Rand Paul and the Foreign Policy Delusions of Libertarianism

Rand Paul spoke today on the Senate floor, opposing the administration’s proposal to arm and train moderate Syrian elements. In recent months, Paul has tried to position himself in the mainstream on foreign policy, and has objected bitterly to being called an isolationist. Yet the very first words of his speech encapsulated the Libertarian delusion: that problems in the world are the result of American actions, and that by remaining inert, we can prevent them from arising, or cause them to go away:

If there is one theme that connects the dots in the Middle East, it is that chaos breeds terrorism.
 

What much of the foreign policy elite fails to grasp is that intervention to topple secular dictators has been the prime source of that chaos. 

From Hussein to Assad to Ghaddafi we have the same history. 

Intervention topples the secular dictator. Chaos ensues and radical jihadists emerge.

The pattern has been repeated time after time and yet what we have here is a failure to understand, a failure to reflect on the outcome our involvement in Arab civil wars.

Is American interventionism really the “prime source” of the chaos that breeds terrorism? And are “secular dictators” really the key to peace in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim regions? Let’s test those claims.

The number one sponsor of terrorism over the last thirty years has been Iran. Did the mullahs take control because of an ill-advised American intervention? No. The Shah was, perhaps, the paradigm of the benign Middle Eastern dictator, and he was our ally. While one can argue–I certainly do–that the Carter administration should have done more to support him, it wasn’t U.S. intervention that overthrew the Shah, it was a fundamentalist Muslim revolt.

How about the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan and harbored al Qaeda? Was the Taliban’s takeover the result of America’s toppling of a secular dictator? No, not unless the dictator was the Soviet Union, back in the 1980s.

No groups have contributed more to chaos in the Middle East than Hezbollah and Hamas. Does either organization owe its existence to some foreign policy mistake on the part of the U.S.? No.

A great deal of chaos in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Somalia and Nigeria, has been caused by radical Muslim groups (including, in Somalia’s case, al Qaeda). In either instance, was the cause of the chaos or the rise of terrorist groups, American intervention? No.

Rand Paul offers Iraq as an instance where the “prime source” of chaos that breeds terrorism was our “intervention to topple [a] secular dictator.” But is that really what happened in Iraq? Put aside for a moment the assumption that Saddam–who had a Koran written in his own blood and sponsored terrorism by Muslim extremists–was “secular.” Likewise, forget that Saddam was a bitter enemy of the United States, so that, when George W. Bush took office as president, there was one place on Earth where American servicemen were routinely being shot at–Iraq. We certainly did topple Saddam, a feat of which, in my view, we should be proud. Was chaos the necessary result? No. As of last year, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were hailing a stable, prosperous Iraq as one of their administration’s greatest achievements. Chaos and the ascendancy of ISIS in Iraq was the result of our needless abandonment of that country.

And where did ISIS come from? Syria. Here, Paul’s words are mystifying. He includes Assad as a secular dictator who was mistakenly “toppled” by U.S. intervention. But that is ridiculous: rightly or wrongly, America hasn’t intervened to overthrow Assad, nor has any other Western nation. The rebellion against Assad arose from two distinct sources: popular dissatisfaction with his dictatorial rule, largely on behalf of the Alawite minority, and radical Islam as embodied in ISIS. Syria disproves Rand’s implicit assumption that “secular dictators” will be secure and will maintain the sort of order that precludes terrorism, if only we leave them alone or support them. Saddam, ruling on behalf of a Sunni minority, would not have been able to preserve order (such as it was) indefinitely in Iraq, for the same reasons that Assad couldn’t in Syria.

Paul is right, I think, about Libya. That is a case where the West overthrew a dictator that, while once a sponsor of terrorism, had been de-fanged, and what followed was much worse. The Libyan venture was a serious mistake by the Obama administration.

I don’t understand why Paul didn’t add Egypt to his catalog. In Egypt, Mubarak was not only a secular dictator, but one who was friendly to the U.S. We didn’t start the movement to overthrow Mubarak, the Egyptian Brotherhood did. But President Obama, to his everlasting shame, supported the Brotherhood and helped force Mubarak from power. True, terrorists have not taken over Egypt, but that is only because the Army has taken power–over the Obama administration’s objections–and suppressed the Brotherhood.

Rand Paul began his speech today by saying that “there is one theme that connects the dots in the Middle East.” He was wrong. The Middle East, and more broadly the Islamic world, are complex places. There are many causes of their dysfunction, but the most important one is the cultural heritage of Islam. The West has tried a variety of policies toward the Middle East, and none has been conspicuously successful. In that region, as elsewhere, different situations call for different remedies. The idea that there is only “one theme”–that terrorism is the result of chaos, which is the result of overthrowing otherwise-stable and benign secular dictators–is false.

The second major problem with Paul’s approach is the way he characterizes those who disagree with him. Listening to Paul, you would think that Washington is populated by 21st-century Strangeloves, eager to launch bombs on the slightest provocation:

The moss covered too-long-in-Washington crowd cannot help themselves. War, war, what we need is more, more war…
Amidst the interventionist’s disjointed and frankly incoherent rhetoric,
Amidst the gathering gloom that sees enemies behind every friend,
And friends behind every enemy,
The only consistent theme is war.

These barnacled enablers have never met a war they didn’t like.

They beat their chests in rhythmic ode to failed policies.

Their drums beat to policies that display their outrage but fail to find a cure. ..

To those who wish unlimited intervention and boots on the ground everywhere: Remember the smiling poses of politicians pontificating about so-called freedom fighters and “heroes” in Libya, in Syria, in Iraq …

When will we quit listening to the advocates of perpetual war?

When does a track record of being consistently wrong stop you from being a so-called expert when the next crisis arises?

We should remember that they were wrong, that there were no WMD’s, that Hussein, Khaddifi, and Assad were no threat to us. …

We should remember that those who believe that war is the answer for every problem, were wrong.

We should remember that war against Hussein, that war against Khaddafi, that war against Assad led to chaos.

This is completely over the top. No one wants “perpetual war,” no one wants “boots on the ground everywhere,” no one believes that “war is the answer for every problem.” To the extent he is talking about members of his own party, Paul is choosing a peculiar path to the presidential nomination.

Much of what Rand Paul said today was sensible. It is certainly true, as he argued, that arming supposedly moderate Syrian rebels is at best fraught with difficulty and uncertainty. Arms that we send to Syria may well end up in enemy hands, and our efforts could make the situation there even worse. Paul’s opposition to the administration’s plan may turn out to be well-founded. As I wrote earlier today, I don’t think the administration has a serious plan to succeed in Syria or elsewhere in the region, but is only interested in pretending to deal with ISIS until November.

But Paul could have made those points without asserting his overarching claim that the “prime source” of Middle Eastern turmoil and terrorism is America’s actions. That comes perilously close to the “blame America first” philosophy of the Democrats in the 1970s. Likewise, he could have made his more cogent arguments just as well–and gotten a better hearing from his fellow Senate Republicans–if he had stuck to the topic immediately at hand, Syria. Rand Paul needs to decide whether he wants to be the leader of one of America’s two great political parties, or of a bunch of fringe college students.

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