Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
After the hysteria stirred up by the Islamic State lopping off a few heads in a faraway land, including those of a very small number of Americans, Republicans running for president fell all over themselves in beating the drums of war. That response was predictable, given public opinion polls that showed Americans, horrified from media stories about the beheadings, wanted something to be done about the group—as long as it didn’t involve heavy costs in blood and lives, a la Afghanistan or Iraq. Never mind that beheadings have also occurred in the U.S.-friendly countries of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, President Obama read the same polls and sent U.S. air power over Syria and sent air and ground forces back into Iraq to battle the group without any congressional approval, as the Constitution requires.
Yet the Republican narrative of criticism, of course, has been that Obama somehow caused the rise of ISIS by doing too little rather than doing too much. In their minds, Obama should have enmeshed the United States earlier in the Syrian civil war by aiding "moderate” Syrian rebels and negotiated with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to leave a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq—even though George W. Bush also was unable to do so with an Iraqi leader dealing with his own population that was fed up with eight years of foreign occupation. Republicans love to forget that the Islamic State group sprang from al Qaeda in Iraq, which in turn had been created to fight George W. Bush’s idiotic invasion of Iraq. (This misadventure bore a striking similarity to U.S. military assistance to the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s, which inadvertently led Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to eventually give us Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.) And providing arms and training to indigenous forces in the Middle East hasn’t gone well recently. The U.S.-trained Iraqi army fled the battlefield with the Islamic State on two major occasions, allowing the group to capture much sophisticated U.S. weaponry, Furthermore, the Pentagon trained a whopping 60 "moderate” rebel fighters in Syria and the CIA a few more, only to have both groups debilitated by an attack from al Nusra, the al Qaeda in affiliate in Syria.
With a track record of gross military incompetence during the two most recent presidential administrations of both parties, one would think politicians would be more leery of pulling the military trigger and making the Islamist jihadist threat worse, as the track record indicates has occurred. Unfortunately, the worse the American military does in combat, the more militarized American society becomes in singing the praises of a sclerotic and unimaginative bureaucracy. The country’s founders—most of whom were cognizant of America’s uniquely safe strategic position away from the world’s conflict zones and who were squeamish about even having a standing army in a republic—would be shocked and dismayed at modern day America’s conception of "patriotism.”
Republicans always cite the founders’ vision much more than Democrats, but they usually omit the founders’ distaste of standing militaries and needless overseas wars. The one Republican candidate who did mention such niggling issues had been Rand Paul, but he then became so enamored with expanding his appeal that he started dancing with the many hawks in the party. He signed Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran interfering with and undermining the president’s constitutional responsibility to negotiate treaties with foreign countries and proposed a hefty hike in defense spending in exchange for cuts in U.S. foreign aid.
The latter proposal should be especially troubling for Paul’s libertarian base but often isn’t distressing enough for many libertarians. As an excuse for Paul’s proposed largesse, some libertarians will often cite the provision of national defense as one of the few legitimate enumerated federal functions—after all, it is one of today’s few federal roles that is actually in the Constitution. However, the problem is that since its origin just after World War II, the Department of Defense should have really been called the Department of Offense or the Department of the Defense of Other Countries. As Americans saw on 9/11, but seemed to ignore, the department was not really very good at actually defending the country. And in fact, as noted earlier, the United States unintentionally helped create al Qaeda, and then after that, inadvertently motivated the group to attack the United States in retaliation for numerous and needless U.S. military and covert interventions in the Middle East. Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, in previous presidential cycles, was courageous enough to point this out to fellow Republicans.
And although foreign aid should be cut because it is usually used to secure foreign military bases and other goodies abroad for the U.S. government—instead of being used for humanitarian purposes—the savings should be returned to the taxpayer and not given to the most bloated and inefficient government department (the Department of Defense is the only government department that cannot pass a financial audit). An intrinsically secure country—even Islamist terrorism kills only two to four people per year—the United States splurges on "defense” what the next nine highest spending countries combined spend. Rand Paul’s proposed increased defense budgets merely further encourage irresponsible lamentations similar to those made by Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell about not being able to use the United States’ big, wonderful military. When all you have is a hammer, every foreign problem looks like a nail.
Libertarians, many of them migrating from the right end of the political spectrum, are often squishy on the military spending issue—as is demonstrated by Rand Paul’s significant deviation. Yet war is the biggest cause of expanding government in U.S. and world history. For example, even non-defense spending and governmental regulation of the economy grow during wars—for example, Social Security, the income tax, the estate tax, and central banking (what is now the Federal Reserve) all grew out of war. To have fewer wars and less government, the means of waging non-defensive imperial wars need to be taken away from the usually irresponsible politicians, not augmented.
Rand Paul, being eclipsed by the media attention given to Donald Trump, and realizing that in a crowded Republican field, he could do very well in the primary season by just reconnecting with his disaffected libertarian base. In the campaign debates, he may very well reverse his tilt toward the hawks and again be the only one to talk about a restrained foreign policy. It would be high time, but he also needs to back away from what would then be a disingenuous position on defense spending increases. The nation cannot have a wise foreign policy of strategic restraint and independence if it still has a globe-girdling offensive military power projection force. The defense budget must be cut, not increased, in what is really still a fairly low-threat environment, or future politicians will be tempted to run the same activist foreign policy that has made us unsafe at home and helped rack up $18 trillion of national public debt.