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If the United States were finally going to have a sober debate about post-9/11 national security and defense policy, deciding what to do about the chaos in Iraq would seem to be the time for it. It seems like a tailor-made opportunity for Sen. Rand Paul to showcase the foreign policy of realism and restraint his admirers say could make him a formidable 2016 contender; just this weekend, on MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele suggested Paul might emerge as a leader among antiwar voices in Congress.
But not quite yet. While Paul has voiced caution about putting ground troops back in Iraq – as has the president, and most sane people – on Sunday he tried out some new gravitas by saying he’s open to airstrikes, in an interview with the Des Moines Register. Yes, in Iowa, home to the first 2016 caucus.
“I think we aided the Iraqi government for a long time; I’m not opposed to continuing to help them with arms,” Paul said. “I would not rule out airstrikes. But I would say, after 10 years, it is appalling to me that they are stripping their uniforms off and running. And it concerns me that we would have to do their fighting for them because they won’t fight for their own country, their own cities.”
The problem is there’s little that airstrikes can do to change the fundamental political problems that are leading to the bloodshed. That’s why it’s become clearer, over the weekend, that the major voices calling for military action in Iraq don’t foresee getting the job done with a few precision airstrikes, or maybe a drone campaign to minimize the possibility of U.S. casualties. No, they’re now saying Nuri al-Maliki must go, committing the U.S. to another round of regime change at an unimaginable cost.
On Friday MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Sen. John McCain whether Maliki could be coerced into broadening his government and changing his ways, and McCain answered, “He has to, or he has to be changed.” On Sunday Sen. Lindsey Graham even suggested the U.S. work with Iran to topple Maliki and form a new government. “The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall,” he said blithely. “We need to coordinate with the Iranians and the Turks need to get in the game and get the Sunni Arabs back into the game, form a new government without Maliki.”
That’s interesting. Here’s what Graham said about Iran seven months ago, when discussing negotiations over its nuclear program:
We’re dealing with people who are not only untrustworthy: this is a murderous regime that murders their own people, create chaos and mayhem throughout the whole world, the largest sponsor of terrorism. This deal doesn’t represent the fact we’re dealing with the most thuggish people in the whole world” (h/t The Wire).
Now Graham thinks “the most thuggish people in the world” are preferable to the Maliki government. To be fair to Rand Paul, supporting airstrikes does put him in opposition to the surreal hawkishness of his GOP Senate colleagues preaching regime change. But Paul could be meeting the Iraq crisis to lay out his larger vision of a realistic, restrained foreign policy that avoids such entanglements. Instead, there he was in Iowa taking a middle ground. “Rand Paul 2016: Not as Hawkish as the Old Guys” won’t make much of a bumper sticker.
It’s not the first time Paul’s supposed courage to question the national security state has itself come in for questions. After his filibuster against President Obama’s drone policy last year, he suggested he’d support the use of drones against the Tsarnaev brothers, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, and even against someone trying to rob a liquor store. “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him,” the supposed libertarian told a shocked Neil Cavuto on Fox. Sounds like due process to me.
He missed another opportunity to stand out from the craven, anti-Obama Republican Party in the controversy over the prisoner swap that brought home Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. The libertarian hero might have stood up for the principle that Bergdahl is innocent until proven guilty of various charges made by some of his fellow soldiers, or for the notion that we don’t leave our military men or women behind on the battlefield. The complicated politics of Bergdahl’s release, and even the circumstances of his enlisting in the Army – he’d been rejected by the Coast Guard but entered the Army on waivers that became common given the strain two wars put on the military – might have provided Paul with an opportunity to discuss the very human implications of America’s military overreach.
Instead, he used it as an opportunity to make a dumb partisan joke, suggesting Obama should have traded Democrats, not Taliban fighters, to retrieve Bergdahl. Another statesmanlike moment for the man some think could be the 2016 front-runner.
Some Republicans suggest Paul could be a formidable 2016 foe to Hillary Clinton, who may or may not be more hawkish than he is on foreign policy. I say “may or may not” because when Paul is pushed on his alleged anti-intervention, pro-liberty stances, he often goes limp: Drones are bad in Pakistan but OK in Boston? There’s not much the U.S. military can do in Iraq but let’s do some airstrikes because … well, we don’t know why. Airstrikes are quickly becoming the safe way for Republicans to trash Obama for the Iraq debacle without committing themselves to ground troops either, and Paul missed another chance to show the foreign policy courage his supporters are always telling us about.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.