3 Problems Libertarians Have with Rand Paul's Foreign Policy

Libertarians who take their ideas seriously have always judged even purported political allies by tough standards, and rightly so.


Rand Paul
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Kentucky Senator (and presumptive Republican presidential candidate for 2016) Rand Paul last week raised eyebrows, hackles, chuckles, and (he undoubtedly hoped) his esteem as a serious foreign policy thinker when he said he'd like to see (Congressionally approved) military action against ISIS. Paul made sure, via Time, that everyone knew despite his noninterventionist reputation, he absolutely wanted airstrikes, arming of Kurds, and more help for Israel to boot.

Reason's Jacob Sullum, watching Paul's swift slide from seeking a national consensus on whether ISIS is a threat before plumping for war to declaring that the group's killing of American journalists and threatening religious minorities across the ocean is a threat to U.S. security demanding a military response, saw it as "political desperation" that makes it "hard to take Paul seriously on the subject."

As Reason editor in chief Matt Welch showed in great detail, Paul's career has been riddled with good big picture talk about sensible, realistic, non-bellicose foreign policy. Paul even tried in 2012 to give noninterventionism an evangelical tinge, saying he doesn't think Jesus would kill anyone, likely not even in self-defense.

But Paul has also been cagey, non-specific, and denied that noninterventionism is an unyielding principle. Paul also has never stated authoritatively what besides an actual attack on the homeland demands a military response. He has been consistent on executive overreach and the constitutional strictures on war-making, insisting that the decision to intervene against ISIS he supports should properly be made by Congress.

Back in June, I warned libertarians with a yen for Paul that they "will doubtless get heartburn at many steps along his path striving for the GOP presidential nomination." This was perhaps his biggest gut punch yet.

Libertarian noninterventionists had reason to expect better. As recently as June, the senator was sticking his neck out in the Wall Street Journal to stress how interventionist mistakes of the past on the part of both Obama and Bush have set the grim stage for Iraq's current crisis. He also recognized that jumping back in to Iraq "would likely require another decade of U.S. presence and perhaps another 4,000 American lives—a generational commitment that few Americans would be willing to make."

Even now, Paul has not said he's ready for that decade of commitment. (Caginess about what he'd specifically do as president is, to Paul, a diplomatic virtue in and of itself. He's used that as an explanation for why he doesn't want to specify whether he thinks a potentially nuclear Iran can be contained or must be stopped at all military costs.)

Then in July, Paul took on likely presidential rival Rick Perry, speaking out about the folly of sending Americans to die for a government in Iraq not willing or able to defend itself and mocked the "let's-intervene-and-consider-the-consequences-later crowd."

Rand Paul, though, was indeed never the hardcore peacenik or vocal foe of American empire that his father Ron Paul tended to be. The senator had already said, in the public back and forth with Perry, in a Politico op-ed, that "President Obama has said he might use airstrikes in the future. I have also been open to the same option if it makes sense." Paul stressed he did not want to ignore ISIS. Still, though, in August he slammed possible Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as a "war hawk."

Jon Healy at the Los Angeles Times did some concern-trolling recently for libertarians unhappy with Paul's recent pronouncements, calling them Paul's "biggest liability" as a politician. He singled out Reason's Jacob Sullum and Robby Soave, suggesting that critiques from thinkers or voters who might be otherwise Paul's biggest supporters makes for bad politics—if a libertarian wants Rand Paul to be a more successful national politician.

But there are (at least) three good reasons why even libertarians who wish Paul well as a national politician should not hesitate to criticize him over his ISIS declarations.

1) It shows Paul hasn't internalized his own lessons about the failures of intervention. Paul has in other contexts understood that the U.S. military is a blunt and often dangerous tool, that U.S. military actions create dangerous aftereffects (like ISIS  itself), that our enemies of today are using many weapons obtained via previous U.S. arming of the region, and that flooding the Middle East with more aerial bombings and more weapons to "allies" might not be the most sensible thing to do if future peace and less trouble for the U.S. is our goal.

Flipping on that point over what seems little more than vaunting threats and some mediagenic atrocities from ISIS makes the lip service Paul has shown to reticence and prudence in warmaking seem thin. Former Paul associate Jack Hunter argued there's no necessary contradiction between recognizing that past interventions create terrible problems and believing that alas, the current terrible problems might just prudently require more intervention. But making decisions to wage war that seem largely triggered by emotionally-charged atrocity stories is no way to run a world empire.

2) It shows Paul might be more prone to bending in political winds than you would want from a national spokesperson for the libertarian tendency within the GOP. Paul faces a political world in which being a "serious" thinker is tantamount to supporting military action, despite the rather dire record of such action in the past decades. That he might not be as eager to start a war as various Republican solons and deep thinkers believe their party needs to be has constantly haunted Paul. The Democratic Party lately has also gotten into the act of slamming him for being insufficiently tough.

We have some reason to believe from the last presidential election that most voters these days couldn't care less about foreign policy as long as we are draftless and not attacked. Still, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 61 percent of Americans now support military action against ISIS and only 13 are sure they don't want such action. In general, while the voting public doesn't care that much about foreign policy, it does not sound as peaceful as libertarians would like when asked.

National media and politicians are generally able to get Americans riled up against foreign threats as long as the bad aftereffects are not yet manifest. And as an annoying op-ed by Rick Santorum at Politico showed, no amount of willingness to talk war will make Paul's political enemies stop painting him as insufficiently dedicated to crushing all who have crossed the U.S. or Israel in the Middle East or elsewhere. Politically, Paul can't convincingly out-hawk his enemies within or without his party.

Still, a political plus for Rand Paul seems to have arisen already from this controversy. As of right now, the Rand Paul line seems to also be the Obama line, with new anti-ISIS airstrikes promised from the administration. This makes Rand Paul as mainstream a foreign policy voice as he could be.

3) Contra the Times' Healy, to a movement libertarian, Rand Paul's value as a consistent exemplar of libertarian political ideas and values might be more important than his immediate political prospects. If libertarian change is your goal, this may or may not be a self-defeating attitude, but it's real. Some movement vets have argued that libertarian political victories will have to come from politicians who aren't particularly hardcore in their libertarianism. Still, after decades far in the political wilderness, being right to libertarians can be more important than being president.

Having a politician of Rand Paul's national heft so close to libertarian desires on so many dimensions is a startling place for movement libertarians to find themselves. No one strategy to deal with it will, or should, dominate. Some will criticize yet try to understand; some will argue there's nothing un-libertarian about seeing mortal threats to America and acting on them with military might; some will just write off Paul as a hopeless case.

Rand Paul is not the only libertarian-ish voice in Washington. As Dick Cheney—perhaps the greatest living symbol of failed and destructive foreign policy—returned to the scene of his crimes to rally the GOP troops yesterday, Dave Weigel at Slate reported that Republican House members Justin Amash (Mich.) and Thomas Massie (Ky.)—two legislators not running for president—are still free-wheelingly skeptical about U.S. Middle Eastern interventions past, present, or future, never mind ISIS.

Serious Ron Paul fanatics have long lists of grievances against the son, who is not as inclined toward quixotic, bold libertarian stances as the father, whether sincerely or due to political calculation. This is perhaps the most painful for those who valued Ron Paul for his peaceful foreign policy above all, or his willingness to say that U.S. foreign policy has not been an unalloyed force for good in the world.

Pace Jon Healy, libertarians who take their ideas seriously have always judged even purported political allies by tough standards, and rightly so. When Ronald Reagan—who had famously, at least for libertarians, told Reason in 1975 that the heart and soul of conservatism was libertarianism—ran for president in 1980, he was taken to task by libertarian foreign policy thinkers (in the pages of Reason) for his bellicosity. Serious movement libertarians tend to take peace very seriously as a constitutive part of the classical liberal and libertarian tradition. War, to most libertarians, is not a neutral policy tool merely to be judged on whether it might rid the world of some problem we'd like to be rid of; it is, in modern terms, essentially and inescapably mass murder of a sort perhaps even more gross and distasteful than videotaped beheadings.