United States Of Common Sense

Rand Paul's Challenge

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Rand Lennon
Rand Lennon
An artists rendition of Rand Paul and John Lennon. Imagine. | Photo: Aaron Stipkovich | Link | Rand Lennon, John Lennon, Rand Paul, Gop, Non-partisan, Democrat, Republican,

Balancing liberty and security

Speaking to NBC's Meet the Press," in 2014, Rand Paul predicted a "transformational election" in 2016 if the Democrats nominate "a war hawk like Hillary Clinton."

"I think that's what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there's gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, 'You know what? We are tired of war,'" Paul said. "We're worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she's so gung-ho."

When a presumptive GOP candidate for President is describing the leading potential Democratic challenger as a "war hawk" something very unusual is going on.

Rand Paul is not, as many people claim, an isolationist. He does not really believe that we can simply hide behind the oceans and divorce ourselves from foreign entanglements. That said, he would really, really like to dramatically reduce the scale of our military involvement abroad, and, as President, he would very much like to avoid sending our men and women in uniform into another war.

If he had his way, one presumes, Rand would prefer to step into the White House during a period in which he could focus his energy internally. He'd like to scale back the size of the federal government. He'd like to push individual liberty. He'd like to be the President who presided over an American economic renewal and resurgence in individual freedom. In short, he'd like the nation to turn inward for a while.

Unfortunately, as the Rolling Stones so aptly put it, "You can't always get what you want." If Rand Paul becomes the next President, he will be following Barack Obama, and he will be inheriting a train wreck.

There are so many foreign policy debacles unfolding right now that it seems that the press and the country have simply lost the capacity to absorb them all simultaneously. It is no exaggeration to say, however, that the combination of President Obama's unrealistic world view with his unwillingness to accept advice or admit error has triggered a series of foreign policy disasters likely unprecedented in American history:
  • Russia has torn chunks off of Ukraine and annexed oil and gas fields in the Black Sea. It is threatening the nations of Eastern Europe and rattling its saber at NATO.
  • China has all but annexed the South China Sea.
  • North Korea is well on its way to outfitting a sub with nuclear missiles and acquiring the capacity to directly threaten the United States.
  • Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria have descended into chaos.
  • Our key allies, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, have lost faith in our leadership and are increasingly acting alone.
  • Islamic extremism is spreading and threatening Europe and North America.
  • Our southern border is increasingly an abstract concept enforced primarily in the breach.
  • Afghanistan is teetering on the brink of chaos once again.

Nothing that happens in the next eighteen months will make any of this better. In all likelihood, it will get worse.

The challenge then will be for President Rand Paul to figure out how to address a world aflame. The left will counsel him to hold course, hope it will get better somehow and blame everything on one of his predecessors. That may be tempting, but it won't fix anything.

Many on the right, will fall back on the same "solutions" they have trotted out before, nation building, conventional troops on the ground, training programs, massive logistical exercises and the expenditure of mountains of cash we do not have. That may make some corporations a lot of money. It won't work either. And, it will doom any hope of down sizing government and focusing on domestic priorities.

What President Paul will need to do is to find a middle road. He will have to avoid getting dragged into every conflict and then find sustainable, affordable ways to victory in those conflicts we do enter. That means unconventional warfare, intelligence operations and fighting smart.

The good news is we already know how to do this, and we are quite good at it.

In the aftermath of 9/11 when the entire defense establishment seized up and could not produce an effective response to the attacks, CIA officers, US Special Forces and the US Air Force swung into action. Working with local Afghan allies, relative handfuls of American personnel crushed the Taliban and drove Al Qaida from Afghanistan in what is probably the most brilliant American military campaign since World War II. It was an absolutely classic case of asymmetric warfare, with skilled American operators leveraging our strengths against our enemy's weaknesses and achieving amazing results.

Unfortunately, that victory was short-lived. Instead of installing a friendly government, maintaining focus on our core national interests and avoiding broader entanglement, we allowed mission creep and bureaucratic empire building to take control of our policy. We went to Afghanistan to kill terrorists and their sponsors. Soon we were attempting to build Switzerland in Central Asia.

I saw the same cycle repeat itself in Northern Iraq as leader of a CIA base in the mountains of Kurdistan in 2002 and 2003.

Working with the peshmerga and American Special Forces, we were able to defeat a huge Iraqi conventional force in Northern Iraq with almost no conventional forces of our own on the ground. Then, as in Iraq, the bureaucracy came to life. The mission was dramatically expanded, and we went from toppling a dictator to remaking a society and navigating a brutal civil war.

If he becomes President, Rand Paul is going to have to find a way to change the rules of the game in Washington, DC. We can't afford to continue to shift between the stark choices of ignoring a problem or attempting to solve it via massive military intervention and nation building. We have to be smarter than that.

The challenge for President Paul will not be devising the strategy. We have shown, in Afghanistan and Iraq, that we know how to fight intelligently and achieve our objectives. The challenge will be in reshaping Washington and rewiring its thinking so that it makes the right choices.

Just because we know how to build huge military bases, train and equip thousands of personnel and stand up gigantic bureaucratic enterprises does not mean we should. Just because there are American companies, which for billions of taxpayer dollars will field veritable armies of contract military personnel does not mean we need to pay them to do so. Just because we can does not mean we must or we should.

The challenge for Rand Paul, if and when he becomes President, if he wishes to maintain his focus on liberty and smaller government while facing the reality of a dangerous world, will be to get control over the bureaucracy and the corporate entities that feed off of it and to find a way to respond militarily, when that is the only option, in a leaner, lighter, tighter way, which is designed not to indulge bureaucratic empire builders or pad corporate profits but to serve out national interests.

It will be quite a challenge.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:01 PM EDT | More details

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