Rand Paul: The Case for Conservative Realism

October 23, 2014 Topic: Foreign Policy Region: United States

Rand Paul: The Case for Conservative Realism

"We need a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a common-sense conservative realism of strength and action." 


Editor’s Note: The following is the prepared text of a speech by Senator Rand Paul delivered in New York City at the Center for the National Interest’s annual dinner on October 23, 2014.

Thank you. It’s an honor to be at the Center for The National Interest.


Immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama wrote that we are at “the end of history.”

The world, Fukuyama argued, had arrived at what he called the universal triumph of “Western liberal democracy as the final point of human government.”

Almost 25 years later, we know Fukuyama was either wrong or, at the very least, a bit optimistic.

History has not ended.

Russia slides backward vainly hoping to resurrect the Soviet Union.

Vladimir Putin justifies aggression in Ukraine as defense against decadent and hypocritical Western powers.

In East Asia, Beijing extols the remarkable rise of China as the supremacy of a one-party state capitalism.

In the Middle East, secular dictatorships have been replaced by the rise of radical jihadist movements, who in their beliefs and barbarity -- represent the antithesis of liberal democracy.

These challenges are in part consequences of failing to define our national security interest in a new era.

Our allies and our enemies are unsure where America stands.

Until we develop the ability to distinguish, as George Kennan put it, between vital interests and more peripheral interests, we will continue to drift from crisis to crisis.

Today I want to share with you my views on how to address these threats and how I see America’s role in the world.

I want to spell out for you what I believe to be the principles of a national security strategy of strength and action.

Americans want strength and leadership but that doesn't mean they see war as the only solution.

Reagan had it right when he spoke to potential adversaries: "Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will.”

After the tragedies of Iraq and Libya, Americans are right to expect more from their country when we go to war.

America shouldn't fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate.  America shouldn't fight wars when there is no plan for victory.

America shouldn't fight wars that aren’t authorized by the American people, by Congress.

America should and will fight wars when the consequences….intended and unintended….are worth the sacrifice.

The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.

President Obama claims that al Qaeda is decimated.  But a recent report by the RAND Corporation tracked a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups.

To contain and ultimately defeat radical Islam, America must have confidence in our constitutional republic, our leadership, and our values.

To defend our country we must understand that a hatred of our values exists, and acknowledge that interventions in foreign countries may well exacerbate this hatred, but that ultimately, we must be willing and able to defend our country and our interests.

As Reagan said: “When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act.”

Will they hate us less if we are less present?

Perhaps….but hatred for those outside the circle of "accepted" Islam, exists above and beyond our history of intervention overseas.

​The world does not have an Islam problem.

The world has a dignity problem, with millions of men and women across the Middle East being treated as chattel by their own governments.

Many of these same governments have been chronic recipients of our aid.

When the anger boils over as it did in Cairo, the anger is directed not only against Mubarak but also against the United States because of our support for Mubarak.

Some anger is blowback, but some anger originates in an aberrant and intolerant distortion of religion that wages war against all infidels.

We can’t be sentimental about neutralizing that threat, but we also can’t be blind to the fact that drone strikes that inadvertently kill civilians may create more jihadists than we eliminate.

The young activist Malala Yousafzai, whom the Taliban in Pakistan shot in the head at point-blank range for insisting that girls have the right to attend school, voiced this concern when she met with President Obama.

She said: “It is true that when there’s a drone attack…terrorists are killed.  But 500 and 5,000 more people rise against it and more terrorism occurs.”

The truth is, you can’t solve a dignity problem with military force. It was Secretary Gates who warned that our foreign policy has become over-militarized.

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

There is a time to eliminate our enemies, but there is also a time to cultivate allies and encouragers among civilized Muslim nations.

Those of you who are familiar with me know that I deeply believe in individual liberty.

But I have learned through experience that this ideal can only be achieved by recognizing, as Bismarck said, that, policy is the art of the possible.

We need a foreign policy that recognizes our limits and preserves our might, a common-sense conservative realism of strength and action.

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

We can’t and shouldn’t engage in nation building, but we can facilitate trade and extend the blessings of freedom and free markets around the world.

Here’s how I see the most important principles that should drive America’s foreign policy.

First, the Use of Force is and always has been an indispensable part of defending our country.

War is necessary when America is attacked or threatened, when vital American interests are attacked and threatened, and when we have exhausted all other measures short of war.

While no foreign policy should preclude the use of force, Reagan understood that war should never be the first resort.

Eisenhower understood this also when he said, “Belligerence is the hallmark of insecurity.”

The war in Afghanistan is an example of a just, necessary war. I supported the decision to go into Afghanistan after 9/11.

I still do today.

America was attacked by Al Qaeda, and there was a clear initial objective: dismantle the Taliban, and deny Al Qaeda safe haven.

The invasion showcased the best of modern American military strength and ingenuity: we went in with Special Forces and heavy air power, and formed critical alliances.

The Taliban were ousted from power, and Al Qaeda fled. We kept a limited force in Afghanistan to wage counterterrorism and we understood, at first, the limits of nation building in a country decimated by over 30 years of constant war.

​Only after our initial success did the lack of a clear objective give rise to mission creep.  Today Afghanistan is more violent than when President Obama came into office.

He deployed another 50,000 troops, nearly doubling our forces in Afghanistan, and added $120 billion dollars to the deficit.

And yet, the results are discouraging. The leading cause of death among our soldiers now comes from enemies disguised in the uniforms of our allies.

1,422 troops have died since President Obama ordered the surge.

We have now spent more money in Afghanistan than we did for the Marshall Plan and yet after the killing of Bin Laden and the toppling of the Taliban, it is hard to understand our exact objective.

Stalemate and perpetual policing seem to be our mission now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

A precondition to the use of force must be a clear end goal. We can't have perpetual war.

A second principle is that Congress, the people’s representative, must authorize the decision to intervene.

Reagan's defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, outlined a systematic approach to sending American troops to war.

A critical component of this doctrine is support from the American public.

The Libyan war was fought without the approval of Congress or the American people.

President Obama claimed our military was “being volunteered by others to carry out missions” in Libya.  He fundamentally misunderstands our Republic.

Let me be very clear:

France doesn’t send our men and women in uniform to war, the United Nations doesn’t send our soldiers to war, Congress, and only Congress can constitutionally initiate war!

The war in Libya was not in our national interest. It had no clear goal and it led to less stability.

Today, Libya is a jihadist wonderland, a sanctuary and safe haven for terror groups across North Africa.

Our Ambassador was assassinated and our Embassy forced to flee over land to Tunisia.  Jihadists today swim in our Embassy swimming pool.

The Obama administration, urged on by Hillary Clinton, wanted to go to war but didn't anticipate the consequences of war.

Libya is now more chaotic and America is less safe.

War should not be a unilateral decision taken in the isolation of the White House. But that is what happened.

In failing to seek Congressional authority, President Obama missed a chance to galvanize the country. He missed a chance to lead.

A President who recognizes the Constitutional limitations of power is not weakened, but actually empowered by the public debate that comes with a declaration of war.

I support a strategy of air strikes against ISIS.

Our airpower must be used to rebalance the tactical situation in favor of the Kurds and Iraqis and to defend Americans and our assets in the region.

Just as we should have defended our consulate in Benghazi, so too we must defend our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.

I don't support arming the so-called Sunni moderates in Syria, though.

I said a year ago and I say it again now. The ultimate sad irony is that we are forced to fight against the very weapons we send to Syrian rebels.

The weapons are either indiscriminately given to "less than moderate rebels” or simply taken from moderates by ISIS.

600 tons of weapons have been given to the Syrian rebels, inadvertently creating a safe haven for ISIS.

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.

In the end, only the people of the region can destroy ISIS. In the end, the long war will end only when civilized Islam steps up to defeat this barbaric aberration.

A third principle is the belief that peace and security require a commitment to diplomacy and leadership.

Around the world we see the consequences of failed diplomacy and absence of leadership after 6 years of the Obama administration.

Military force is meaningless if our leaders cannot reinforce American diplomacy through engagement and leadership.

President Obama never invested in relationships with Congress, and the same is true of his foreign policy. To have friends, you have to be a friend.

In the run up to the Gulf War in 1991, Arab nations believed that once President Bush drew a line, he wouldn’t let Iraq cross it.

And President Bush didn’t “dance on the Berlin Wall” when it crumbled; instead he worked behind the scenes to help the Cold War end calmly.

In light of the new threat posed by ISIS, I believe it is even more imperative that Tehran and Washington find an effective diplomatic solution for limiting the Iranian enrichment program. A nuclear armed Iran would only further destabilize a region in turmoil.

Another diplomatic challenge is Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Putin’s actions not only threaten Ukraine, but represent a threat to the post-Cold War European order.

I support the sanctions that the U.S. and the European Union put in place against Russia.

I also agree with the measures taken at the NATO Summit to increase the Alliance’s military preparedness, especially increased European defense spending.

We need to use sanctions and defense spending to achieve a diplomatic settlement that takes into account Russia’s long-standing ties with Ukraine and allows Kiev to develop its relations both with Russia and the West.

As Kissinger put it: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

Ukraine is geographically and historically bound to both regions.

We will need to understand that even with our help, Ukraine will not be able to stand up to Russian pressure unless it undertakes some fundamental reforms, such as stamping out corruption and restructuring its energy sector.

This brings me to the last principle I’d like to discuss today: we are only as strong as our economy.

Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it succinctly:  the biggest threat to our national security is our debt.

A bankrupt nation doesn't project power but rather weakness.

Our national power is a function of the national economy. During the Reagan renaissance, our strength in the world reflected our successful economy.

Low growth, high unemployment, and big deficits have undercut our influence in the world. Americans have suffered real consequences from a weak economy.

President George W. Bush understood that part of the projection of American power is the exporting of American goods and culture.  His administration successfully brokered fourteen new free trade agreements and negotiated three others that are the only new free trade agreements approved since President Obama took office.  Instead of just talking about a so-called “pivot to Asia,” the Obama administration should prioritize negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership by year’s end.

Free trade and technology should be the greatest carrot of our statecraft.

Trade is a critical element of building a productive relationship with other nations, including China.

While our relations with China are complicated, trade has drawn us together and mutual investment can also play a constructive role. In an era in which geopolitics could drive us apart, we need to look for new areas for US-Chinese cooperation.

Promoting free markets should be a priority.

The only long-term strategy that will change the world is fostering successful capitalist economies that increase living standards and connect people through trade.

From Kiev to Cairo to Tunis, we are witnessing a historic time of protest against the injustice of overbearing, corrupt governments.

If the long war is ever to end, we must understand the frustrations of the street.

It isn't always abject poverty or religion that motivates recruits or sets off conflict.

Often it is the despair and humiliation that comes from overbearing government.

Twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street merchant who set himself afire and began the Arab Spring, was an aspiring entrepreneur foiled by a corrupt government.

Bouazizi had a dream: he’d save for a pick-up truck. But cronyism and an overbearing government stifled his dream.

Constantly harassed for money he didn’t have, Bouazizi doused himself in kerosene and lit a match.

My great-grandfather came to America with a dream not unlike Bouazizi’s. He peddled vegetables until he saved enough to purchase a truck, elevating him to what they called then a "truck farmer," a level that allowed him to purchase a home and small bit of land.

The difference between America in the late nineteenth century and places in the Middle East…South Asia..Africa…and South America…today is that bribes and cronyism were not necessary to get a license to purchase a truck or sell vegetables.

Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto spoke to Bouazizi’s brother and asked if he left a legacy. Bouazizi’s brother responded: “Of course, he believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.”

Tonight I have outlined the principles we must remember if we are to advance security, peace, and human dignity.

These principles of conservative realism are a return to traditional Republican values that recognize our limits and realize our might.

Americans yearn for leadership and for strength, but they don't yearn for war.

Our enemies should bear witness to the unmatched and unstoppable American force that was justifiably unleashed after 9/11 and know that terrorism will never defeat America, that terrorism will only awaken and embolden our resolve.

But the world should also know that America aspires to peace, trade, and commerce with all.

That though we will not abide injustice we will not instigate war.

That our noblest intentions are sincere and war will always be our last resort, and that “our reluctance for war must not be mistaken for lack of resolve” …

That the exceptional ideas that formed our republic unify us in the defense of freedom, and we will never back down in the defense of our naturally derived, inalienable rights.

Thank you.

Image: Creative Commons 2.0/Flickr.