a jihadist state is a genuine national security danger in a way Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not. I could potentially get behind the basic contours of what Paul has outlined—a limited U.S. role and support for the Kurds with most of the heavy lifting done by regional governments. The kind of broad authorization of force envisioned by Frank Wolf is a nonstarter. Unfortunately, missions do tend to creep.

Ron Paul voted for the authorization of force that permitted the invasion of Afghanistan and he is correctly regarded as a libertarian non-interventionist. So in one sense, [Rand Paul's recent statements] shouldn't complicate it: non-interventionism isn't pacifism. Some military actions are necessary and just.

But in another sense, it obviously does complicate the narrative because some libertarians don't trust Rand Paul as much as Ron Paul. Those libertarians will say this is more proof that Rand is more like your average Republican than his dad. Second, Afghanistan was in response to an attack on the United States. While American journalists have been brutally murdered by ISIL, this is closer to a preventive war. I make a distinction between preventive wars, which I think are inherently bad, and preemptive wars, which I think can be justified. This is right on the line between preventive and preemptive, at least for right now."

Sheldon Richman, vice president of the Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of Future of Freedom:

"For a nanosecond I thought we might see a presidential contest between Dove Rand and Hawk Hillary. Obviously I was wrong.

Why did anyone think Rand Paul was a libertarian? During his campaign for the Senate, he said the label was 'an albatross around my neck.'"