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.