Thursday, September 05, 2013

Rand Paul's Grandstanding on Syria

Courtesy of Time Magazine, Rand Paul reminds us that he intends to run for President in a couple of years:
War should occur only when America is attacked, when it is threatened or when American interests are attacked or threatened. I don’t think the situation in Syria passes that test.
He should have stopped there.
Even the State Department argues that “there’s no military solution here that’s good for the Syrian people, and that the best path forward is a political solution.”
Paul knows that he's taking the State Department spokesperson's position out of context. The situation for which the State Department asserts that there is no military solution is the civil war itself, not the possibility of a strike in response to the use of chemical weapons.

Paul puffs,
I will not vote to send our nation’s best and brightest to fight for anything less than victory. If American interests are at stake, then our goal should not be stalemate.
Paul presents a false dichotomy - that the only possible goal of a military action against a foreign nation is to depose the existing government, and that anything short of that constitutes a stalemate. Paul might have tried to make the argument that a strike that does not weaken Assad would not advance U.S. goals, but instead he presents an argument that is

Paul asks a series of fair questions about what might happen if Assad were deposed, but none of them relate directly to the question he is supposedly addressing - a limited strike that is meant to send a strong message to Assad, and ideally to deter his future use of chemical weapons, but not change the balance of power between Assad and the various rebel groups. If Paul wanted to make a valid argument, he should have started by explaining why it is not possible to strike Syria without toppling Assad. If he does not believe that to be true, his argument is dishonest. If he does, he should explain why.

Paul closes by pounding the table about the separation of powers, suggesting that President Obama should adhere to the position he took when he was a Senator, "that no President should unilaterally go to war without congressional authority unless there is an actual or imminent threat to our nation." Perhaps Paul would stick to that principle as President. Perhaps he would insist upon strict interpretation of the Constitution in accord with his references to James Madison. Paul may be looking at the history of U.S. military adventurism and concluding, few of those actions should have occurred, and no more should occur unless there's a bona fide crisis that necessitates military action before it's possible to consult Congress or unless Congress fulfills its constitutional role and declares war.

But if that's Paul's actual position, he would be a rarity among presidents and the only modern president to take that position. I think a Senator has the right to be offended by a President who, by statement or implication, asks for Congress to approve military action while taking the position that he will proceed no matter what Congress decides. I would have a lot less sympathy for the President, though, if Congress didn't have a very long history of shirking its duties - of granting presidents broad authority to engage in full-scale war against other nation states without actually declaring war, of blithe acceptance of unilateral military action initiated by presidents in the absence of urgency, or of grandstanding when things go wrong but avoiding taking action that would cause it to share responsibility.

Leaving aside my skepticism of Paul, I don't think that there is any way to view his editorial as anything but something he hopes to tout in future political ads, particularly if things go wrong. "Look how wise I was. [Just like Obama before he changed his mind]". But while a cogent argument against military intervention in Syria can be made, this isn't it. Paul doesn't question that Assad used chemical weapons. He does not explain why it's not in the best interest of the United States to deter the use of chemical weapons, even when they're not directed at U.S. territory or citizens. He instead relies upon a false dichotomy, misrepresents the position of the State Department relative to a punitive strike, and accuses the President of hypocrisy.

I would expect more from a man of Paul's professed values, but his editorial is entirely consistent with that of a self-promoting opposition party politician who wants to have it both ways - a (supposedly) principled reason for voting against a strike just in case things go well, and an increased opportunity for finger-pointing and demagoguery if they don't.

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