Rand Paul sees no threat from terrorist safe havens in Iraq


Article Highlights

  • Not long ago, Rand Paul pretended to be tough on Islamic extremism.

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  • at least [Obama] acknowledged that Al Qaeda safe havens can become the launch pad for attacks on American citizens.

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  • Rand Paul Insists that pulling US troops from Iraq in 2011 was right decision

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Not long ago, Rand Paul pretended to be tough on Islamic extremism. Last year, he demanded that America be as firm in its campaign against terrorism as it was in its Cold War against the Soviet Union.

"Like communism, radical Islam is an ideology with worldwide reach. Containing radical Islam requires a worldwide strategy like containment. It requires counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points."

Yet now that ISIL is rampaging across Iraq and consolidating its control of large swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria, Rand Paul says there’s no reason to be concerned. (ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the current name of the Al Qaeda organization that American forces mauled during the surge in 2007-2008.)

What, Me Worry?

Rand Paul broke his silence on Iraq with an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal as well as a brief interview with the National Review. At yesterday’s press conference, President Obama didn’t have too many ideas about how to handle the threat in Iraq, but at least he acknowledged that Al Qaeda safe havens can become the launch pad for attacks on American citizens.

Paul tells the National Review that Obama’s concern is “a bit of a stretch”. He explains that for ISIL, “Their first objective isn’t getting to the United States, their first objective would be getting to Baghdad.”

It’s hard to be more short-sighted. The Taliban’s first major objective was Kandahar. Then Kabul. Along the way, they provided safe haven to Al Qaeda which brought down the World Trade Center. Does Sen. Paul plan on waiting until there’s evidence of an actual attack on the US underway? Or would he prefer to prevent Islamic extremists from having the means to kill Americans?

Incidentally, Baghdad may not be ISIL’s first objective. It’s a Shi’ite stronghold.

Paul Insists That Pulling US Troops From Iraq In 2011 Was Right Decision

Hindsight isn’t actually 20/20, but Rand Paul has a serious case of myopia even when looking backwards (which is somewhat ironic for an opthamologist). He writes:

"The US spent eight years training the Iraqis and nearly a decade of war has brought us to this point. Those who say it was a mistake to leave are forgetting that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government was demanding we leave in 2011."

It’s interesting to see Rand Paul rely on the same misleading talking points as Barack Obama. There were strong indications that many Iraqis, especially military leaders, wanted us to keep ten or fifteen thousand troops in the country. Yet the White House  made only the most cursory of efforts to negotiate a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would’ve enabled our troops to remain.

Once the US indicated that it was pulling up stakes, Prime Minister Maliki began to rule in an increasingly sectarian manner and Sunni leaders, in the military and elsewhere, lost faith in the balanced institutions that the United States helped to build.

Three or four years ago, the Iraqi military was a formidable organization that was already standing up to Al Qaeda and other extremists. It’s a shame Rand Paul can’t see how the anti-interventionist policies he promotes are actually a major cause of today’s crisis. Instead, he explains to the National Review,

"It’s a good thing American soldiers aren’t getting caught in the crossfire right now. “This may well still have happened,” he says. “I think it’s probably fortunate that [American troops] weren’t there.”

Paul Leaves the Door Open to Air Strikes

While he mocks those “clamoring for military action”, Paul actually leaves the door open to a flip-flop on the question of using force. He writes,

First, we should not put any U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, unless it is to secure or evacuate U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities. And while we may not completely rule out airstrikes, there are many questions that need to be addressed first.

What would airstrikes accomplish? We know that Iran is aiding the Iraqi government against ISIS. Do we want to, in effect, become Iran’s air force? What’s in this for Iran? Why should we choose a side, and if we do, who are we really helping?

Fred Kagan and Bill Kristol explain that airstrikes without boots on the ground are, exactly as Rand Paul fears, likely to advance the Iranian agenda. So Paul is basically leaving the door open to a political maneuver that won’t actually address the threat we face.

As Usual, Paul Wraps Himself In Reagan’s Mantle

While Sen. Paul may go back and forth on the question of whether terrorist victories or Russian aggression are a threat, he is absolutely consistent in claiming that his policies are the ones that best embody the principles of Reagan conservatism. In this instance, Paul invokes the Weinberger Doctrine (named for Reagan’s first Secretary of Defense), one of whose principles is that force should only be used “with the clear intention of winning.”

If Paul is leaving open the option of air strikes without ground support, he clearly isn’t very serious about that part of the doctrine. Even when the US has prevailed without committing ground forces, as in Kosovo and Libya, it had firm allies on the ground.

Weinberger also insisted that force should only be used to defend the vital interests of the United States. As noted above, Rand Paul has difficulty understanding why Al Qaeda safe havens threaten those interests. It’s hard to imagine Weinberger or Reagan being so naive.

Finally, the Weinberger Doctrine insists on the use of force only as a last resort. In principle, that’s an entirely uncontroversial idea. The problem is to determine in reality when the last resort has been arrived at. When ISIL controls large swathes of territory? When it sets up a government? When Ayman al-Zawahiri arrives for a visit?

Something noticeably absent from Rand Paul’s column and interview are any constructive suggestions for how to deal with the threat we face. Of course, those who can’t understand a problem are unlikely to recommend solutions. In effect, Sen. Paul embraces a policy of denial. He’s glad to wait and watch. How did that turn out in Syria?

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About the Author


  • David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on isolationism, national security strategy, and democracy promotion. He is part of AEI’s American Internationalism Project.

    Before joining AEI, Adesnik was a research analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He has served as deputy director of Joint Data Support at the US Department of Defense, where he focused on the modeling and simulation of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency. Earlier, he spent several months in Baghdad as an operations research and systems analyst for the Coalition Provisional Authority’s counter–improvised explosive device (IED) unit, Task Force Troy during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  In 2008, he was part of John McCain’s presidential campaign national security staff. From 2002 to 2009, Adesnik was the coeditor of OxBlog, a blog started with a fellow Oxford University classmate.

    A Rhodes scholar, Adesnik has a doctorate and master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, where he wrote about the democracy promotion efforts of the Reagan administration. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Yale University.

    Follow David Adesnik on Twitter @Adesnik.

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