In his speech, Paul lauded Cold War thinker George Kennan for articulating a strategy based on a careful calibration of U.S. interests. Kennan, he said, objected to President Harry Truman’s "implied obligation to act wherever Soviet aggression or intimidation occurred, without regard to whether American interests were at stake or the means existed with which to defend them." After all, not every cluster of Islamic radicals in far-flung outposts of the world constitutes a threat to the United States, just as not every two-bit Communist regime constituted a Cold War threat. Paul’s "saner, more balanced approach to foreign policy" would take account of these distinctions.
Paul was particularly intriguing in his assessment of Ronald Reagan, often invoked by neoconservatives as a model for their aggressive foreign-policy prescriptions. This is a false analogy, says Paul, adding that Reagan’s foreign policy was "robust but also restrained." He quotes Reagan adviser Jack Matlock as saying the fortieth president’s Soviet policy "had more in common with Kennan’s thinking than the policy of any of Reagan’s predecessors." The Cold War ended, Paul argues, because the engine of capitalism defeated the engine of socialism. "Reagan aided and abetted this end not by ‘liberation’ of captive people," but with tough talk accompanied by a willingness to engage diplomatically. And he praises Reagan’s "strategic ambiguity"—his willingness to keep the world guessing about just how he defined his own foreign policy.
This was far more effective, says Paul, than the current tendency to outline precisely what the United States will and won’t accept from other countries, which he suggests undermines effective diplomacy. He is particularly critical of how this has worked vis-à-vis Iran, which has been told that "all options are on the table" (meaning, obviously, the military option) while U.S. officials sternly remove from the table any prospect of containment and have handled the diplomatic option in ways suggesting limited interest in that as well. Just as it would be unwise to state unequivocally that we will accept containment as a policy against a nuclear Iran, says Paul, it is equally unwise to say we will never accept containment. "War," said Paul, "should never be our only option."
And yet Washington operates in a political environment in which it is not acceptable to question the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Those who do so, says Paul, are "immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged." He adds, "The most pressing question of the day, Iran developing nuclear weapons, is allowed to have less debate in this country than it receives in Israel."
He bolsters that assertion by citing Israeli high officials and former officials who have stepped forward with warnings about a military strike against Iran. These include the current head of the Mossad, a former head of the Mossad, the former chief of Israel’s domestic-security service, and the army chief of staff. Paul sees little of this kind of dissent in U.S. political discourse.
There is plenty in Paul’s speech worthy of debate, but that’s the point. He wants to generate debate on matters that in recent years have received little serious discourse within the Republican Party—and not much more within the broader confines of official Washington. This should be welcomed by anyone who wants the country’s foreign-policy decisions to be vetted, weighed, adjudicated and pushed through a process of sound and measured consideration. Perhaps prospects of another disastrous Iraq War could thus be diminished.
It is widely believed in Washington that Rand Paul plans to run for president in 2016. If he does, and if he hones and refines this Heritage message to a fine point, then we can learn if such views can find resonance among Republican voters in the primaries or whether the aggressive foreign-policy outlook of the party’s neoconservatives will inevitably hold sway. Either way, let the games begin.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.