Did Rand Paul just become a supporter of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda? “The world does not have an Islam problem,” Paul explained a few days ago. “The world has a dignity problem, with millions of men and women across the Middle East being treated as chattel by their own governments.” Such words clearly echo President Bush’s declaration that, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” Few statements have provoked more ire from committed realists, which is what Rand Paul says he is.
The lesson to draw from Senator Paul’s remarks is not that he has become a nation-builder or a neoconservative. Rather, Paul is in conceptual limbo, searching for a framework that can make sense of constant surprises in the Middle East. (President Obama can empathize.) In February of last year, Paul unveiled a strategy that called for the “containment” of radical Islam. The modest objective of containment remained viable until ISIS stormed the region this summer. Once a practitioner of de facto containment, President Obama soon disavowed it. “You can’t contain an organization that is running roughshod through that much territory, causing that much havoc, displacing that many people, killing that many innocents, enslaving that many women,” he said, “The goal has to be to dismantle them.”
Initially skeptical of whether ISIS was even a threat, Paul quickly became a supporter of airstrikes. Yet while he had a position on that one issue, Paul no longer had a policy. Hence his effort last Thursday to elaborate a new framework for thinking about the Middle East. Paul says he now advocates a “conservative realism of strength and action,” yet that is inconsistent with Paul’s declaration that the fundamental problem in the Middle East is the humiliation of its people by oppressive governments. Not surprisingly, few clear recommendations follow from this incoherent set of premises.
If the real problem in the Middle East is a lack of dignity, then how should the United States protect itself when threatened by groups like ISIS? As a physician might say, first do no harm. Sen. Paul warned on Thursday that Americans “can’t be blind to the fact that drone strikes that inadvertently kill civilians may create more jihadists than we eliminate.” He also insisted “you can’t solve a dignity problem with military force.”
Then what should be done about ISIS? Last year, when he called for the containment of radical Islam, Sen. Paul recommended that we “target our enemy and strike with lethal force.” Now he emphasizes his concerns about civilian casualties, although he still supports airstrikes.
Paul agrees with President Obama that the U.S. objective should be to destroy ISIS, yet he “doubt[s] that a decisive victory is possible in the short term,” even with greater support from regional powers. Since Paul is on the record as an opponent of sending in American ground troops, he seems to be saying that it is acceptable for ISIS to hold on to its statelet indefinitely.
In Paul’s remarks, there was a noticeable silence on the subject of how to deal with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Paul once warned, “If we were to get rid of Assad, it would be a jihadist wonderland in Syria.” A little more than a month ago, Paul continued to tout Assad as an ally in the struggle ISIS. Yet now that Paul has identified human dignity as the prerequisite of stability in the Middle East, it may be much harder to call for cooperation, tacit or otherwise, with the butcher who has laid more than a hundred thousand Syrians in their graves.