Wrong for 20 Years: Rand Paul’s Break with Republican Foreign Policy

June 4, 2015

Republican presidential hopeful Senator Rand Paul has finally done the unthinkable. He has opened Lemarchand’s Box and sparked a critical foreign policy debate that has been avoided since the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in June 2014. Namely, who is responsible for what is happening in Iraq and Syria? Not only did he directly blame the more hawkish wing of the Republican Party, but he also claimed that they have been wrong about most foreign policies for the past 20 years — cue rancorous indignation.

While this might just be a political strategy or an attempt to distinguish himself from a crowded field of presidential candidates, one unequivocal fact remains — and it is something that all people who have lived and worked in Iraq already know. ISIL, along with its predecessors, was a result of decisions made during the U.S. campaign in Iraq. This is a very hard truth for most Americans to face, even those who supported the initial invasion, and one most politicians are not keen on advertising.

Part of the problem surrounding the issue of ISIL is that there has never really been a national dialogue on what happened during the war in Iraq or how the removal of Saddam Hussein impacted the entire Middle East. While the 2008 election of Barack Obama hinged on the idea of the war in Iraq, it was mostly a referendum on the performance of the campaign, the decision to invade, and the prospect of ending the war. There was not a substantive debate on the consequences of U.S. intervention in Iraq or how it impacted the governing structures of the Middle East. The complicity of media outlets and politicians to support the ambiguous circumstances for such a calamitous war has created a truth deficit. And this has undermined the potential for rational discourse on terrorism, insurgency, and radical Islam, which might allow U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to regain some traction.

Of course, the political and factional environment of Iraq is also to blame; no U.S. policy compelled the various Sunni and Shia sects to commit the levels of violence they did. However, Senator Paul just reset the Republican strategy, and turned it inwards to focus on the original policy miscalculations that gave space for radical Islam in the region to take hold and flourish.

Nonetheless, the blame game is solvent in the Middle East. The current administration also bears its share of foreign policy failures: not supporting moderate Syrian rebels, not fighting to keep a residual force in Iraq after the main withdrawal, not taking the fight to ISIL after the takeover of Mosul. Yet each of these failures, in addition to those referenced by Senator Paul, are framed against the idea that military force can somehow defeat the root cause of the very same instability that it helped create. Americans have always been heavily invested in the idea of war as a remedy to problems that are beyond their understanding. This is where the core debate should be framed in the upcoming presidential elections, more so since foreign policy will be heavy on the agenda.

Unfortunately, responses from Republicans indicate that there is not likely to be any real debate shaped around the provocative, but reasonable comments from Senator Paul. Leading party members, presidential contenders, and conservative media have already circled wagons and gone on the offensive.

Louisiana Governor and potential presidential candidate Bobby Jindal had this to say on Twitter: “We should all be clear that evil and radical Islam are at fault for the rise of ISIS…And the next President’s job is to have the discipline and strength to wipe ISIS off the face of the earth.” Mr. Jindal’s comments are jingoistic, and not the least bit ironic given they are wrapped in similar language used by the same groups he is talking about destroying. They are quick to judge, but do not offer any viable alternative to deal with the current complexities of the Middle East.

In a recent editorial, The Wall Street Journal also said, “Mr. Paul is intelligent enough, and his misreading of recent Middle Eastern history is so flagrant, that he might be trying to deflect attention from his own misjudgments.” The editorial challenges the foreign policy credentials of Senator Paul, while at the same time acknowledges that “[t]he origins of the Islamic State are al Qaeda in Iraq, or the post-Saddam Hussein insurgency that suffered a near-total defeat amid General David Petraeus’s surge and the Sunni Awakening.” This only underscores how entrenched certain perspectives have become: The Surge and Sunni Awakening were not long term strategies to produce stability, but short term solutions to systemic problems associated with the U.S. campaign.

The problem is, assessments such as these — which reduce the intricacies of the insurgency to digestible narratives that suggest the United States was on the verge of victory in Iraq — are entirely reckless. This once again gives the impression that by applying military force alone, the United States can defeat an enemy that is not just rooted in sectarian intrigues, but also cultural, ethnic, tribal, and historical grievance.

Rand Paul is a Republican for a new generation, and he should be applauded for his willingness to break with policies that have not always offered the United States the best return on investment. The takeaway from his comments should not be a pedantic nitpicking of details, but about bringing an emotive issue to the forefront of the presidential debate. Hopefully his rivals in the Democratic Party will do the same, as they are also guilty of the same foreign policy fiascos.

The Republican Party should embrace what Senator Paul was attempting to put forward and use this as an opportunity to update foreign policy positions more suited for these complex times.


Landon Shroder is a security consultant who specializes in threat assessment for complex environments. He has spent the past 11 years working between the Middle East and Africa and was most recently the senior security analyst for Shell International, based in Baghdad. He holds a Master’s Degree from the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC and has been published in VICE, World Policy Journal, Fair Observer, CounterPunch, and Chatham House. He is also quoted regularly in the New York Times on Iraq and ISIL.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore