In a packed room at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on Wednesday gave a speech attempting to differentiate himself on foreign policy from the neoconservative camp that still reigns supreme in the Republican Party.
“I am a realist,” Paul insisted, “not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.”
Paul tried to advocate for a less interventionist foreign policy. “I’d argue that a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy,” he said, “as it includes two basic tenets of true conservatism: respect for the Constitution and fiscal discipline.”
But with almost every prescription of restraint Paul declared, he negated it in the following sentence.
He criticized McCain’s outrageous 2007 statement that US troops should remain in Iraq for 100 years – “I blanched,” he said, “and wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be.”
But McCain’s militarist recipe for the Middle East “does capture some truth,” Paul immediately added, “that the West is in for a long, irregular confrontation not with terrorism, which is simply a tactic, but with Radical Islam.”
Paul suggested the United States reapply its Cold War strategies of engagement, aggression, and containment to the 21st century’s version of a Soviet threat: “Radical Islam.”
But does America really face such an overarching threat? Peter Bergen, one of the few Western journalists to interview Osama bin Laden, this week criticized “American politicians” for getting “into sky-is-falling mode” over the so-called Islamist threat. He says, “core al-Qaeda is going the way of the dodo.”
And as the New York Times reported last October, “most of the newer jihadist groups have local agendas, and very few aspire to strike directly at the United States as Osama bin Laden’s core network did.”
“Western politicians and commentators who claim that the al Qaeda linked groups in North Africa are a serious threat to the West unnecessarily alarm their publics and also feed the self-image of these terrorists who aspire to attack the West, but don’t have the capacity to do so,” Bergen writes.
To take one example, a congressional report in late 2011 insisted on building up Nigerian security forces and essentially starting a proxy war with the Islamist group Boko Haram.
But here’s what the chairman of the committee that drew up the report, Patrick Meehan (R-PA), told reporters: “While I recognize there is little evidence at this moment to suggest Boko Haram is planning attacks against the [US] homeland, lack of evidence does not mean it cannot happen.”
A Washington Post article around the same time noted a similar tendency to inflate the threat and overcompensate with interventionism.
Some officials in the Obama administration were wary of expanding the drone war in Somalia, the report said, “out of concern that a broader campaign could turn al-Shabab from a regional menace into an adversary determined to carry out attacks on US soil.”
The National Counterterrorism Center’s annual report for 2011 said about 10,000 acts of violence occurred in 2011 that the government classifies as terrorism, killing about 13,000 people total. Zero terrorist attacks occurred in the US and almost all of the fatalities were in just four countries, which happen to be virtual war zones: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Somalia.
Incidentally, those all happen to be countries in which US foreign policy has been heavily interventionist and which only became hot-spots of “terrorism” following US wars or proxy wars.
Few Americans will be persuaded of non-intervention if they are constantly reminded of minor, indirect threats through the oversimplified rhetoric of politicians.
Islamist militant groups are on the wane even though, as the New York Times article put it, “most of the political realities that inspired Bin Laden’s organization are still in place,” like unqualified support for Israel, propping up Arab dictatorships, and bombing various countries in the region on a near daily basis.
But this isn’t how Paul sees it: “Radical Islam is no fleeting fad but a relentless force. Though at times stateless, radical Islam is also supported by radicalized nations such as Iran. Though often militarily weak, radical Islam makes up for its lack of conventional armies with unlimited zeal.”
Iran is a “radicalized nation” that presents a threat to the US, Paul claimed. But is Tehran more “radicalized” than Washington?
Iranians certainly don’t think so. In 1953, at the time Senator Paul’s example of foreign policy restraint, George Kennan, was in the Eisenhower administration, the CIA orchestrated a coup and overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran, subsequently installing the Shah, a brutal dictator who ruled Iran with an iron fist for the next few decades.
Iran’s perspective is also colored by more recent history. The Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was based on false and fraudulent claims of the threat it posed. Some might think starting a war of choice that killed more than 650,000 people is more radical than anything the Islamic Republic of Iran has ever done.
A war without the justification of self-defense qualifies under international law as a war crime. In the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, “it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
If Senator Paul thinks Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah is what makes it a “radicalized nation,” it’s a wonder he doesn’t view America’s consistent support for terrorism as at least equally radical.
In his speech, Rand Paul proudly mentioned that he voted for sanctions on Iran. This, Washington insists, is punishment for having a nuclear weapons program that the US’s own intelligence community says does not exist.
Ordinary Iranians are being harmed by these sanctions, as unemployment continues to rise, inflation is increasingly out of control, and the import of vital medicines for severely sick Iranians are being blocked, putting millions of lives at risk. But Rand, in a speech meant to espouse foreign policy restraint, joins the hawks in both parties who claim Iran is a radicalized threat.
Iran is a third rate military power, which the Pentagon recently concluded has an essentially “defensive” posture. It presents no serious threat to the United States. Claiming it exemplifies “Radical Islam” contradicts the recent history of Iran’s diplomatic overtures in the face of American intransigence, as two Iran experts reveal in meticulous detail in a new book.
In the shadow of his truly non-interventionist father, Rand Paul is trying to bring non-interventionism into the mainstream, as Reason‘s Matt Welch argued this week. But he’s doing it by repeating the slogans of hawkish pundits and by lauding the foreign policies of distinguished interventionists like George Kennan.