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Rand Paul and “Isolationist” Name-Calling

A response to Commentary's Seth Mandel
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Commentary’s Seth Mandel has responded to my Monday column. In light of his criticisms, it’s worth making a few clarifications.

First, I wasn’t making “the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent.” I do argue that he is listening to a broader array of foreign-policy voices than any of the major candidates he’d be likely to see in the 2016 Republican primaries, and that it would be good for the party as a whole to follow suit.

I make no prediction as to whether Paul will succeed in expanding the GOP’s foreign-policy tent—only the observation that it has shrunk compared the big top under which Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush performed.

Second, while I cited Mandel by name because I quoted something he wrote at length, the column wasn’t generally directed at his work and as he suspects I don’t ascribe to him all the opinions I’m criticizing. I’m happy he recognizes that Paul’s foreign policy has a conservative pedigree, that he hasn’t called major libertarian-leaning Republicans isolationists, and that he has taken up for libertarians even when he doesn’t agree with them.

But Dick Cheney has called Paul an isolationist. Bill Kristol has called Paul a (neo-!)isolationist. Rick Perry has called Paul an isolationist. Rick Santorum has called Paul an isolationist. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has called Paul an isolationist. The Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens has called Paul an isolationist.

Richard Epstein has even described Paul as a pacifist. Justin Amash has also been called an isolationist and much worse. This list is just confined to significant figures, avoiding Peter King-land.

So I’m sorry, but I don’t think it is remotely dishonest to say that many hawks argue as if the only alternative to their own foreign policy is isolationism—including some people at Commentary. The Jennifer Rubin column I linked to above specifically describes the two sides of 2013 Syria debate as “isolationists” and “interventionists,” something that might have come as a surprise to John Bolton or Marco Rubio at the time.

The record speaks for itself.

I only mentioned Mandel’s post because he quite explicitly noted the reasonableness of Amash’s foreign-policy views and still contrasted them with “a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy” (months after Paul outlined a more nuanced perspective at the Heritage Foundation). For many of us, this limited retrenchment and less interventionist foreign policy is all we seek.

Iraq may not be the only “prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured” (Libya, for example, was a catastrophe some Iraq opponents supported) and I expressly acknowledged that people who were right about that war may be wrong on other things. But if you believe that the only things that went wrong in Iraq were that we invaded with too few troops, took too long to order the surge, and withdrew too soon, that has implications for Iran, Syria, the scope of any action against ISIS, and Middle East policy in general.

We have a pretty clear pattern of interventions in the region that have produced results that were at best disappointing and at worst nearly the opposite of what we intended to achieve, countries where the type of people who attacked us on 9/11 now have more freedom of movement than they did before we invaded in the first place. There is little political support at home or abroad for the continued boots on the ground the hawks insist are necessary to turn these disappointments into successes.

But the hawks were right about Russia, Mandel insists. I’ve criticized noninterventionists and realists for defending Vladimir Putin’s illegal behavior. But this analysis ignores counterproductive Western involvement in the ouster of Ukraine’s duly elected president and a NATO expansion that makes war guarantees we never made at the height of the Cold War.

If the hawks have a realistic solution for a nuclear-armed Russia that isn’t going to become a liberal democracy or stop trying to be a regional power in the foreseeable future, I haven’t seen it.

I’m happy to engage with those “who favor a robust American engagement with the world” when they can define what they mean and argue without calling their opponents isolationists or “morons.”

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?



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