The fight for the Republican Party’s 2016 nomination has already begun. The acrimonious debate between Governor Rick Perry and Senator Rand Paul over Reagan’s legacy indicates that foreign policy will loom large in determining who wins the nomination and the trajectory of America’s role in the world.
Senator Paul has emerged as a serious challenger, one it would be unwise to underestimate. Although Paul’s designation of himself as a foreign policy Reaganite withers under scrutiny, he has offer the clearest, most cogent alternative to the hawkish muscular internationalism still popular among most conservatives, including Rick Perry. Paul sounds temperate, not incendiary, avoiding the morally and geopolitically indefensible positions of his father, Ron Paul, and paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, unrepentant American opponents of American intervention in World War II. Paul has revived a tradition of minimalism, reluctance to use force, and a non-ideological definition of the national interest dormant in the Republican Party since Dwight Eisenhower defeated Senator Robert Taft, R-Ohio, for the party’s Presidential nomination in 1952.
Indeed, Paul’s views on national security most closely resemble President Obama’s. Like Obama, Pall calls for deep cuts in “America’s bloated Department of Defense,” which Reagan hugely increased. “A less aggressive foreign policy along with an audit of the Pentagon could save tens of millions of dollars each year without sacrificing national defense,” Paul told CNN. In some ways, Paul is even more dovish than Obama. Paul led a filibuster against the administration’s use of drones. Paul denounced NSA spying that has continued under Obama as unconstitutional and likened national security leaker Edward Snowden to Martin Luther King.
In a major foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation, Paul cited George F. Kennan as his foreign policy hero, despite Kennan’s opposition to most of President Truman’s iconic initiatives providing the architecture for eventually winning the Cold War: The NATO alliance and West Germany’s integration in it; the Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan; the massive military buildup begun during the Korean War, which transformed containment from rhetoric to reality. Kennan also expressed acidic distain for Ronald Reagan. As Yale historian and admiring biographer John Lewis Gaddis recounts, Kennan considered Reagan the most dangerous, uninformed, and belligerent U.S. leader of the Cold War.
Paul has indefatigably defended Obama’s foreign policy against the administration’s hawkish Republican critics. In a January 14, 2014 speech published in the National Interest, Paul suggested the agreement that Vladimir Putin brokered between the Obama administration and Bashir Assad in Syria, investing the UN with the responsibility to divest Assad of chemical weapons, could be “exactly what we need to resolve the standoff with Iran and North Korea.” Paul has endorsed Obama’s slashing the defense budget despite China’s prodigious military buildup, its growing assertiveness, and Putin’s ominous ambitions, manifested in Ukraine. More averse to using force than any post-World War II president including even Obama and Carter, Paul categorically opposes it, except as a last resort.
Paul takes a more relaxed view of a nuclear Iran or Islamic radicalism than Ronald Reagan did as President then or hawkish Republicans do now. Paul opposed the Iraq War and supported Obama’s determination to end American involvement expeditiously. In the Wall Street Journal, Paul blames the surge in violence tearing Iraq asunder on Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, rather than Obama’s withdrawal of all American combat troops by 2011. Paul likewise applauds the Obama administration’s categorical unwillingness to use force or reengage American substantially to quell the ferocious Islamist insurgency.
As David Adesnik reports, moreover, the suggested reading list for students on Paul’s own website provides ample cause for alarm: no books on Ronald Reagan or the fall of the Soviet Union, many favorites from left and right-wing isolationists and moral relativists such as Chalmers Johnson, author of the virulently anti-American screed Blowback.
Beware of flirting with candidates such as Paul espousing policies in defiance of the lessons of history and the venerable record of post-War Republican internationalism. Typically, the greatest dangers to the United States arise when adversaries, always lurking around the corner in international relations even in the best of times, perceive us as vulnerable and unprepared.