The Buzz

Why Rand Paul Should Worry about 'America in Retreat'

Kentucky’s junior Senator, Rand Paul, announced his candidacy for President of the United States on Tuesday.  Senator Paul is young, energetic and one of the genuinely nice guys in American politics.  His positions on cutting the staggering federal debt by taming “Big Government” and curbing the NSA’s surveillance of law abiding Americans are attractive to Republicans, Independents and even many Democrats.

Four years ago, Senator Paul's personality and platform may be earned him the GOP nomination.  His announcement comes, however, at a time when Speaker John Boehner, summed up the concerns of many in a Politico interview: “it’s just that the world is on fire. And I don’t think enough Americans or enough people in the administration understand how serious the problems that we’re facing in the world are.”

Russia’s 1930s-style invasion and occupation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, the rise of a cruel ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s new archipelago of influence stretching from Beirut on the Mediterranean to Yemen on the Arabian Sea, China’s virtual annexation of the South and East China Seas through man-made islands and Air Defense Identification Zones, not to mention North Korea’s continued development of both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, all portend a far more dangerous world than Americans are accustomed to living in.

Senator Paul’s isolationist tendencies have lead to out-of-the-mainstream statements on the Middle East such as: “we should realize that the interventionists are calling for Islamic rebels to win in Syria and for the same Islamic rebels to lose in Iraq.” His perceived softness on Russian expansionism may arise from his remark that “[s]ome on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”  He added that, “I think we need to have a respectful–sometimes adversarial–but a respectful relationship with Russia.”  Unlike the other GOP candidates, who have harshly condemned President Obama's nuclear framework with Iran's Supreme Leader, Senator Paul said yesterday that he is keeping an "open mind" on the deal.  Such comments have been easy targets for conservative foreign policy commentators such as Christian Whiton, who put Senator Paul squarely in the “blame America first” crowd in a September 2014 Breitbart opinion piece.

A more serious concern for Senator Paul is Pulitzer prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens’ recent book, “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel 2014).”  Stephen’s book has become mandatory reading for national security experts advising GOP candidates.  With a respectful dissertation on the roots and appeal of American isolationism, Stephens places both President Barrack Obama and Senator Paul in that tradition.

Stephens writes: “[a]s for Paul, he espouses a form of Realism that amounts to a prescription for downsizing U.S. commitments abroad as part of a broader package of downsizing Big Government at home.  As he told a roomful of college students when he was gearing up for a run for the Senate in 2009, ‘you have to decide if we have an expansionist foreign policy that believes that we have to have 750 military bases in 130 countries, or whether our foreign policy should be a little more directed toward what the founding fathers talked about and that is more defense of our country and less offensive type of foreign policy.’” (97-98.)

Stephens’ thesis, however, is that this new isolationism espoused by President Obama, on the progressive left, and Senator Paul, on the libertarian right, opens the door for dictators, tyrants and terrorists to fill the vacuum left by a retreating and disengaged America. Speaker Boehner’s characterization of a “world on fire” and headlines reporting the latests attacks by Islamic extremists and daily advances of Russian separatists appear to vindicate Stephens’ argument.  Senator Paul is, thus, placed in an extraordinarily difficult position, especially with GOP primary voters. 

Stephens ends his book by arguing that America remains fundamentally strong and that “retreat”, unlike “decline”, is a policy choice.  He posits that liberty at home and abroad rests on “American power with the reach and credibility to keep our enemies in check and far away; power that fosters global conditions of predictability, prosperity, decency and freedom.” (230.)  “When the thugs and scofflaws show up in your neighborhood, as they sometimes do,” says Stephens, “you’ll be grateful to know that cop (America) is still walking his old beat, a reassuring presence in a still-dangerous world.”  (231.)

In a Republican primary where the leading candidates – Governor Scott Walker, former Governor Jeb Bush, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz – are all echoing Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” maxim, Stephens’ book, with its focus on and dissection of the Obama/Paul foreign policy, has made it almost impossible for Senator Paul to make a similar claim on Reagan’s legacy. 

Robert C. O'Brien is the California managing Partner of a national law firm. He served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations and was a Senior Advisor to Governor Mitt Romney. His writings on foreign policy and national security are available at He can be followed on Twitter: @robertcobrien.

Image: Flickr/Michael Vadon