Rand Paul's long, and at times seemingly ad hoc, foreign policy speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday was a heartfelt attempt to reassert the traditional Republican embrace of realism and skepticism about nation-building over supposedly unnecessarily interventionist neo-conservatism. He was trying to outline, I think, a strong U.S. overseas presence that is not afraid to use force to promote our interests, and which can dovetail with democratic advocacy, but one that nonetheless does not find itself in perpetual interventions that do not play to our military strengths and may prove counter-productive in the long-run. Who could not support that vision?
The speech did suffer from some mistaken notions. For example, we did not arm Osama bin Laden. His tiny Arab brigade played no real role in the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Through post facto myth-making and his own fortune, bin Laden took advantage of a very non-neoconservative, but very realist, U.S. policy of arming enemies of our enemy, the Soviet Union.
Also, George Kennan, who Paul repeatedly referenced in the remarks, was actually a blue-blood elitist whose saw foreign policy as the proper domain only of properly credentialed grandees quite different from someone like Rand Paul -- Ivy League types who were above populist "jingoism," which helps explain why Kennan was opposed to Reaganesque rollback and, even earlier, the hard containment policies of Dean Acheson.
I don't think support for the removal of Saddam Hussein (authorized on 23 writs by both houses of Congresses, and supported by a wide array of liberals from Thomas Friedman and Andrew Sullivan to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as conservatives from George Will to the late Bill Buckley; cf. the Clinton-era support for regime change) is synonymous to a neoconservatism that is caricatured by the idea of endless war or supposed lockstep support for the Likud Party. Many of us who supported the Iraq war did so to rid the world of a maniacal dictator far more dangerous and genocidal than Slobodan Milosevic, and yet did not support intervention in either Syria or Libya, and not because Barack Obama would be the architect of such adventures.
We did not get congressional approval to go into Libya (but instead sought it from the Arab League and the UN, a first in the last 60 years) and would not have gotten it for Syria. Paul is right that we should have authorization for substantial military operations. The lesson of the Arab Spring is that, without U.S. ground troops, we have no control over the future of the post-dictatorial state; while the lesson of Iraq is that the American people and its political class do not believe that escalating costs to have such requisite control by the presence of U.S. troops is worth the eventual outcome.
The world is a far better place without Saddam and the Taliban. Historians and the future of both countries will adjudicate whether the result was worth the costs. We should also remember that a vast majority of Americans (and nearly the entire political class) supported the war in Iraq, then turned on it when things went downhill (rather than because of the absence of stockpiles of WMD [cf. the October 2002 23 writs for intervention passed by the Congress]). They then opposed the surge and the efforts of David Petraeus, and they now pose as if they were principled opponents from the beginning. Coincidentally, their flip-flopping was made consistent by "initial suspicions" that remained remarkably quiet at the time.
In any case, the key is to find muscularity without paralysis, to avoid both isolationism and Wilsonian zealotry. Rand Paul is right about that too. The key, though, is also to remember how policies arise—usually as a reaction to past failed policies. The 2003 war to remove Saddam (and to stay on to leave something better) was seen, in a post-9/11 climate, both as a corrective to the unhappy end of the 1991 war that had led to the mass murder of the Kurds and Shiites; and to the 12 years of no-fly zones whose enforcement was eroding. The imperative, rightly or wrongly, was also not to do what we had done by simply ignoring post-Soviet Afghanistan in the early 1980s—which was buoyed by a seemingly quick, successful war in Afghanistan and the rapid establishment of what was thought, in 2002, to be a consensual, stable Karzai government vastly superior to the Taliban.
In short, Paul, I think, was trying to distance himself from both caricatured neoconservatism and the impressions of his own father's libertarian isolationism, and searching for a bipartisan sobriety that would protect our allies but not intervene on behalf of unsure insurgents. I applaud his efforts — as long as we realize that the Iraq war did not lead to endless subsequent neoconservative interventionism and that no-nonsense realism often leads to things like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the mess after the 1991 war.