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Rand Paul and Realism

Will Inboden was not impressed with Rand Paul’s foreign policy speech:

At the outset of his remarks Senator Paul oddly claims the mantle of being a “realist.” This seems to have triggered some affection from other professing realists, which is curious since one looks in vain through Paul’s speech for much realist content.

Since I’m apparently one of the “professing realists” in question, I suppose I ought to identify which parts of the speech I thought made sense. I have already commentedon the speecha fewtimes and focused on the parts I didn’t accept, so I’ll try to sum up briefly what I did like about it.

Paul’s argument that containment should be an option isn’t the position that I prefer in the Iran debate, but it represents enough of a departure from the “prevention” consensus view that it merits some praise. Since containment was used against Hagel as a bludgeon at his hearing just a few days before the speech, Sen. Paul’s decision to praise the concept and its original author seemed to me to be a meaningful signal that he didn’t share the bipartisan desire to dismiss it out of hand. He contrasted Kennan’s original view of containment with the more aggressive and global Truman Doctrine, whose supporters he correctly likened to contemporary hard-liners that have scarcely ever seen a foreign conflict that they didn’t think imperiled U.S. interests in some way. Given the modern Republican hawkish tendency to celebrate Truman as one of their heroes, his derision of contemporary hard-liners as the “Truman caucus” was remarkable and most welcome.

Paul was trying to reach a Republican and conservative audience that wasn’t closely aligned with non-interventionists or neoconservatives. That is how I understood his quixotic attempt to reconcile Kennan and Reagan. Of course it’s true, as Leon Hadar says, that Kennan and Reagan were not in agreement on many things at the time, and Kennan didn’t think much of Reagan or later claims lauding the supposed effects of his administration’s policies. Sen. Paul was choosing to emphasize the better parts of Reagan’s record, focusing on the small number of Reagan’s military interventions and his later arms control negotiations. I am guessing he was trying to use Reagan to bridge the gap between the audience he was addressing and the arguments for restraint and prudence that he wanted them to hear. Finally, I have been calling on Republicans to adopt a foreign policy of restraint and prudence, and Sen. Paul’s speech represented a first attempt to do just that.

As for my being a “professing realist,” I have never claimed to be one, but I am frequently identified this way because I am often sympathetic to arguments made by self-identified realists. I recognize that hostility to those arguments has made U.S. foreign policy substantially worse over at least the last twenty years, and so I’m pleased when they enjoy a revival. The fact that I am often mistaken for a realist underscores the problem with how the term is used: it is applied very liberally to a wide range of people. This includes virtually anyone who thinks war should be a last resort, those who see some value in diplomatic engagement, and those who look askance at Wilsonian fantasies of democracy promotion and nation-building. One could meet all of those criteria (as Sen. Paul does) and not be a realist according to the peculiar definition provided by Inboden’s colleague Paul Bonicelli. Using an entirely different standard, one might conclude that Obama is a realist. Realist often means whatever the person deploying the term wants it to mean, and when it is used positively it often just means “not a warmongering ideologue.”

The label is not very useful as a descriptor any longer because it has become a catch-all term to refer to almost anyone opposed to a narrow range of hard-line and hawkish views. Thus Sen. Paul identifies as a realist because it is a designation with a Republican pedigree that does not commit him to identifying solely with his father’s views or the prevailing views in the GOP. Considering the alternatives that antiwar conservatives and libertarians have to work with, that is a significant improvement over what his colleagues are offering. That doesn’t make him the next Fulbright or the next Taft, but such a figure will always be as elusive as looking for the next Reagan.

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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