BEDFORD: The good, the bad and the ugly of Rand Paul’s foreign policy address

Christopher Bedford | Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul — the leading libertarian Republican — laid out his vision of a conservative foreign policy. Love him or hate him, Mr. Paul is going to be a major voice in the GOP for at least the next four years. And if this speech is any indication, we’ll get it all: The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good:

The Paul name was a great boost to Rand Paul in the 2010 election, and likely will be in the future. But it isn’t all money bombs and young activists — the movement Rand Paul may inherit from his father, Rep. Ron Paul, comes with its share of demons. And the most important thing Paul-the-Younger did in his 30-minute speech was clean his house.

“McCain’s call for a hundred year occupation does capture some truth: that the West is in for a long, irregular confrontation not with terrorism, which is simply a tactic, but with radical Islam,” Rand said.

“The problem,” he added moments later, “is that [radical Islam] is no small minority, but a vibrant, often mainstream, vocal and numerous minority.”

With these lines, Mr. Paul put important distance between himself and some of the radicals (formerly?) in his support base — folks who do not think that radical Islam is an existential, religious, and deadly force; folks who think that suicide bombing is a symptom of poverty and repression, and not the ultimate expression of a determined ideology. He also assured some doubters that he realizes that this is no quick fight — we’re in it for the long haul, in one way or another.

And shortly after exercising those ghouls, Mr. Paul went straight for the heart of another set of cretins.

“Some libertarians argue that western occupation fans the flames of radical Islam – I agree,” he said, conceding the obvious. “But I don’t agree that absent western occupation that radical Islam ‘goes quietly into that good night. I don’t agree with FDR’s VP, Henry Wallace, that the Soviets — or radical Islam, in today’s case — can be discouraged by ‘the glad hand and the winning smile.'”

No matter how shrill their protests, there is no denying that the fringes of the libertarian left and paleo right that may support Mr. Paul harbor a toxic level of thinkers who would — and do — blame the United States for the woes of the world. If he is able to exorcise those demons, we can be sure he will be taken a lot more seriously than his father was when he took to the stage to challenge the foreign policy that has dominated the GOP since Sept. 11, 2001.

And that’s a good thing, because the GOP has a foreign policy problem: “Foreign policy,” Mr. Paul said, “has become so monolithic, so lacking in debate, that Republicans and Democrats routinely pass foreign policy statements without debate and without votes.”

“Where are the calls,” he continued, “for moderation, the calls for restraint? Anyone who questions the bipartisan consensus is immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged. 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.”

And this is a real issue. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is, to the casual observer, indistinguishable from the predecessor he criticized so harshly. And do the Republicans of the future have an answer? Sen. John “Hundred Years” McCain didn’t seem to.

And unless Americans think that we’re on a winning and sustainable path against Radical Islam — and we don’t — there needs to be some soul-searching. If Mr. Paul frees himself from the lunatics, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists, and blame-America-firsters who populate the fringes of his father’s supporters, he could free himself to be that voice for “moderation,” for “restraint.” And Republicans might actually listen.

That’s a lot of good. But unfortunately, that was as far as the good went on Wednesday, because the rest was, well, bad. And ugly.

The Bad

Mr. Paul’s speech was aptly titled “containment and radical Islam,” and this was appropriate because from beginning to end, Mr. Paul advocated for the failed Cold War policy of “containment.”

Containment was essentially a compromise between détente (or appeasement) and rollback, and though often interpreted differently by different leaders, it was essentially the policy of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.

The problem is that while we tried to hold the Soviets in, Americans died in the tens of thousands, enslaved people were murdered in the millions, and Communist influence expanded in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. Why Mr. Paul would advocate a return to this policy, or how it would look against a strictly guerrilla enemy, is beyond us, but might have to do with a misreading of history. Containment, Mr. Paul told his audience — was actually the policy of President Ronald Reagan.

And here is where he really lost us.

The Ugly

Historic revisionism is an ugly — and dangerous — thing. Orwell rightly said “who controls the past, controls the future,” and policymakers need to carefully guard against it.

It’s not unusual for a politicians to invoke the Founders to justify ideas, or to invoke more recent leaders, like Mr. Reagan, which is what Mr. Paul did. The problem was that nearly everything Mr. Paul said about Mr. Reagan was false.

Mr. Paul cited one of Mr. Reagan’s U.S.S.R. ambassadors to indicate that Mr. Reagan pursued a policy of containment that was more in line with its creator than other presidents, and explained that “Reagan’s foreign policy was much closer to what I am advocating than what we have today.”

But although Mr. Reagan showed conservative restraint in his use of conventional forces, his foreign policy brought a distinct end of containment and détente, and marked the first time a U.S. president had actively pursued a rollback policy with the Soviet Union.

Mr. Reagan’s policy toward the Soviet Union involved arming anti-Soviet guerrillas, giant military spending (to drive the Soviets into bankruptcy) and harsh diplomacy. Mr. Paul quoted Mr. Reagan saying “I have a foreign policy. I just don’t happen to think it’s wise to tell the world what your foreign policy is.” To this quote, Mr. Paul added that “Reagan’s liberal critics would decry a lack of sophistication but others would understand a policy in having no stated policy, a policy of strategic ambiguity. If you enumerate your policy, if you telegraph to the Soviets that the Strategic Defense Initiative is a ploy to get the Soviets to the bargaining table, the ploy is then made impotent.”

But in reality, Mr. Reagan did have a foreign policy: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall;” “Freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history;” or, most succinctly, “Here’s my strategy for the Cold War: We win, they lose.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan backed anti-Communist forces in Africa, Asia and Central America, sometimes circumventing Congress, and once deploying U.S. troops to Grenada. Though he undoubtedly is aware of these strategic interventions, Mr. Paul’s speech gave the audience no clue. He did, however, slam Mr. Reagan’s arming of anti-Soviets in Afghanistan — a move that helped shatter the morale of the Red Army — just a few moments after comparing his foreign policy to that of the Gipper. (RELATED: Rand Paul advances ‘folk myth’ that U.S. funded bin Laden)

Oh, and who the hell told Mr. Paul that the Strategic Defense Initiative was a “ploy”?

The senator is right — Mr. Reagan’s foreign policy was more restrained than his predecessors or successors, and neoconservatives do indeed falsely invoke Mr. Reagan’s name all too often. But while Mr. Paul is entitled to his own foreign policy opinions, he is not entitled to his own history.

The next four years will hopefully see a vigorous debate on what a conservative foreign policy must look like in the 2st century. This past week, Mr. Paul took important steps forward, and a noteworthy step back, in allowing for that debate to have a real impact.

Some say it’s a difficult time to be a conservative, but more essentially, it’s an exciting time to be a conservative. There isn’t a lot of money to be made right now, and there is a lot of soul searching that needs to be done, but over the next two years, the future of the GOP, and with it the country, will be decided. Tune in.

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