The Neocons Lose Their Shit Over Rand Paul

Senators Gather To Caucus Over Hagel Nomination

And so we begin to get into – finally! – a real debate about foreign policy within the GOP. With Ron Paul, the neocon stranglehold on Republican foreign policy was easily maintained. With Rand Paul? Not so much. And so we have three sallies against him this week from three classic sources: Bret Stephens, Rich Lowry and Jennifer Rubin. Bret Stephens is a very gifted writer, and his cri de coeur today is quite something.

So let me concede up-front: I fully agree with Stephens that Paul’s theory that Dick Cheney decided to invade Iraq in order to burnish the bottom line of Halliburton is foolish as well as stupid. Occam’s razor does all the work. We know that in the wake of 9/11, Cheney panicked. He was terrified of another attack and his fetid imagination ran wild. One way in which he could manage to recover was by seizing the initiative – and Iraq was sitting right there, as it had been for years. Along with instituting torture – another panic move – Cheney’s pursuit of war needed no underhand motive. And it is asinine and completely fruitless to make unprovable slurs.

But on containing Iran’s potential nuclear capacity? Paul is perfectly sane, and in line with US strategy against far more formidable nuclear adversaries during the Cold War. If he is completely out of the mainstream so was George Kennan and every president from Truman to Reagan. To describe the strategy that won the Cold War as somehow extremist is simply bizarre. Here’s Paul’s basic position:

“I’ve repeatedly voted for sanctions against Iran. And I think all options should be on the table to prevent them from having nuclear weapons,” Paul said on “This Week” Sunday. But he said those who oppose the idea of containment — or living with an Iran with nuclear weapons — ignore that such an outcome has been necessary in the past.

“They said containment will never ever, ever be our policy,” Paul said of those who oppose Iran getting nuclear weapons at any cost. “We woke up one day and Pakistan had nuclear weapons. If that would have been our policy toward Pakistan, we would be at war with Pakistan. We woke up one day and China had nuclear weapons. We woke up one day and Russia had them … The people who say ‘by golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war,” he added.

Well, they are, aren’t they? And you can tell by the failure to address this core point. Stephens doesn’t address it, preferring to mock Paul’s alleged electability and pick the low-hanging fruit of Halliburton. Lowry doesn’t go there, either. And Rubin of course simply flaps her arms up and down:

It has been the position of three presidents that a nuclear-armed Iran is intolerable. It is an existential threat to Israel. It is not simply that it is “not a good idea” for Iran to get the bomb. He is far, far outside the mainstream on this — and far to the left of President Obama.

But of course insisting that an Iranian nuke is intolerable is the only viable negotiating strategy to prevent it. Paul agrees with the “all options on the table” mantra. His cardinal sin is in asking what happens if the strategy fails, as it might – and as the neocons devoutly wish. What then? Rubin makes further points: Paul’s remark

reveals extreme naivete about how enemies read signals.

But he’s not the president. And containment of the nukes with even more crippling sanctions is obviously not something the Iranian regime would like. Why are they in these negotiations in the first place? In some ways, the threat of sanctioned containment is more troubling for Tehran than threats of another religious war in the Middle East. The former hurts Iran alone. The latter hurts both of us. Then this:

It reveals that he listens to no competent adviser.

Pardon my smacked gob, but an unreconstructed believer in the Iraq War is now claiming competence as a virtue?

Only in the hermetically sealed universe of the Washington Post op-ed page does that still fly. Then this:

He apparently is tone deaf, not understanding how this will strike average voters. Former ambassador to the United Nations and potential 2016 candidate John Bolton observes, “One wonders if he understands what he is saying.”

Again, someone citing John Bolton in a case for reaching average voters somewhat undermines her point. And I’d say the average voter, when asked to pick between another Middle East war and even tighter sanctions on Iran, may not fall into the camp Rubin expects. As for de-Reaganizing Paul – yes, that is now a verb – well, again, mentioning arms and Iran may not be the best rhetorical strategy in that context. Paul is not as naive as the man who thought he could placate the ayatollahs by trading arms for hostages. (Chait has a hilarious line on this as well.)

What do we make of this? I’d say it’s a sign that the neoconservative wing of the GOP is deeply alarmed by the traction Paul has on foreign policy with a base that remembers Iraq and Afghanistan more vividly than Bret Stephens. And the combination of the ferocious attacks with an inability to rebut its core point – isn’t containment preferable to war? – suggests a bit of a bluff. Paul should avoid the conspiracy theories and focus on the argument. And on that ground, he’s winning.

(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty)