Rand Paul's Iraq problem: Jeb Bush & Marco Rubio have company in GOP's hall of shame

The senator used to warn against repeating the Iraq War's mistakes. Now he wants to emulate it

Published May 19, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

Rand Paul                      (Reuters/John Sommers Ii)
Rand Paul (Reuters/John Sommers Ii)

Is there even a point to Rand Paul anymore? His appeal as a politician has long been his self-styled reputation as “a different kind of Republican” who would strategically deploy his libertarian alter ego and break with the GOP on a few select issue areas. What made Rand Paul “dangerous,” according to Rand Paul’s people, was that he was Republican enough on taxes and spending to hang on to conservative voters, but he could also eat into traditionally Democratic constituencies with his views on national security and criminal justice reform, which were well outside party orthodoxy. But the story of Rand Paul as a presidential candidate has been his slow, steady abandonment of his libertarian-ish views and his collapse as a Republican renegade.

The latest example: Iraq. In keeping with the libertarian aversion to interventionist foreign policies, Rand Paul has long been a critic of the Iraq War, and as recently as last June he strongly opposed a renewed commitment of American soldiers to the Middle East to combat the Islamic State. “For the small group calling for boots on the ground,” he wrote in a June 2014 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “how can we ask our brave men and women to risk their lives for a country the Iraqis aren't willing to fight for themselves?” He called for a “realist” foreign policy and warned against repeating the mistakes of the Iraq War:

David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a strong advocate for the Iraq war, said recently that "the United States overestimated the threat from Saddam Husseinin 2003. Without an active nuclear-weapons program, he was not a danger beyond his immediate vicinity. That war cost this country dearly. The United States failed in its most ambitious objective: establishing a stable, Western-oriented government for all of Iraq." He added that "the government in Baghdad is not an American friend, and action against ISIS will not advance U.S. interests."

Other advocates for the Iraq war need to examine the evidence and make rational decisions based on it. That's something lacking throughout Washington. Leadership means admitting our mistakes so we can correct them. We will do ourselves no favors if we simply recommit to the same mistakes and heed the advice of those who made them in the first place.

Since then he’s been shuffling and inching toward a more aggressive military posture toward the Islamic State. And now, according to Bloomberg’s Dave Weigel, Rand Paul thinks that the Iraq War actually could provide a valuable clue for how to beat ISIS:

“Whether or not the surge worked–obviously, it worked," said Paul, responding to a question from Bloomberg. "It was a military tactic and it worked. In fact, some of the ideas from the surge could be used again. In fact, the main problem we have with ISIS is that the Sunni population is either indifferent, supportive, or hates the Shiite government more than it hates ISIS. Now, over time I think that will turn, but I think there are ways that Americans and our interactions can influence the support of the Sunni chieftains. Many will say that the surge's success was in encouraging the Sunni chieftains to be on our side, and I still do favor that.”

“The surge worked” is also the favorite talking point of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio – basically every Iraq War booster whom Rand once took pains to differentiate himself from. But it’s a fairy tale perpetuated by people who believe that the consistent application of American military power can solve any problem.

The truth is that the surge was, at best, half successful, and that’s going by the goals laid out by the people who devised the policy. As George W. Bush himself said when announcing the surge: “A successful strategy for Iraq goes beyond military operations. Ordinary Iraqi citizens must see that military operations are accompanied by visible improvements in their neighborhoods and communities. So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.” Violence abated in Iraq in part due to the increased American troop presence, but the overriding goal of political reconciliation between the various factions within the corrupt and ineffectual Iraqi government was never realized. Instead, then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki used the lull in the chaos to consolidate his own power. “When U.S. troops were fighting his war and securing his rule, [Maliki] consistently refused to make the political accommodations that his U.S. advisers pushed upon him,” the Washington Post noted in 2014.

The fact of ISIS’s existence and the ongoing bitter sectarian clashes that are dividing Iraq are a testament to the fact that the surge did not accomplish the goals that were set for it. Rand Paul, however, is citing them as problems that some undefined “surge”-like idea might help to fix. It used to be that Sen. Paul would warn politicians against ignorantly repeating the mistakes of very recent history, but that was before he had a presidential election to win.

By Simon Maloy

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