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Obama, Paul, and Jeffersonian Foreign Policy

Colin Dueck’s conclusion to his article on Rand Paul shows why we shouldn’t take the rest of his argument all that seriously:

Paul’s supporters might also want to consult the record of another prominent American and instinctive foreign policy Jeffersonian who ran for president a few years ago on the premise of international retrenchment, demilitarization, and moral superiority [bold mine-DL]. He found in office that international security threats were more challenging than he had expected when he first ran for the White House, and consequently circled back — however reluctantly — toward some of the national security policies of his predecessor. His name is Obama.

I don’t care for these labels, but if people insist on using them in foreign policy debates there should at least be some effort to use them correctly. If Rand Paul could possibly be described as a Jeffersonian, it should be obvious that Obama can’t be. According to his many speeches and public statements and the policies he has pursued since being in office, Obama hasn’t campaigned or governed as a Jeffersonian. He ran as a liberal internationalist opposed to the Iraq war, but otherwise reliably supportive of U.S. interventions and an activist foreign policy abroad. To describe him according to these annoying labels, he has governed as a sort of hybrid Hamiltonian-Wilsonian with more emphasis on the former most of the time.

If gradually bringing foreign wars to a conclusion makes Obama a Jeffersonian, then the same label would apply to Eisenhower and Nixon, but we immediately see how preposterous that description is. It’s true that many Obama supporters hoped and wanted Obama to be something close to a Jeffersonian on foreign policy, but his voting record before being elected president and his foreign policy agenda before being elected should have alerted them that this was not going to happen. It’s also true that many Republican hawks wrongly view Obama as something like a Jeffersonian, because they think it is useful to portray him this way in order to make their hard-line policies appear to be the only internationalist alternative available. None of this actually makes Obama a Jeffersonian. The fact that Dueck takes this for granted should tell us that his use of these labels is fairly haphazard and inaccurate.

For that matter, Rand Paul has been positioning himself as something other than a Jeffersonian in some respects. His adoption of Kennan’s understanding of containment as a model suggests that he sees more of an active role for the U.S. in the world than a typical Jeffersonian would. His choice of the label “realist” for himself also hints that he is closer to the majority of his party than Dueck allows. Because he relies on these labels to draw sharp distinctions between the “Jeffersonian” Paul and the “Jacksonian” rank-and-file, Dueck concludes that Paul is a poor fit with his party, but that works only insofar as Dueck pays attention to the things he dislikes about Paul’s foreign policy views and ignores the rest.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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