Dear Senator Rand Paul,
Congratulations on your ongoing effort to earn the GOP nomination for President.
I read with interest this week of your judgment that the Islamic State was at least partially the creation of the national security wing of our party. As an ardent Republican, I pay close attention to what you do and say, as there is no question that your candidacy is formidable. Your leadership on the subject of limited government, your championing of civil liberties, and your charismatic, youthful demeanor all add up to someone who could ably represent the GOP on the national stage and who could potentially be an excellent president.
However, I must admit to misgivings, and so I offer my thoughts in the hopes that you to continue to think deeply about America’s role in the world and how we sustain it.
In conversations with friends and colleagues lately, I have made the observation that there are two politicians who are really in touch with the way the center-of-mass of the American people think about national security policy — you and Barack Obama. I believe Mr. Obama’s approach arises from a basic lack of interest in the subject, save to ensure that problems around the world do not interfere with his pursuit of fundamental domestic re-ordering. He has failed to lead on the international scene, he tends to view the historical uses of American power negatively, and he — contrary to recent protestations — does not subscribe to any notion of American exceptionalism.
You, on the other hand, appear to come at the subject from a different, more ideological angle. I use the word ideological in a value neutral manner, to describe what I believe to be your ideas-driven approach to national security policy. I believe most international relations scholars would call you an “offshore balancer” — an approach consistent with many of your libertarian political instincts. You appear to believe our allies do not pull their own weight, that the United States is overextended, and that we spend too much on defense. You appear to question the very nature of some of our fundamental alliances. You appear to believe that we—as often as not—make trouble for ourselves around the world that we must then clean up. My suspicion that your adherence to offshore balancing is ideological (remember, value neutral) stands in stark opposition to my impression that President Obama’s adherence to offshore balancing (which I believe, he does) is an accidental happenstance born of relative disinterest and his “don’t do stupid (stuff)” mantra.
Irrespective of how the two of you come to your conclusions, the bottom line is that where you are is very closely matched to where the American electorate is — at least in terms of national security policy. From the perspective of a man running for president, this must be a comforting thing. The next election is unlikely to hinge on foreign policy matters, and so doing no violence to the sensibilities of the electorate smells like a smart political play.
I write this open letter to urge you to begin to communicate your national security policy stances more from the perspective of a man who wants tobe president than a man who wants to run for President. Because if you are elected, and if your national security policy reflects the general statements you’ve made thus far, the sum total will be the third term of Barack Obama. It matters little how you and he come to your conclusions about America’s role in the world; what matters is how that role is filled. And while you and he may take some comfort from the perception that you are reading the public well, the plain truth is that reading the public is not leading the public. And leadership is what is called for at the presidential level, especially when it comes to national security policy.
I urge you to study the too-short presidency of George H.W. Bush, a man who understood both the capacity and limits of American power. You will find an approach and a narrative that is both useful for leading the country and for leading the public. While for the time being, you and President Obama have your fingers on the pulse of the man in the street, surely you must see him beginning to question whether we are a competent nation anymore on the international scene. And while I believe that generally speaking, the average American does not want to get involved over there (wherever “over there” may be), what he wants even less is for the United States to appear feckless and weak, without options, and not leading. The latter impulse is beginning to take hold, and it should not be ignored.
As for your impression that our rich allies do not pull their weight, you are correct. But that does not matter. We cannot vest our security and prosperity in the vain hope that without some global catastrophe, they will sacrifice lavish social spending for their own defense. We must lead. Do not misunderstand me — part of that leadership will be to continue to publicly suggest and privately insist that they step up to the plate. But while occasional neo-isolationist flights of fancy might win you points with certain elements of your political base, the path of disengagement leads to regional balkanization and the breakdown of globalization. With that, comes a decline in our security and our prosperity.
And so I end by urging you to subtly move away from “offshore balancing” and adopt more of a “selective engagement” approach to national security policy, in the mold of President Bush the Elder, one that gives that man in the street confidence that you will not willy-nilly expend blood and treasure, but that when you do exert American power, it will be resolute, thorough, and for viable and discernible national interests. The Republican Party has of late lost some of its cachet as the party of national security, and whoever bears our standard in 2016 would do well to articulate an approach of wisdom, strength, engagement and discernment.
Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC defense consultancy, and the Assistant Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower.