Rand Paul is eager to pick a fight with the hawks. And he’s winning.
Rand Paul is channeling his crazy old dad again. Or at least, that’s what you’d think if you listened to the foreign policy hawks whose nerve Paul hit with a mallet by laying blame for ISIS at their feet.
Last week on Morning Joe — a perfect place for Republicans to say things they’ll regret later — Rand seemed to go full Ron, clubbing “the hawks” not only for summoning the Islamic State but soiling America’s global role for decades.
“ISIS exists and grew stronger because of the hawks in our party who gave arms indiscriminately,” the Kentucky senator and 2016 candidate explained, “and most of those arms were snatched up by ISIS. These hawks also wanted to bomb Assad, which would have made ISIS’s job even easier. They’ve created these people.”
He went on: “Everything that they’ve talked about in foreign policy, they’ve been wrong about for 20 years, and yet they have somehow the gall to keep saying and pointing fingers otherwise.”
Now, cable news is just about the worst place in the world to develop a careful critique of American grand strategy. Nor is it a great place to make a wide and deep argument about hawks’ resistance to recognizing the truth. Paul’s words thus gave his adversaries on the right a great opportunity to fire back at him.
But still, Paul made a muscular case. For generations, our foreign policy hawks have positioned us squarely at the heart of what Dick Cheney forthrightly called “the dark side.” We’re not just talking enhanced interrogations here. It’s a matter of public record that the U.S. has long behaved badly in Cold War battlegrounds like Latin America and the greater Mideast. During and after the Cold War, it has not been out of the ordinary for the U.S. to undermine governments, arm rebel groups, and bankroll clients and insurgencies capable of turning against us.
For honest hawks like Cheney, that’s the harsh cost of doing business in a broken world that will turn against us unless we keep it off balance. For an honest hawk, America simply lacks the money, the resources, and the willpower to march around the world challenging all its foes to full-on tank battles in an open field. Honest hawks admit that World War Two-style warfighting and World War Two-style patriotism have died, arm in arm, of old age. Today, they admit, we’re the lone superpower, and if we want to project our power, we have to do it under the table, operating in a shadow world most of us don’t want to imagine and will never get to see.
We the People are on a need-to-know basis, and we don’t need to know.
For another breed of hawks, that’s too depressing to deal with. Deep in denial, naive hawks insist that there’s no real moral burden involved in a muscular foreign policy. For them, having our way around the world is actually morally purifying. Through the discipline of achieving courageous clarity about our friends and our enemies, we attain the clearest understanding of our own national character. “They hate us for who we are,” we say.
Sadly, this patriotic purity leads naive hawks to pathologically obscure and suppress the unsavory deeds that honest hawks know keep the train of world order from running off the rails. For the naive hawks, Paul’s attack on the dark side of U.S. foreign policy fosters a dilemma. On the one hand, they want nothing more than to make his remarks disappear. On the other, they’re so offended, they have to respond.
The result has been doubly embarrassing. Rick Santorum snarled that Paul’s take “sounds like Bernie Sanders, not like some Republican running for president.” ISIS, he fumed, “was created because of President Obama and his failure to maintain a presence in Iraq. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the enemy that we face.”