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Rand Paul’s Strategic Ambiguity and Iran

Rand Paul opposes locking the U.S. into unnecessary specific commitments:

Containment of Iran is a bad idea, but our leaders need to think before they speak and consider that preemptively announcing responses to every hypothetical situation may well damage our ability to keep the United States safe and strong.

This position is unlikely to satisfy very many people, but it is worth discussing a bit more. Sen. Paul has invoked strategic ambiguity a few times in the past, and it has usually created more confusion than it has eliminated. If strategic ambiguity has the advantage of creating uncertainty among foreign governments concerning how the U.S. will act, it is much less useful in domestic policy debate. Hawks will bludgeon Paul for being insufficiently hard-line on Iran no matter what he says, but supporters of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue are bound to be underwhelmed by this sort of argument. There is also a potential drawback to such ambiguity when dealing with Iran, since it can feed Iranian suspicions that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its part of an agreement. Because Paul insists that war with Iran should be a last resort, he clearly is rejecting preventive war, and there is nothing wrong or dangerous in making that as explicit as possible.

Paul’s main point that it can be unwise and potentially dangerous to declare in advance how the U.S. will react to every contingency is sensible enough, but in the context of the Iran debate it cedes far too much to the hawks. If hawks insist on ruling out containment, Paul prefers not to rule out any option. Unfortunately, refusing to rule out military action allows Iran hawks to get away with promoting the false idea that military action can do anything more than delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while making that outcome much more likely. The result is that Paul leaves the public uncertain as to what his position really is, which can only benefit those that are interested in misrepresenting and distorting his views.

The argument’s other weakness is that it accepts the framing of Iran hawks as if the only available choices were containment and prevention. The real policy choice on Iran is between a negotiated settlement that renders containment unnecessary and a policy of containment that will be put in place either before or after a war. Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable, but waging a so-called “preventive” war would be worse, since it would be an unnecessary war that would end up all but guaranteeing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future. “Prevention” isn’t possible except through a negotiated agreement, which supporters of “prevention” typically oppose because it requires them to accept that Iran isn’t going to abandon its nuclear program in its entirety. Paul would do better to repudiate the hawkish maximalists that have been trying to undermine a negotiated agreement over at least the last six months, and he should refuse to let them set the terms and limits of the debate.

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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