GOP Should Listen to Cheney - Not Paul - on Iraq

GOP Should Listen to Cheney - Not Paul - on Iraq

By Mark Salter - June 25, 2014

Republican insider Ed Rogers, writing for the Washington Post, has urged Republicans to heed Sen. Rand Paul and ignore the metastasizing catastrophe in Iraq. To paraphrase Rogers’ argument, party members should focus their attention exclusively on the economy and Obamacare, and leave bloody Iraq to the bloody-minded Iraqis.

That might be sound campaign advice in a war-weary country. As policy advice to Republican members of Congress, an increasing number of whom appear to be tempted by the know-nothing charms of the Paul worldview, it’s irresponsible and dangerous.

The shortcomings of President Obama as a statesman are numerous and obvious. He may be the worst foreign policy president in my lifetime, surpassing even the inept Jimmy Carter. Almost any one of the serious 2016 presidential candidates in either of our major parties would be an improvement over the incumbent commander-in-chief.

The glaring exception is the junior senator from Kentucky. His foreign policy views, steeped as they are in the crackpot theories that inform his father’s worldview, are so ill-conceived that were he to win the nomination, Republican voters seriously concerned with national security would have no responsible recourse other than to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Rand Paul is the only likely presidential candidate so distrustful of the powers of the office that he once publicly speculated an American president could task a drone to kill Americans “in a café in San Francisco or in a restaurant in Houston or at their home in Bowling Green, Kentucky.”  He questions troop deployments almost anywhere outside the United States, even in Europe and South Korea. He wants to decimate defense spending. He thinks the problem with Russia’s Vladimir Putin is that the U.S. hasn’t been nice enough to him.

Paul rejects the label “isolationist,” but he’s as close to the real thing we’ve seen in high office since the early days of the Cold War. Were he elected president, which is, fortunately, a remote possibility, he would radically reduce America’s role in the world to the point where the alliances and relationships we have relied on to maintain a mostly stable and advancing liberal world order would almost surely collapse.

A terrorist organization, the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), so extreme it’s been disowned by al-Qaeda, is making such swift territorial gains in Iraq that it has stirred even the somnolent Obama administration into action. ISIS is well armed, well organized, well financed, and has drawn recruits from all over the world, including Europe and North America. It is unyieldingly hostile to the West. It is intent on establishing its own nation-state, from where it would surely plot and organize to kill Americans. Its ambitions are a clear and present danger, and must be stopped.

The first responsibility of America’s elected leaders is to protect the security of the American people, weary though they are of war. That cannot be done by refusing to intervene in Iraq, as Rand Paul and Ed Rogers advise.

Rogers writes that, of course, we can’t allow Iraq to be a terrorist safe haven but we can prevent that with methods we used to address the same concern in Yemen and Pakistan. I don’t know if Rogers has noticed, but those methods relied heavily on drone strikes and the hard work of U.S. Special Forces. Those are presumably the options, along with conventional airstrikes, that Obama will adopt to help defeat the threat from ISIS -- at least one hopes so. Those are also the very options Rand Paul explicitly rejects in Iraq, and almost anywhere else where U.S. interests are threatened.

This is not just another appeal for nation-building or to advance American political values in a region that appears inimical to them. ISIS in Iraq and Syria threatens not just the local victims of its atrocities. It will do more than create greater turmoil in the Middle East and roil the oil markets, as Rogers warns. It will make war on Americans, whether or not we make war on them.

Courting the dangers of Rand Paul’s new isolationism, little different from long discredited mid-20th-century American isolationism, might win a few more votes for Republican candidates in November. But it will put American lives at risk to terrorist attacks abroad and at home.

Retreating from the hard work and costly sacrifices of leadership in a world that has been made much safer, freer and more prosperous because of that leadership is a tempting response to the endless troubles of this world. But most Americans have long accepted that such thinking, while an understandable emotional reaction, is not a notion we expect our elected leaders to indulge. I’m not the only Republican who still believes that, and I will vote for a presidential candidate who believes it as well.  

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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