Daniel Larison

The Pluses and Minuses of Rand Paul’s Foreign Policy

Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Rand Paul delivered his anticipated foreign policy speech tonight, which you can read in its entirety here. It was a better speech than those he had given before, and its arguments mostly hung together. I’ll highlight a few of the best parts of the speech before moving on to the problems with it.

Let me say first off that I very much appreciated his emphasis on the Libyan war as a terrible mistake. Even though it cost the U.S. relatively little directly, the Libyan war was a serious blunder that has had enormous and negative consequences for the country and its neighbors, and it is not often included in the reckoning of major U.S. foreign policy errors of the last decade. If the U.S. is to avoid unnecessary wars in the future, it is important to include the Libyan war on the list of major policy failures. Sen. Paul was absolutely right to point this out, and our foreign policy debate benefits from shining a light on this administration’s reckless decision to intervene there. On a related note, I appreciated Paul’s insistence that U.S. wars be authorized by Congress and his reminder that the Libyan war was illegal under U.S. law. He also made a very important statement that the U.S. needs to do a better job of distinguishing between vital and peripheral interests, and he was right to say that the U.S. should go to war only for the sake of its vital interests. He later said some of the right things about the importance of diplomacy in foreign policy and the need to pursue negotiations with Iran.

Paul mostly started off well, but throughout the speech he made a number of odd and sometimes annoying statements that deserve comment. Towards the beginning, he made a throwaway remark that Russia was “vainly hoping to resurrect the Soviet Union.” This is annoying most of all because it isn’t true. Whatever else one wants to say about Russian actions over the last ten years or so, it is nonsense to say that it is trying to restore the USSR, and it is pernicious nonsense because it feeds into hysteria and fear-mongering about the size and nature of the potential threat from Russia. It is annoying also because it is an unnecessary bit of pandering to Russia hawks that have been consistently wrong in their recommendations. I don’t know what this has to do with promoting what Paul calls conservative realism, and I suspect more than a few people in the audience were embarrassed by this remark.

On policy, Paul endorsed sanctions on Russia once again. That has become the default, consensus position, and it is one that Paul has already taken in the past, so it wasn’t surprising, but it was still unfortunate that he chose to repeat it. One major problem with this position is that there is growing evidence that the sanctions have not had the desired effect, and they have ended up doing considerable harm to the economies of major European allies. Sanctions have not changed Russian behavior for the better in the least, and instead they have driven Russia to find financing elsewhere. Politically, Western punitive measures have been a boon to the Kremlin. These are all things that Paul might have justifiably observed as a part of a realist critique of current policies. Russia policy is one area in particular that cries out for an alternative to the consensus view, and Paul didn’t provide it.

The senator made a strong case that Congressional authorization was necessary before the U.S. went to war, and he made a related argument that the president’s position is made stronger by seeking Congress’ approval before intervening. He then segued awkwardly to endorsing a war against ISIS that the president launched on his own authority without seeking Congressional authorization. This transition offered Paul the perfect opportunity to apply his views on war powers to the new conflict, and he didn’t take it. Perhaps he assumed that the audience would get the message, but he needed to make his constitutional objections to the way Obama has waged this war explicit.

All in all, Paul’s speech was an improvement over previous efforts, but he missed some important opportunities and left too many questions unanswered.

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Paul’s Foreign Policy Speech

Rand Paul is scheduled to deliver a foreign policy address in New York tonight. Conor Friedersdorf offers a preview:

His remarks (quoted as prepared for delivery at New York City gathering of the Center for the National Interest), were seemingly pitched to Republican voters: the Kentucky Republican dubbed his approach “conservative realism,” criticized President Obama and Hillary Clinton, and invoked Presidents Reagan and Eisenhower. But the substance of his speech seems likely to appeal to anyone who believes that U.S. foreign policy has gone astray since 9/11, due largely to imprudent interventions urged by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and I’ll have more to say about the entire speech once Sen. Paul has given it, but all of the build-up to the speech this week has left me wondering why he is giving it and why it is suddenly receiving so much attention. Based on what I’ve seen in the excerpts taken from the prepared remarks, Paul isn’t saying very much that he didn’t already say in his speech at the Heritage Foundation last year or his earlier address to the Center for the National Interest back in January, so I don’t see the point of giving another version of the same speech to a very similar audience.

It’s true that the January speech was rather underwhelming. Our own Leon Hadar was moved to ask: “Where is the policy beef, Senator?” Perhaps tonight’s speech will be an attempt to answer that question, but from what I’ve seen so far Paul is still so busy worrying about what label to use for his foreign policy views that he isn’t fleshing out the practical implications of his views as fully as he could. The main difficulty for Paul tonight will be to square his larger argument for foreign policy restraint with his support for the current war against ISIS. As Friedersdorf notes, his support for the new war seems to be at odds with his statement that “America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate.” The war against ISIS should be a good test case for distinguishing between vital and peripheral interests, so it will be Paul’s task in the speech to explain why bombing a group that poses no direct threat to the U.S. is an appropriate use of the American military.

Lauren Fox reports on the politics surrounding the speech:

Paul advisers say the speech, which will be delivered at the Center for the National Interest in New York, is the senator’s opportunity to embrace a moderate Republican foreign policy. As the Republican senator from Kentucky eyes a potential presidential run in 2016, he must prove to the party’s establishment and voters that he’s not as withdrawn from the world as his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, nor is he shifting his positions drastically out of political necessity.

This positioning might seem to make sense at first glance, but it runs the risk of alienating all sides of the intra-party debate instead of reassuring them, and it could leave Paul adopting a mish-mash of contradictory positions. That would be an unfortunate development for the prospects of serious Republican foreign policy reform, and I hope that isn’t what happens.

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Public Opinion and the War Against ISIS

A majority continues to support the war against ISIS (57%), but most Americans don’t think the campaign is going well:

Just a Third of the Public Says U.S. Campaign Against ISIS Is Going Well

A larger majority (62%) doesn’t believe that the campaign has a “clear goal,” and an even larger majority (73%) thinks that U.S. allies aren’t doing enough to help. All of this bodes ill for sustained public support of the war as it enters its third month. The administration’s claim that it had the support of a “broad coalition” was always misleading, and the public has noticed the lack of substantial contributions from U.S. allies and clients. Americans are probably concluding that the war isn’t going well because many are expecting more immediate successes than a bombing campaign can provide. In general, Americans tend to turn against wars that lack a clear goal and don’t make much discernible progress against the enemy.

It is a little bit surprising that most Americans don’t see the war as having a clear goal, since that is one of the very few things that can be said in favor of this intervention. There is no confusion about the stated ultimate goal, which is to “destroy” ISIS. The problem is that the goal was and continues to be unrealistic, especially given the minimal means being employed. There is fortunately still not much support for escalation. While the public is split in its concerns about the war (47% worry that the U.S. will be pulled in deeper into the conflict, 43% worry that the U.S. won’t go “far enough”), there is a majority against sending U.S. ground forces into combat:

Most Oppose Sending U.S. Group Troops into Iraq and Syria to Combat Militants

As it is on so many foreign policy issues nowadays, most of the GOP is sharply at odds with the rest of the country on the question of sending ground forces into combat in Iraq and Syria. On this and many other issues, hawkishness is a dead end for Republicans.

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The Virtues of Early Voting

John Fund identifies some problems with early voting. This is the least persuasive part of the argument:

Gans and other observers are also concerned that early voters won’t have the same information as those who vote on Election Day. They may miss out on candidate debates or be unable to factor in other late-developing election events. “Those who vote a month in advance are saying they don’t care about weighing all the facts,” says Adams, the former Justice Department official. One secretary of state I interviewed compared early voting that takes place before debates are finished with jurors in a trial who stand up in the middle of testimony and say they’ve heard enough and are ready to render a verdict.

Critics of early voting that warn about fraud have a fair point, but the complaint that early voters won’t be as well-informed as later voters is not persuasive. Yes, it’s possible that there could be some huge revelation in the final weeks before an election that would disqualify a candidate in the eyes of some voters, but it seems very unlikely to happen in most cases. If some voters are worried that they might be “missing out” on relevant information, they are free to wait.

It is rarely the case that something comes out about a candidate that is relevant and wasn’t previously known in the last few weeks of a campaign. It can happen, but it doesn’t happen often enough to justify curtailing early voting. As for information gleaned from debates, how often do candidates say anything genuinely interesting or newsworthy at these events? For that matter, how often does debate coverage contribute significantly to informing the public? If there are a lot of Floridians that voted before “Fangate,” they made a decision less influenced by trivial nonsense than those that have not yet voted.

The claim that early voters are “saying they don’t care about weighing all the facts” is silly. It would be more accurate to say that early voters are already sure enough in how they are going to vote that they don’t need any more information. Waiting a few more weeks isn’t going to change how they’ll vote, and it is probably the case that they have made at least as much effort to inform themselves about the candidates as voters that wait. In some cases, they are probably going to be better-informed overall than the people that show up on Election Day.

The advantages of allowing early voting are plain enough. Being able to vote during a three or four-week period is more convenient for a much larger number of people. If early voting doesn’t contribute to increased turnout and hasn’t prevented decreased turnout, it still makes it possible for more voters to participate than if the option weren’t available. For all the talk of coming together “as a nation to perform a collective civic duty,” most eligible American voters don’t show up at the polls, and that should alert us that early voting–or its absence–isn’t the problem. If most Americans are not inclined to do their civic duty, the voting period could be several weeks or limited to just a few days and it wouldn’t matter. At least with a an early voting system there is no excuse that there wasn’t enough time.

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UKIP and Euroskepticism

Despite some recent gains by UKIP in Britain, Euroskepticism in Britain has been declining. Iain Martin speculates that the two are directly connected:

Support for UK membership of the EU is actually up a bit, according to a new poll. Ipsos Mori shows that support for the EU at its highest level since 1991. YouGov’s EU referendum tracker also gives the status quo a narrow lead by 40 per cent to 39 per cent this month.

How can this be when Ukip is running rampant? The truth is that for all the cocky Ukip rhetoric about a people’s army, the party appeals to nothing like a majority. Indeed, many middle-ground voters find the blazer-wearers of Ukip distinctly unappealing. Ukip is a brand (in my experience Ukippers hate that word) with which they do not want to be associated. In this way, Ukip may be giving Euroscepticism a bad name.

Alex Massie reaches a similar conclusion. These interpretations make a certain amount of sense. UKIP’s recent successes might be making withdrawal from the EU less popular than it would be otherwise, but it’s also possible that the two things have much less to do with each other than anyone would have guessed. Just as parts of Scotland that had backed the SNP ended up voting against independence last month, there are probably quite a few new UKIP supporters that back them as an alternative to the major parties without sharing their ultimate goal of withdrawal from the EU. When it comes time to vote on the referendum (assuming that there is one), many people that supported UKIP at the general election might vote to stay in.

UKIP has been gaining support because it presents itself as an anti-establishment political movement, because it taps into dissatisfaction with the country’s immigration policies, and because it has used populist rhetoric to appeal to working-class voters. It also serves generally as a vehicle for protesting the political class as a whole. Many others have observed with some amusement that this makes UKIP very much like nationalist protest parties all across Europe. It doesn’t follow from this that its new supporters find its main goal of leaving the EU appealing. Reports from the constituencies that UKIP won or closely contested in the recent by-elections confirmed that issues related to the EU were not a high priority for the vast majority of voters. Tim Worstall recently identified what was ultimately responsible for increasing UKIP’s support:

The protest is really about the near complete divorce between the British political classes and a very large part of the British electorate.

It’s possible that UKIP will continue to benefit from the disaffection of this large part of the electorate, but that doesn’t mean that its new support necessarily represents an endorsement of leaving the EU. Still, I suspect there is less support for withdrawing from the EU now than there was a few years ago for other reasons that have little or nothing to do with UKIP. The possibility of leaving the EU may now seem more real–and therefore less attractive–to some people that were slightly in favor of withdrawal and have since reconsidered. That isn’t necessarily because they are driven away by Nigel Farage, but because “Brexit” would be a major change from the status quo and would have significant consequences for Britain and the rest of the EU. As it was in the Scottish independence debate, the magnitude and presumed irreversibility of the decision will push many waverers and fence-sitters back in the direction of the status quo. In other words, it isn’t UKIP that’s driving otherwise Euroskeptic voters away from supporting withdrawal, but the real prospect of withdrawing from the EU that is pushing people in the opposite direction.

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The Romney “Big Tent” on Foreign Policy That Never Existed

Dave Lawrence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Another bit of revisionism in the Mitchell Reiss article I commented on earlier is the misleading description of how the Romney campaign related to the different factions of the GOP on foreign policy:

The challenge for the Romney campaign’s stewards was to assemble as big a “tent” as possible, bridging the divide from libertarians who wanted a more restrained U.S. role in the world to internationalists who wanted a more active leadership role, and including social conservatives, business conservatives, evangelicals, free traders and Tea Partiers. Too much specificity could risk driving away key voters in the battleground states [bold mine-DL].

It’s true that Romney was not always specific about what he would do on every issue, but he was very specific about what he rejected. He didn’t limit himself to general complaints about “weakness” or the so-called “apology tour.” Romney lodged very specific complaints about administration policies during his campaign, and he made it clear that libertarians, non-interventionists, and conservative realists in his own party could expect absolutely nothing from him. In order to convince themselves to vote for him, some of the latter had to pretend that he couldn’t possibly have meant the things he was saying.

The other problem was that Romney identified any number of flaws with Obama policies, but many of these were either completely made up or reflected such a poor grasp of the relevant issues that they were irrelevant. For instance, Romney went out of his way to list a number of problems that he thought he had found with the arms reduction treaty in 2010. The only hitch was that his objections were ludicrous and ill-informed. He repeated this pattern many more times as a candidate when he spoke about NATO, Russia, Iran, and Libya. Romney’s failing wasn’t that he was too vague, but that he demonstrated how little he knew by making detailed criticisms that made no sense.

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Foreign Policy Hawkishness Is a Dead End for the GOP

Former Romney campaign adviser (and sometime MEK booster) Mitchell Reiss reminds us why Romney was so incompetent when it came to foreign policy. Here is his revisionist account of Romney’s blunder in relation to the Cairo protests and the Benghazi attack:

A more sustained focus on world affairs might have prevented the Romney campaign from committing one of its most serious errors: the mishandling of the Benghazi tragedy, when four American officials, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were murdered by Islamic terrorists. In the pressure cooker of a tight race, the Romney campaign initially rushed to judgment before the situation was clear and many of the facts were known.

There are a few reasons why Reiss is wrong about this. First, the decision to try to make political hay out of what happened in Cairo and Benghazi in September 2012 was a deliberate one that stemmed from Romney’s belief that he could exploit such a situation to his advantage. Because Romney was invested in the idea that Obama was another Carter, he said that he would try to take advantage of a foreign policy crisis if it came up:

It’s really a, but…by the way, if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.

Far from being a candidate that wasn’t paying much attention to foreign policy, Romney was clearly eager to exploit any crisis that came along. Romney was trying to force those events into the foreign policy narrative he had been pushing for years at that point, and it blew up in his face. His error did not come from paying too little attention to foreign policy, but was a direct result of assuming that he could use these issues to inflict political damage on Obama. He was horribly wrong about that because he was horribly wrong about most foreign policy issues, and his instinct to attack during a crisis was more evidence of his impressive political incompetence. He had previewed his poor judgment on this score when he tried to seize on the negotiations over Chen Guangcheng to score some cheap points, and he ended up being embarrassed in that case as well. Worst of all, Romney reportedly recognized the mistake he had made on Cairo and Benghazi, but didn’t retract his claims for fear of how hard-liners in his party would react:

His advisers told him that, if he took back his statement, the neoconservative wing of the party would “take his head off.” He stood by it during an appearance in Florida.

Time after time, Romney dug himself deeper into a hole by trying to win on foreign policy issues where he had no advantage and no particular insight. He earned the ridicule he received, and offered Republicans a clear example of what not to do when running for president. Reiss insists throughout his piece that foreign policy was unduly neglected by the Romney campaign in the 2012 election, but that is exactly wrong. Romney spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the subject during his campaign, and almost every time he said something or issued something in writing it only reconfirmed that he didn’t know what he was talking about or was simply regurgitating hawkish talking points. Reiss is arguing that future Republican candidates do more of the same, and most of them will probably follow this advice, but it won’t lead them to victory.

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The Sikorski Flap

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs / cc

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that an alleged Russian proposal to partition Ukraine with Poland in 2008 never happened. Now the Polish politician who made the claim, the ex-foreign minister and current speaker Radek Sikorski, is in a bit of trouble back home:

The claim of a Russian offer was explosive, and dominated Polish media for much of the day Tuesday. But after an embarrassing series of news conferences, Mr Sikorski was forced to admit it had never happened. A media-savvy former reporter who has handled the press with aplomb for years, Mr Sikorski acknowledged that “my memory failed me,” and that indeed the February 2008 meeting had involved no one-on-one meeting between Mr Tusk and Mr Putin at all. The walk-back is an enormous humiliation for Mr Sikorski, who served seven years as foreign minister and who had for a time been a serious candidate to take the job of the EU’s top diplomat. Poland’s opposition parties are demanding that he be fired from his current position as speaker of parliament. Ewa Kopacz, the new prime minister, is furious with him.

The original claim seemed laughable when I first read about it, and as it happens the proposal was never made. Given that there was actually a brief thaw in relations between Poland and Russia not long after this offer was supposed to have been made, it made even less sense to treat Sikorski’s claim seriously. That raises the obvious question: why would such a major claim be included in a story without being corroborated by others? It’s not hard to guess why Sikorski would make such an outlandish claim, but it’s just sloppy reporting to repeat something like this uncritically.

The controversy over Sikorski’s remarks comes at a time when Poland’s Civic Platform government has shifted to focusing more on domestic matters while pursuing a less activist and confrontational foreign policy towards Russia. David Klion commented on the changes earlier this month:

Kopacz herself today in her inauguration speech called for a “pragmatic approach” to Russia. Her measured phrasing presents a contrast with the bombastic Sikorski, who once compared a German-Russian pipeline deal to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact and who was secretly recorded in June using vulgar language in reference to several key players in Europe. Kopacz’s new appointment to the Foreign Ministry, Grzegorz Schetyna, is seen as a neophyte who does not speak English and has studiously avoided commenting on the situation in Ukraine.

Because of the reshuffle, Sikorski had already become much less relevant to the making of Polish foreign policy before this latest episode happenened. That came after he was at the center of another embarrassing episode in which he was caught on tape deriding the U.S.-Polish alliance in crude terms. Now it appears that Sikorski’s domestic political ambitions have taken a serious hit as well. In light of this latest embarrassment, Poland is definitely better off being represented abroad by someone else.

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Washington’s Foreign Policy Illusions

Gage Skidmore / cc

Robert Merry traces the many U.S. foreign policy failures since 2001 to Washington’s embrace of two different, related illusions:

So it isn’t just Bush and Obama, or their minions, who have perpetrated so much foreign-policy incompetence over nearly a decade and a half. A major contributor has been a flawed outlook made up of two hopeless illusions—the ameliorative impulse and national greatness conservatism [bold mine-DL]. So long as the American people permit their leaders to fashion the country’s foreign policy based on those two illusions, the incompetence will continue.

As Merry’s account makes clear, the impulse to meddle in the affairs of other nations “for their own good” is not limited to just one party or foreign policy tradition, and the preoccupation with national greatness isn’t just a neoconservative one. Interventionists from the two major parties routinely accept both illusions to some degree, and the main difference between them is how much emphasis they give to one or the other. Liberal hawks will normally be more inclined to express their support for an unnecessary war by talking about “values” and upholding “norms,” and hawks on the right prefer to frame their support in terms of celebrating American power and strength and inflicting damage on enemies real or imagined, but all of them are usually in favor of bombing other countries for the sake of “values” and “norms” and all of them approve of U.S. demonstrations of strength through military action. And all of them embrace a third hopeless illusion, namely the illusion that U.S. “credibility” is at stake in virtually every crisis and has to be maintained.

The two illusions Merry describes depend and feed off each other. “National greatness” hawks imagine that U.S. hegemony is benevolent and necessary to maintenance of “world order,” and foreign policy meliorists take for granted that U.S. preeminence gives Washington both the right and the responsibility to interfere overseas to “fix” various problems and crises. As we know, the two groups overlap and agree with each other with remarkable frequency. “National greatness” Republicans are usually supportive of “humanitarian” interventions and liberal hawks are typically on board with any projection of U.S. power or use of force overseas. One group may quibble with how the war is being handled by a president from the other party, but there is rarely any disagreement on the grounds that military action is the wrong thing to do. They all take for granted that the regular exercise of U.S. power and the application of hard power in foreign conflicts always do more good than harm, and their great fear is of an America that avoids entanglements and minds its own business.

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The EU Referendum in the U.K. and the Pundit’s Fallacy

Daniel Hannan puts on a master class in committing the pundit’s fallacy:

A landslide election victory would surely follow [bold mine-DL]. If even so moderate a politician as David Cameron felt that EU membership could no longer be tolerated, the country would rally to his cause [bold mine-DL].

Hannan is famously one of the most Euroskeptic Tories alive, so it’s understandable that he wants Cameron to take this position before the next election. He may even believe that it is the smart move politically, but it is telling that Hannan simply takes for granted that all it would take for Cameron to win a huge electoral victory is to give a speech in which he endorses Hannan’s top priority. Hannan’s complaint is that he doesn’t expect that Cameron will take his advice, and it is Cameron’s unwillingness to do this that he spends the rest of his column lamenting.

The striking thing is that he has no doubt that the Tories would “surely” win a landslide as a result, but there seems to be little reason to expect that. According to YouGov, supporting for leaving the EU has been steadily dropping over the last two years. As of last June, 44% favored remaining in the EU, and 36% favored leaving. There doesn’t appear to be a tidal wave of support for leaving the EU that Cameron can ride to victory. (The lead for “in” is even greater–57-22%–when respondents are asked about voting in a referendum after renegotiation with the EU.) Siding with that 36% might help Cameron’s party to head off some challenges from UKIP in a few places, but it wouldn’t be enough to deliver an election win, much less a landslide.

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