What Would a Rand Paul Libertarian Foreign Policy Look Like?
Source Dave Anderson
Date 13/03/19/17:21
What Would a Rand Paul Libertarian Foreign Policy Look Like?
By Juan Cole

When the Senate passed a resolution in September pledging never to
accept an Iranian nuclear weapon, there was only one dissenting vote:
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

“A vote for this resolution is a vote for the concept of pre-emptive
war,” the libertarian-leaning Republican said.

On Saturday, Paul emerged as the winner of the straw poll at the
Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Although
none of the straw poll winners has gone on to become president, Paul
can’t be ruled out as a GOP standard-bearer in 2016.

But what would a libertarian foreign policy look like? Would it be, as
Paul’s critics say, merely a retreat into isolationism?

Paul most recently made headlines with his nearly 13-hour filibuster
of the confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan, an architect of the
Obama administration’s drone program. He wanted assurances that the
administration forswore the use of drones against U.S. citizens on
American soil. His longer-term strategy to rein in the drone program
is to try to have the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force
resolution repealed. Paul complains that the resolution is far too
expansive and has authorized U.S. involvement in “20 countries.”

Paul’s strand of libertarianism, insofar as it deeply distrusts big
government, typically opposes policies that increase the size and
power of government, chief among them ones pertaining to war. He
insists that Congress must authorize going to war, and he opposed the
Obama administration’s intervention in Libya on those grounds. Paul,
however, rejects the label “isolationist,” and his vision of the
challenges facing the United States has an Islamophobic tinge to it.
He underscores that the problem is not with Islam as a religion or
with the Muslim mainstream, but with radical, political Islam.

However, Paul does not see the latter as a tiny fringe. Rather he
views what he calls Islamic radicalism as a large element in the
Muslim world and among Muslims in the West, perhaps even a plurality.
He lumps in conservative, pro-American Saudi Arabia with anti-American
guerrilla groups such as the Taliban, and Iran’s theocratic Shiite
state with the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president in

The front-burner issue that is now at the most risk of igniting
hostilities is Iran and its civilian nuclear enrichment program, which
Washington and Tel Aviv insist is aimed at producing a nuclear
warhead. Iran’s supreme theocrat, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has
forbidden the construction, stockpiling or use of nuclear weapons as
incompatible with Islamic law, but his denials are discounted by
Washington hawks and the Israel lobbies.

In February, Paul insisted that the option of avoiding war and simply
containing a nuclear Iran, if the country did develop that capacity,
should not be ruled out. He appealed to the model of how the U.S.
handled the Soviet Union, a position that Secretary of Defense Chuck
Hagel came under intense fire for from GOP senators during his
confirmation hearings.

Paul sees containment as the key to fighting not just Iran but the
general challenge of what he calls “radical Islam.” Although Paul
positions himself as neither an isolationist nor a neoconservative,
his reading of radical Islam takes a leaf from the neocon notion of
it. On some occasions, he defines radicalism as support for
traditional, if Draconian, laws such as the death penalty for apostasy
(a law to which evangelicals with missionary ambitions in the Muslim
world particularly object). At other times, he defines it as small
guerrilla groups that take up arms against U.S. interests. Paul’s
solution to what he sees as a challenge to the U.S. from radical Islam
differs from that of the neoconservatives, lying in containment
(diplomacy and strategic occasional applications of force) rather than
war and occupation of the Muslim world.

Although Paul denies being an isolationist, the tenor of his positions
is a profound American disengagement and withdrawal from the Middle
East. He wants a quick and complete military withdrawal from
Afghanistan. Paul is a deep critic of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
and recently attempted to block the sale to that country of F-16s and
Abrams tanks, on the grounds that President Mohamed Morsi hails from
the Brotherhood and the nation is politically unstable. He
characterizes Egypt as a place “that burns our flag and chants ‘death
to America,’ ” which is not actually typical of that country. He has
derided the elected Libyan government as helpless to organize the
nation’s 100 major tribes (that largely urban Libyans are mostly
“tribal” is a shocking piece of Orientalism).

Paul, of course, is entirely opposed to U.S. entanglement in the
Syrian civil war, and it was one of his points of disagreement with
the Romney campaign. He points to the anxieties of Syrian Christians
(who make up about 10 to 14 percent of the population) about whether
the fall of the secular Baath government in Damascus would place them
at the mercy of Muslim radicals. He cautions, “There is ample evidence
the rebels are being funded and armed by the most extreme Islamist
elements and governments in the region. Is that where we want our
funds and weapons to end up? We need to stop and think before we act.”

There is much in Paul’s proposed foreign policy that will appeal to
progressives. The American left typically also opposes war as anything
other than a very last resort, and would favor withdrawal from
Afghanistan and avoidance of a Syrian quagmire. Containment of Iran as
a policy is obviously preferable to bombing it. Questioning of
President Obama’s rather lawless drone strikes and an aspiration to
finally end the Authorization for Use of Military Force are all to the
good. Still, the grounds of Paul’s foreign policy should raise
alarums. His expansive notion of “radical Islam” sweeps up many
movements and countries that are not playing an adversarial role
against the United States and do not need to be contained. In some
ways, Paul wants to replace the neoconservatives’ war on terror with a
containment of terror, yet he shares many of their mistaken premises
about the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. Sometimes his dismissiveness
toward other countries, as with his reduction of Libya to 100 tribes,
is almost racist.

Despite his disavowal of isolationism, Paul’s policy prescriptions
would often have that exact effect. Would it be better to give aid to
revolutionary Egypt in hopes of thereby remaining in a position to
influence Morsi’s directives, or to cut it off because the country’s
electorate dared to vote for a Muslim fundamentalist? There is also a
danger that Paul’s instinct to disengage without delay could have the
opposite effect of the one he is seeking. He acknowledges that after
getting abruptly out of Afghanistan, the U.S. might have to go back in
with aerial bombardment if the Taliban regroup. Wouldn’t it be ironic
if a President Rand Paul one day had to initiate drone strikes on
Kandahar and Khost? Moreover, some of the grounds of his reluctance to
engage with the Middle East also have a whiff of prejudice and

Ultimately, Paul’s favored tool for U.S. foreign policy is trade and
the promotion of corporate interests. In this regard, he is a
throwback to the principle of 1950s Secretary of Defense Charles
Wilson that what is good for the United States is good for General
Motors and vice versa. Paul holds that “all of us are corporations.

“They’re us,” he said. “They’re the middle class.”

Paul wants deep tax cuts for corporations, and a reduction of
services—including those of the State Department and American
diplomacy—for the rest of us. Like most libertarians, Paul is naive
about the power and abuses of corporations and uninterested in the
welfare of ordinary people. The U.S. should not trade its overly
muscular Middle East policy for one that seeks to allow American
corporations to ride roughshod over the workers and middle class of
the region.

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