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Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism

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By Richard Epstein

This past week, President Barack Obama shocked those on the left, right, and center when he announced that he had not yet developed a strategy for responding to the threats that ISIS posed to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. It would, however, be a mistake to think that his paralysis in foreign policy is characteristic only of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Libertarians, both within and outside the Republican Party, are equally clueless on the ISIS threat. In fact, their position on ISIS is, if anything, more dangerous than that of the President. While the President has yet to formulate a strategy on the question, the hard-core libertarians have endorsed a strategy of non-intervention, which I believe is totally inconsistent with libertarian principles.

For my entire professional life, I have been a limited-government libertarian. The just state should, in my opinion, protect private property, promote voluntary exchange, preserve domestic order, and protect our nation against foreign aggression. Unfortunately, too many modern libertarian thinkers fail to grasp the enormity of that last obligation. In the face of international turmoil, they become cautious and turn inward, confusing limited government with small government. Unwisely, they demand that the United States keep out of foreign entanglements unless and until they pose direct threats to its vital interests—at which point it could be too late.

The most vocal champion of this position is Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul has been against the use of military force for a long time. Over the summer, he wrote an article entitled “America Shouldn’t Choose Sides in Iraq’s Civil War” for the pages of the Wall Street Journal, arguing that ISIS did not threaten vital American interests. Just this past week, he doubled down on this position, again in the Journal, arguing that the past interventions of the United States in the Middle East have abetted the rise of ISIS.

His argument for this novel proposition is that the United States should not have sought to degrade Bashar Assad’s regime because that effort only paved the way for the rise of ISIS against whom Assad, bad as he is, is now the major countervailing force. Unfortunately, this causal chain is filled with missing links. The United States could have, and should have, supported the moderate opposition to Assad by providing it with material assistance, and, if necessary, air support, so that it could have been a credible threat against Assad, after the President said Assad had to go over three years ago. The refusal to get involved allowed Assad to tackle the moderates first in the hope that the United States would give him a pass to tackle ISIS, or, better still, even assist him in its demise, as we might well have to do. It is irresponsible for Paul to assume that the only alternative to Obama’s dithering is his strategy of pacifism. Paul’s implicit logic rests on a worst-case analysis, under which no intervention is permissible because the least successful intervention may prove worse than the status quo. It is hardly wise to wait until ISIS is strong enough to mount a direct attack on the United States, when its operatives, acting out of safe havens, can commit serious acts of aggression against ourselves and our allies. It is far better to intervene too soon than to wait too long.

It is instructive to ask why it is that committed libertarians like Paul make such disastrous judgments on these life and death issues. In part it is because libertarians often have the illusion of certainty in political affairs that is congenial to the logical libertarian mind.

Read more: The Hoover Institute

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