The Wars Rand Paul Would Fight

Do the senator's rules for using military force make any sense?

John Sommers II/Reuters

If Rand Paul is the “most interesting man in politics,” as Time magazine recently put it, perhaps this says more about the state of American politics than it does about Rand Paul. Still, the senator from Kentucky is at least willing to question conventional foreign-policy thinking by staking out a position of non-interventionism. Paul’s challenge is to square these ideas with a GOP base that remains committed to a Reaganite model of peace through strength. On Thursday night, in a speech at the Center for the National Interest, he outlined the Paul Doctrine, and used every available trick to reconcile his thinking with traditional GOP beliefs.

First of all, Paul stressed, the GOP doesn’t have to give up its principles to back his brand of "conservative realism.”

“Americans yearn for leadership and for strength, but they don't yearn for war,” he declared.

“Yes, we need a hammer ready, but not every civil war is a nail.”

“We can’t retreat from the world, but we can’t remake it in our own image either.”

Strengthening American leadership, maintaining a strong military, and refusing to retreat are true Republican ideas. But according to Paul, waging a quixotic crusade to spread American ideals is something that Obama would dream up.

Paul also tried to legitimize his ideas by placing them squarely in the midstream of historic GOP foreign-policy thinking. He sprinkled in ample references to heroic Republicans of past and present like Ike, Reagan, and Kissinger. By implication, all of them would readily endorse Paul in the GOP primary.

Paul also echoed the Republican Weinberger-Powell Doctrine (outlined by Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, and Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the 1980s and early 1990s) by presenting a series of tests that should be passed before using force—for example, only fighting wars to protect vital U.S. interests and with congressional support.

Paul’s most interesting tactic was to make the case for non-interventionism sound distinctly hawkish. “America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate,” he said. “America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory.” In other words, go big or go home. ‘Victory’ is a word we don’t hear much these days, and it’s a popular one with the GOP base.

But this is really a dovish argument: If there’s no path to victory, the U.S. shouldn’t use force at all. In the kind of messy civil wars we face today, decisive success is often a distant mirage. So the answer, according to Paul, is to stay out of the quagmire. No more ill-considered missions like the Libyan intervention, where Muammar al-Qaddafi is overthrown only for the country to become “a jihadist wonderland.”

Paul should be credited for broadening the GOP foreign-policy debate. And there’s considerable merit in his preference for thinking carefully through the endgame of war, building congressional support before seizing the sword, and recognizing the potential for blowback from drone strikes.

But there are also problems with the Paul Doctrine—some of them potentially irreconcilable. The senator laid out his criteria for when to fight wars and then immediately violated those criteria by backing the campaign against ISIS, where there is no clear endgame. “Although I support the call for defeating and destroying ISIS, I doubt that a decisive victory is possible in the short term, even with the participation of the Kurds, the Iraqi government, and other moderate Arab states,” he said.

Here lies the fundamental problem with fighting for victory or not fighting at all. What if U.S. leaders don’t want either option? What if they resist the kind of commitment necessary to defeat the enemy any time soon, but they also refuse to do nothing? Do they embrace a limited campaign like Obama’s airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, where clear-cut success is a remote hope?

And there’s another issue. Paul insists on decisive success in wartime but categorically rejects any hint of “nation-building.” But what does victory mean in a campaign like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, unless America creates a viable new regime through some kind of nation-building?

Paul claimed the Afghanistan War evolved from “a just, necessary war” into a “nation-building” mission. But in reality the Bush administration had no desire to nation-build in Afghanistan, and basically walked away from the country after overthrowing the Taliban, as officials turned their attention to Iraq. In 2002, there were only 10,000 American troops in the whole of Afghanistan. The Taliban recovered because there was nothing to stop them. In truth, there’s little point in launching a regime-change mission if the country then descends into chaos and anarchy. That mission also requires a plan to win the peace.

Will Republicans buy the Paul Doctrine? On Thursday, Paul threw out just enough red meat about Obama’s weakness to keep his audience from leaping on stage and devouring him. But to vaccinate himself against the charge of irresolution and isolationism, the senator will likely have to move further in the hawkish direction. Pitching fewer wars as a quest for victory that would make Reagan proud will only get Paul so far. The GOP wants to go big whereas Paul wants to go home.