My first reaction to Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation last week was that it was about time a U.S. Senator of one of the two major political parties would articulate traditional American principles of non-interventionism in a clear and concise way.
That Paul is also a Republican and a self-proclaimed conservative/libertarian political figure who is willing to challenge the neo-conservative interventionist orientation that has dominated the GOP foreign-policy agenda in recent years gave me a sense of hope that the Junior Senator from Kentucky would succeed in igniting a serious debate on America’s place in the world today.
It was also original and somewhat cool that he relied on both the renowned diplomatic historian George Kennan and President Ronald Reagan in preparing a foreign policy manifesto.
I didn’t know Kennan; Kennan wasn’t a good friend of mine; but I’m sure that Kennan (who died at the age of 101) would probably be turning in his grave if anyone would have suggested that he and Reagan had anything in common politically speaking, and especially when it came to foreign policy.
As Kennan saw it, “Reagan viewed the world through dangerous simplicities, not realist subtleties,” according to his biographer John Lewis Gaddis (George F. Kennan: An American Life) who added that Kennan, an intellectual elitist, a snobbish, and to extent, a bigoted WASP, suspicious of the masses, and with no great admiration to modernity–he even decried the invention of the car–“distrusted both happiness and California” and “probably would have distrusted Reagan, even if the president had tried to win his trust” (although before his death Kennan admitted that Reagan had helped end the Cold War).
In terms of his personal background and temperament, education, career, and political philosophy, including his distrust of the general public and his belief that a strong executive and members of the establishment should determine and implement foreign policy, Kennan and his views were the antithesis to what libertarianism and especially the Tea Party stand for, e.g., that the Republican-controlled House as opposed to President Obama decides whether to go to war with Iran.
It also seems to me that Senator Paul needs to revisit the issue of containment in general, and the way it applies to the threat of radical Islamic terrorism (and Iran), in particular. While Kennan did draw the outlines of what became to be the containment strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, he opposed the militaristic and messianic overtones that dominated its implementation by Republican and Democratic administrations.
Hence, Kennan who cautioned against adopting the notion that there was a monolithic Communist Bloc and stressed that the policies of communist regimes were driven more by national interests than by ideology, would be horrified by the idea that seems to be advanced by Senator Paul that America is now facing a global threat from radical Islam or terrorism which requires Washington to pursue an aggressive containment strategy. The Muslim World is certainly not about to evolve into a Caliphate under the rule of Al Qaeda with the military capabilities of the Soviet Union. If anything, Kennan like many realists today would be in favor of the more limited and targeted approach in responding to terrorism that the Obama Administration has been pursuing.
In any case, translating the principles of non-interventionism into concrete foreign policy and national security prescriptions requires a lot of work beyond one or two speeches and a few sound bites. And while I am not familiar with Republican politics in Kentucky and I have no idea whether Senator Rand is planning a run for the presidency in 2016, I find it very difficult to imagine that the constituencies that are now the driving force in Republican Party and Tea-Party movement would support any candidate who is committed to a platform that calls for reassessing America’s military and diplomatic commitment in the Middle East and elsewhere.
When Jim Webb was elected as the Democratic Senator from Virginia, running on an anti-Iraq-War platform I was hoping that perhaps he would become the new William Fulbright, the legendary Senator from Arkansas, a long-time member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who became a leading critic of the Vietnam War and the Senate’s leading expert on foreign policy (and like Kennan was also very conservative when it came to social issues).
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen with Senator Webb, and I am not sure now that Senator Rand is going to be the next Fulbright. That would require him to shelve any plans he had to run for the presidency, gather around him a “brain trust” of original strategic thinkers, and take on the foreign policy establishment in both parties from his position of power on the major policy issues. For some reason I don’t think that will happen.