Paul Pillar

Grand Strategy and the Dominant Paranoia

The foreign policy speech that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) gave at the Heritage Foundation last week has received significant attention, and appropriately so. Robert Merry's mostly sympathetic treatment in these spaces describes the speech as “seminal.” Paul's statement indeed represents a significant divergence from the foreign policy thinking that has come to dominate the political party to which he belongs. An interesting comparison, however, is provided by Robert Kagan's less sympathetic take on the speech. Kagan commends Paul's desire to spark a serious foreign policy debate in his party and in the country, but he sees Paul as hewing to more conventional views, and breaking less specific new ground, than Paul might want us to believe.

Kagan underestimates the full implications of how Paul's speech, even if it was light on specific policy prescriptions, departs from the neoconservative-dominated thinking that is currently part of the Republican mainstream. After all, it only takes one equivalent of the Iraq War not to be launched to make a big difference. Moreover, some of where Paul was less bold in the speech than he might otherwise have been can be attributed to observing the limits of political viability, perhaps with a future presidential run in mind. In noting, for example, Paul's subscribing to the mantra of “keeping all options on the table” for dealing with Iran, Kagan observes, “A true dissenter would have the temerity to declare that a nuclear Iran, although unfortunate, is nevertheless tolerable and that the military option ought not to be on the table.” Kagan's observation is correct, and the true dissenter's view on this subject would also be correct. But that view unfortunately is still politically incorrect enough to endanger the electability of anyone who expresses it. Unless we expect Barack Obama to challenge that bit of political correctness (and we should), it is probably unfair to expect Rand Paul to challenge it.

Kagan, however, accurately puts his finger on a central theme in Paul's speech that is not a departure at all—from what is mainstream thinking not only in his own party but across the political spectrum. On this theme, Kagan writes,

Paul sounds conventional. He calls himself a “realist,” but unlike many realists, he sees the overriding threat to America as “radical Islam,” which he describes as a “relentless force” of “unlimited zeal,” “supported by radicalized nations such as Iran” and with which the United States is indeed at “war” and will be for a long time. Unlike critics during the Cold War, who argued that anti-communist “paranoia” produced a self-destructive foreign policy, Paul embraces the dominant “paranoia” of the post-9/11 era. He...shares the average American’s view that radical Islam is today what Soviet Communism was during the Cold War — “an ideology with worldwide reach” that must, like communism, be met by “counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points.”

In the speech, Paul does indeed play up the comparison to communism and the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, repeatedly invoking George Kennan. He also does some of the homogenizing of purported threats that became familiar during the Cold War. Although at one point he chides those prone to lumping very different scary Muslims together—by noting how many Americans still mistakenly believe Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attack—he does a lot of lumping himself. The Iranian regime, Saudi Wahhabists and terrorist cells in Western Europe are all put under the single label of “radical Islam.”

But this subject isn't anything like the challenge from the USSR and communism during the Cold War, and “radical Islam” really does involve a lot of paranoia on our part. There is nothing remotely comparable to a superpower armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There are no “radical Islamist” states or possible states that have any chance of challenging U.S. military power even locally, let alone globally. There is nothing that at all resembles the parallel political and military threats to Western Europe when it faced both Red Army divisions on the Elbe and communist parties that commanded many times more support and parliamentary seats than “radical Islam” could ever hope to achieve. There isn't even as much international and transnational connectivity and unity of purpose on the adversary side as there was during the Cold War—and even that was less than we, to our cost and discomfort, believed at the time. There is no “radical Islam” Comintern.