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June 20, 2014 12:02 PM Paul Lunges for the Reagan Mantle

By Ed Kilgore

Yesterday I wrote skeptically about Ross Douthat’s “spitballing” scenario whereby the two parties could undergo a role reversal on foreign policy in 2016 with “interventionist” Hillary Clinton pushing GOPers towards “non-interventionist” Rand Paul. Today we have Paul’s own effort to use the Iraq crisis to re-frame the partisan debate over foreign policy, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

It’s pretty audacious: according to Paul there’s the Bush Republicans who got Iraq wrong before 2009, the Obama Democrats who got Iraq wrong after 2009, and then his own self, right all along, as the sole disciple of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Saying the mess in Iraq is President Obama’s fault ignores what President Bush did wrong. Saying it is President Bush’s fault is to ignore all the horrible foreign policy decisions in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere under President Obama, many of which may have contributed to the current crisis in Iraq. For former Bush officials to blame President Obama or for Democrats to blame President Bush only serves as a reminder that both sides continue to get foreign policy wrong. We need a new approach, one that emulates Reagan’s policies, puts America first, seeks peace, faces war reluctantly, and when necessary acts fully and decisively.

Paul defends this hypothesis with lengthy exegesis of a famous 1984 Cap Weinberger speech laying out criteria for military action. It was, in fact, extended by the so-called “Powell Doctrine” often touted as the justification of the limited-war nature of the First Gulf War, but that made Powell’s stamp of approval on the 2003 Iraq War so important.

So Paul’s attempt to appropriate the Reagan mantle in foreign policy will be sharply contested by “Bush Republicans” of all varieties. Beyond that, there’s one problem with Paul quoting Weinberger worth pondering. Cap was less famous for his “doctrine” than for his persistence in securing the highest level of defense spending imaginable. In his endlessly fascinating account of the budget wars of Reagan’s first term, The Triumph of Politics, David Stockman all but calls Weinberger a traitor for his mendacious and successful efforts to trick Ronald Reagan into double-loading defense increases into his seminal 1981 budget proposal. This is one part of the Reagan-Weinberger legacy Paul will probably not want to emulate. And it matters: the most obvious way to convince reflexively belligerent Republicans that he’s kosher despite opposing various past, present and future military engagements would be to insist on arming America to the teeth. But Paul’s government-shrinking visions would make that sort of gambit very difficult. And try as he might, it will be very difficult for Paul to make a credible claim Ronald Reagan stood tall for taming the Pentagon.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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