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We now have on our hands Barack Obama’s War, for our latest Middle Eastern war belongs entirely to him. And someone — let it be me! — should alert Sen. Rand Paul to this teachable moment, for Obama’s War (which Rand Paul supports) was brought on by the very policy of non-intervention that he, his father, and the Cato Institute all championed. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has testified in word and deed, there is essentially no difference on foreign affairs between left-wing Democratics and arch-libertarians who sometimes vote Republican.
This war might have been avoided. Had Obama taken the trouble to arrange for a few thousand American soldiers to remain in Iraq — as he easily could have — the Iraqi’s coalition government between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd would have held, despite Maliki’s perfidy. That, in turn, would have prevented al-Qaeda’s reemergence in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq. Moreover, ISIS would not be in control of great swathes of Syria had the president followed the advice of his advisors and allies and backed the secular-minded opposition to Bashar al-Assad from the start.
If a statesman wants to protect the interests of his country and minimize loss of life on the part of his compatriots, he needs to do what he can to shape the international environment. For this purpose, the doctrinaire non-interventionism of the arch-libertarians is as foolish as the doctrinaire interventionism of the Wilsonian internationalists. Just as we cannot police the whole world — and certainly should not attempt to do so — we cannot afford to let things spin out of control. Both the progressive internationalist and the libertarian isolationist philosophies are pipe dreams. What is required is, instead, a prudent patriotism: a focus on the interest and security of our own country, informed by foresight and a knowledge of the ways of the world.
We cannot afford to avert our gaze. Given our size and power, the character of our economy, and the propensity for thugs of one sort or another to take over large parts of the globe, we will find ourselves involved in fights in far-away countries of which we know little. The British and the French had learned this the hard way by 1940, but time has passed and memory fades.
By the same token, however, it is not true that every fight should be ours. Only prudence can distinguish between struggles that should concern us from those we should ignore; hard-and-fast, utopian doctrines can never be a substitute for discernment and judgment. Indeed, embracing such doctrines rules out discernment and judgment. No one should be a categoricial interventionist or a non-interventionist.
If Rand Paul really wants to be President of the United States — as, I think, he does — he has to jettison the doctrinaire mindset of his father, who was only ever interested in stirring the pot. He has to remove the ideological blinders crafted by the arch-libertarians, study the actual history of international relations and great-power politics, and ponder the dictates of prudence, the limits of our resources, and the means of leverage at our disposal. In our system of government, the chief task of the executive is to defend the Constitution, the country, its way of life, and its interests to the very best of his abilities. A President who fails to take that task seriously and to address it with vigor and dispatch is guilty of malfeasance, as is the present occupant of the office.
I should say a final word about the scope of our interests. There is an international order of sorts, and it is now — and always will be — fragile. Though we did not create it on our own, we have been its chief proponent for the last 70 years and remain its mainstay. If we depart the scene, the order loses its guarantor and anarchy returns. We are, as Bill Clinton once observed, indispensable.
This international order has served us well. The trading regime we fostered and the freedom of the seas that we defended have made us (and most of our allies) wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of anyone who lived before the 1950s. The structures and practices we encouraged in Western Europe turned Germany and France into allies, brought an end to the great European wars that had proved our bane, and prepared the way for the collapse of communism and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
This achievement cost us time, patience, and treasure, and there were lives sacrificed. But they were as nothing when compared to the lives and treasure we spent in the Second World War, and they were insignificant when measured against what we gained by them. I cannot think of any period in human history in which a great power was as successful in shaping its external environment as we were in this period.
Think about it. We engaged in a long, twilight struggle with a rival coalition. That struggle went on for almost half a century, but ended without a major war and in a complete total victory for our side. Even when we found ourselves involved in skirmishes like the Korean and Vietnam wars — and that is what they were when viewed in comparison with our great wars — we lost fewer men each year on the battlefield than we sacrificed for the sake of sustaining commerce and communication on our highways. This epoch was our finest hour.
Now that international order — and, like it or not, our prosperity and our security — is endangered: in Europe by a revanchist, quasi-fascist power dismembering its neighbors with impunity; in the South China Sea by another quasi-fascist power trying to construct a new regional order modeled on Japan’s Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere; and in the Middle East by a quasi-fascist religious movement redrawing boundaries and massacring religious minorities.
Whatever wishful thinking the neo-isolationists of the Right and Left may entertain, these are challenges that cannot be ignored. The trick is to confront them in a prudent manner and at acceptable cost; the devil is, as always, in the details.
With regard to the first challenge, we should quietly introduce tactical nuclear weapons into the Baltic States and Poland in order to convey our resolve to Vladimir Putin and NATO. Then, we should join with those allies in using the levers at our disposal to bring down the Russian economy.
With regard to the second challenge — the most important, to my mind — we should quietly forge an alliance of Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and India to contain the Chinese colossus while making it clear that China remains welcome within the existing international trading regime. Put bluntly, the Chinese should be made to choose between isolation and prosperity.
The third of these challenges is a much tougher nut to crack, thanks to Barack Obama’s fecklessness and irresponsibility. We must not lose sight that Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, is a far greater threat than ISIS is ever apt to become. Eliminating the latter without strengthening the former should be our aim. But that is easier said than done. We would have a freer hand were we to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities at the outset.
To date, there is no sign that Rand Paul will ever be capable of assuming the responsibilities attendant on the presidency. If he cares for this country — as, I suspect, he does — and if he is as ambitious as he seems to be, he should set aside those ambitions for a while and devote himself to the study of international affairs. I would suggest that he begin by studying Thucydides (I recommend, for its maps, the The Landmark Thucydides), and then take the time to read both volumes of Winston Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times with attention and care.
They say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, and that was surely the case for Ron Paul. But his son? I have my doubts: catch him off guard, and you hear the accents of the old man, and incorrigible ignorance and folly may well be his inheritance. But you never know. He may be a fool, but he is not without intelligence. Then, again, his father is quick-witted as well, and that never got in the way of his lunacy.