Rand Paul is a man of conviction. His reputation for acting on principle is the foundation on which he has begun to build the infrastructure of a presidential campaign. It is very difficult, however, for a man of conviction to adjust his image without compromising his reputation for integrity.
In the realm of foreign policy, Senator Paul faces the challenge of dispelling perceptions that he shares the isolationist tendencies of his father, former congressman Ron Paul of Texas. He wants to convince conservative voters that he has been mislabeled and misunderstood. His approach to foreign affairs has not changed, yet Senator Paul now presents his views as applications of Ronald Reagan’s firm but cautious approach to national security.
The Achilles’ heel of this rebranding effort has been Paul’s own candor. When speaking off the cuff, he has made observations that seem to reflect the worldview of President Reagan’s left-wing and isolationist critics. In that vein, Paul suggested that the United States provoked Japan before Pearl Harbor and that Dick Cheney supported the invasion of Iraq in order to make a profit for his former employer Halliburton.
Now there is the strange case of Paul’s reading list for students, which can be found on his official Senate website. The foreign policy section of the list consists entirely of works that blame the United States for the rise of Islamic extremism while offering solutions that verge on isolationism. Most of the books also express a sharp hostility toward Israel and toward those who believe that U.S. foreign policy should serve the cause of human freedom. Reagan, to put it mildly, was a friend of Israel and advocate of freedom.
Encouraging young voters to read is a commendable enterprise, especially since they encounter few conservative works on America’s intellectually imbalanced campuses. To Paul’s credit, his list includes genuine classics such as F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. Yet his selections on foreign and defense policy relentlessly echo the misguided notions of the left-liberal professoriate.
Noticeably absent from the list are any books about Ronald Reagan or the nearly bloodless downfall of Soviet communism. Also absent from the list are any books about the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, or World War II. All in all, there are no volumes that suggest any reason to believe that American power has been a force for good in the world.
There are, however, 3 books written by Ron Paul out of the 17 on the list. Although filial piety might explain the presence of any one of Rep. Paul’s numerous works, A Foreign Policy of Freedom illustrates that Ron Paul is not simply an opponent of foreign interventions, but an unrepentant conspiracy theorist whose worldview could not be further from Reagan’s.
Ron Paul’s book consists mainly of floor speeches delivered during his long tenure in the House. “Our policy is designed to promote the military-industrial complex and world government,” he asserted in the late 1990s. “Every week we must find a foreign infidel to slay, and, of course, keep the military-industrial complex humming,” he noted, adding that “no one has the foggiest notion whether Kofi Annan or Bill Clinton is in charge of our foreign policy.” The elder Paul often repeats the canard that Osama bin Laden was America’s “close ally” to whom we gave “financial assistance, weapons and training.” For Ron Paul, the ultimate cause of terrorism is precisely what Osama bin Laden says it is: “The U.S. defiles Islam with military bases on holy land in Saudi Arabia, its initiation of war against Iraq, with 12 years of persistent bombing, and its dollars and weapons being used against the Palestinians.”
If Ron Paul’s message isn’t clear enough, the curious student may turn to another book on the list, Pat Buchanan’s critique of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Where the Right Went Wrong. “America’s huge footprint on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia led straight to 9/11. The terrorists were over here because we were over there. Terrorism is the price of empire.” Whereas Ron Paul condemns George Bush’s “Christian-Zionist-oil crusade,” Buchanan explains that “the Beltway Likud was plotting and propagandizing for war on Iraq long before 9/11.” The distinctive trait of this clique is that it sees “U.S. and Israeli interests as identical.”
It would be remiss to ignore the differences between Ron Paul and Buchanan, however. Buchanan is a protectionist who condemns the GOP’s free trade agenda, while Paul is a strong free trader. “The Republican Party,” Buchanan writes, “has signed off on economic treason.” Buchanan also defines America as “a child of Europe” and frets about the impact of nonwhite immigrants on American culture.
Like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, another of the recommended authors, Andrew Bacevich, defines himself as a conservative. Yet in the preface to The New American Militarism, Bacevich notes, “my views have come to coincide with the critique long offered by the radical left.” Much the same can be said for Paul, Buchanan, and others on the list.
Bacevich’s book levels the accusation that American society as a whole is “infatuated with military power.” More recently, Bacevich has joined the ranks of the conspiracy theorists, calling the United States a “de facto one-party state” in which democracy has been “hijacked” and replaced by a “new political elite whose members have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power.” But the purpose of The New American Militarism is to expose the delusions of American popular culture, especially the “tendency to see military power as the truest meas-ure of national greatness.” While Bacevich demonstrates that Americans have tremendous respect for their men and women in uniform, one is hard pressed to find any evidence in the book that the United States has become a latter-day Sparta.
With his aggressive rejection of any moral constraints on foreign policy, Michael Scheuer distinguishes himself from the other authors on the list. In Imperial Hubris, he asks, “Can it be proven that it would make a substantive—[versus] emotional—difference to U.S. security if every Hutu killed every Tutsi, or vice versa; every Palestinian killed every Israeli, or vice versa; or if Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians exterminated each other to the last person?” Accordingly, Scheuer has no qualms about inflicting massive civilian casualties in the course of our campaign against al Qaeda. He cites the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden as models for emulation. “The piles of dead,” he writes, “will include as many or more civilians as combatants because our enemies wear no uniforms.”
Strangely, while calling for future brutality, Scheuer attributes the rise of al Qaeda to anti-Islamic policies of the past. “The United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific U.S. government policies and actions,” Scheuer says. “I think it is fair to conclude,” he writes, “that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” If Washington does not want to fight an endless war against Islam, it must remove its military forces from the Arabian Peninsula, sever its ties to “apostate, corrupt” governments in the Middle East, and cease all pressure on Arab oil producers to keep oil prices low. Scheuer also asks (rhetorically), “Do we totally support Israel because it is essential to our security, or because of habit, the prowess of Israel’s American lobbyists and spies, the half-true mantra that Israel is a democracy . . . and a misplaced sense of guilt over the Holocaust?”
Chalmers Johnson stands out among Senator Paul’s favorite authors for his unadulterated moral relativism and thoroughgoing left-wing politics. In Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, he observes that the 9/11 attacks “employ[ed] the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders, whose innocence is, of course, no different from that of the civilians killed by American bombs in Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.” He asserts there is no meaningful difference between the Soviet empire and the United States’ network of alliances. Johnson’s commitment to that false analogy is so complete that he can write, “By the 1990s Japan was the world’s second-richest country, but with a government remarkably similar to that of the former East Germany.” Apparently, all that’s missing is a wall around Tokyo to keep its citizens from escaping to the West. Anyhow, Johnson naturally recommends that the United States dismantle its empire, which would entail bringing home all forces stationed abroad, since there is no threat that justifies a forward military presence.
The one work of genuine scholarship on Senator Paul’s foreign policy list is Silent Night, by Stanley Weintraub, an account of the unplanned truce on the Western Front to honor Christmas in December 1914. Although not especially political, Silent Night portrays war as a futile enterprise, in which the machinations of uncaring governments on all sides result in the horrific death of soldier pawns. The author goes so far as to suggest that there was no reason to fear a German victory in the Great War, since “a relatively benign, German-led commonwealth of Europe might have developed decades earlier than the European Community” while sparing Europe the horrors of the Second World War.
Of course, it would be patently unfair to hold a compiler responsible for every word in every book on a list of recommended reading. Yet Rand Paul should be held responsible for the core message that is repeated again and again by each of his recommended works on foreign policy. According to the New York Times, Paul’s “skepticism of military intervention” has made him the target of “powerful elements of the Republican base who have undertaken a campaign to portray Mr. Paul as dangerously misguided.” While conservative voters may not agree with the Times editorial board on what constitutes being misguided, that adjective seems appropriate for the indoctrination of young minds with the belief that American perfidy is responsible for the mass murder of 9/11 and the continuing loss of innocent lives to al Qaeda and its associates. That misguided notion is already popular on campus. It does not need an advocate in the White House.
David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.