Shadow Government

What Rand Paul Doesn’t Get About Intervention

Last week Senator Rand Paul gave a speech on foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, touting something he called "conservative realism." Paul has been at pains to differentiate himself from isolationism. He rightly noted that the "war on terror is not over, and American cannot disengage from the world." He reiterated his ...

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair

Last week Senator Rand Paul gave a speech on foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest, touting something he called "conservative realism." Paul has been at pains to differentiate himself from isolationism. He rightly noted that the "war on terror is not over, and American cannot disengage from the world." He reiterated his support for the decision to go to war in Afghanistan in 2001 (to be fair, it takes no political courage whatsoever to say this) and also for airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS).

But Paul’s speech and other remarks continue to highlight the contradiction at the heart of his position. Paul’s one consistent principle of foreign policy is suspicion of "interventionism," especially if it wanders into the dreaded territory of "nation building."

This is not a sufficient basis on which to formulate a theory of America’s role in the world. Simply being pro- or anti-intervention is not a useful way of thinking about foreign policy. Foreign policy is too complex to boil down to a simplistic choice between more or less intervention. As I’ve argued before, "don’t meddle" isn’t a foreign policy.

In truth, Paul is engaging in a fight against an epic straw man. He explained his view in an interview with our friends at The Federalist:

There are two views, basically, espoused in foreign policy [in the Republican Party]. One is that we’re nowhere any time. That would be isolationism, but there’s another extreme that we’re everywhere all the time. That would be interventionism.

Respectfully, Senator, that is false. There is literally not a single American policymaker or scholar who argues that the United States should intervene "everywhere all the time." Paul is being unkind to his opponents to mischaracterize them so badly.

Paul is trying to make himself look moderate by fabricating an extreme position to disagree with. I’ll admit, compared to proponents of world conquest or global empire, Paul is reasonable, and if there were an election between Paul and Napoleon, I’d vote for Paul. But compared to proponents of a more forward-leaning presence for America in the world — which is who is really on the other side of the debate — Paul looks short-sighted and, yes, neo-isolationist.

Paul tied himself in knots in his speech trying to disguise his instincts for restraint. He said, "We can’t and shouldn’t engage in nation building, but we can facilitate trade and extend the blessings of freedom and free markets around the world." What if "nation building" is the best or only means available to "extend the blessings of freedom" to a country like Afghanistan? Which is more important, "spreading the blessings of freedom," or avoiding nation building at all costs?

There is a mismatch between Paul’s diagnosis and his prescription. He finds the root problem in the Middle East is that, "The world has a dignity problem, with millions of men and women across the Middle East being treated as chattel by their own governments…. It isn’t always abject poverty or religion that motivates recruits or sets off conflict. Often it is the despair and humiliation that comes from overbearing government."

That’s not a bad description of problems plaguing the Middle East and South Asia. But Paul fails to describe what he thinks the United States should do about it. He rightly says "you can’t solve a dignity problem with military force." What then? He gestures vaguely at a solution. "There is also a time to cultivate allies and encouragers among civilized Muslim nations." This is underspecified, to put it gently.

The obvious answer is that we need a strong, robust civilian capability to engage with the world to help solve these "dignity problems." In other words, we need to give foreign aid, provide technical assistance, train allied police and armed forces to fight terrorists and insurgents, partner with local governments to fight corruption and grow the rule of law … and you can see why Paul can’t go there. This starts to sound a lot like the "interventionism" Paul so stridently opposes.

This is the contradiction at the heart of some Republican’s neo-isolationism. What if "intervention" is the only tool available to fight America’s enemies, protect its friends, and secure its interests?

In truth, there is a wide range of foreign policy tools the U.S. has to engage with partners and allies around the world, and Paul’s blanket opposition to "intervention" is an insufficient stance towards them. Would Paul oppose training, say, Ethiopian police forces to guard against jihadists from next-door Somalia? Would he oppose a Millennium Challenge grant to schools in northern India to develop anti-radicalization curriculum? Would he oppose the deployment of civilians from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives or the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs to the government of the Philippines to help investigate corruption? Do his followers even know the U.S. has the capability to do these kinds of things?

I’m not "pro-intervention." Interventions are expensive, hard, and messy. I wrote a book that opened with the fact that more than half of armed state building operations fail. I directly participated in one of these operations as a soldier, which is more than any of the prospective presidential candidates can say. More than two years ago I argued that we should not intervene in Syria, based mainly on my skepticism that the Obama administration would implement one competently.

But I am pro-American-interests. I think that on occasion, some form of intervention is the most effective (or only) means for securing our interests. Swearing off all interventions in advance is like tearing out two or three pages of your playbook right before you go to the Super Bowl, and without knowing what kind of plays the other team is planning. The enemy gets a vote, and if they throw a collapsed Syria or an Afghanistan or (heaven forbid) a North Korea at us, we probably will need to reach for the "nation building" pages of our playbook, no matter how dislikeable that prospect might be.

Paul doesn’t have a bad grasp on the nature of the war against jihadist groups and seems to understand what’s at stake. But his thinking on foreign policy is distorted by his instinctive distrust of any and all sorts of foreign policy options that smack of "intervention" or "nation building." The question isn’t whether to do interventions; the question is how to prepare to do them right when it really matters.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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