Senator Rand Paul's presidential campaign is drawing new attention to his "libertarian-ish" views and his less-interventionist foreign policy. His preference for avoiding new wars may set him apart from most of the other Republican candidates, as well as from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but it's in keeping with traditional American foreign policy.
The classical liberals whose ideas shaped America always regarded war as the greatest scourge that government could visit upon society. They abhorred the killing that war entailed, and they understood something else as well: War destroyed families, businesses, and civil society. Preventing kings from putting their subjects at risk in unnecessary wars was one of their major goals. Adam Smith argued that little else was needed to create a happy and prosperous society but "peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice."
The American founders, happy to be free of endless European wars, made peace and neutrality a cardinal principle of the new government. In his farewell address, George Washington told the nation: "The great rule in conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." And Thomas Jefferson described American foreign policy in his first inaugural address this way: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none."
In the 20th century, however, the United States became entangled in world affairs and foreign wars, from World War I through Korea and Vietnam. For 50 years U.S. foreign policy was directed at defeating two totalitarian powers, first Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia. That great crusade ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991; no other superpower remained to threaten U.S. sovereignty or world peace. But the huge diplomatic and military establishment that grew up during World War II and the Cold War refused to declare victory and return to peacetime status.
The American military remained large and expensive. Instead of celebrating the nation's peaceful triumph, American policymakers expanded their ambitions. Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we were told that the post–Cold War world was even more dangerous and unstable than the world that had been threatened by the Soviet Union and its 30,000 nuclear warheads. American troops remained deployed in Europe, Japan, Korea, and the Middle East. Washington drew up new justifications for maintaining each outpost in the nation's global archipelago of military bases and outposts. We didn't merely retain the Cold War alliances; we actually expanded them by adding new members, primarily from the former Warsaw Pact countries, and then countries from the former Soviet Union, thus extending our potential military involvement to vast new territories.
The United States remained most actively involved in the Middle East, especially with the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War and the heavy U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia afterward. The presence of U.S. troops in the Muslim holy land, and U.S. meddling in the region, from the coup against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 through support for repressive regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, inflamed Islamic fundamentalists.
The huge diplomatic and military establishment that grew up during WWII and the Cold War refused to declare victory and return to peacetime status.
American officials understood that problem. A Department of Defense report in 1997 noted, "Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States." Indeed, the attempt by associates of Osama bin Laden to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993 and the African embassy bombings of 1998 kept U.S. officials well aware of the hostility being engendered by our global intervention.
But they could not conceive of extricating the United States from the Middle East. According to foreign-policy scholar Andrew Bacevich, this is because of "an abiding conviction" among America's bipartisan foreign-policy establishment that "international peace and order require the United States to maintain a global military presence, to configure its forces for global power projection, and to counter existing or anticipated threats by relying on a policy of global interventionism." Even if a hands-off policy would reduce the risks faced by Americans at home, interventionism in the Middle East would persist.
In the end, bin Laden and al-Qaeda carried out another, far more devastating attack that left 3,000 Americans dead. In response, the United States launched two wars that lasted longer than World War II. We created the Department of Homeland Security and imposed huge costs on banks, air travelers, and other Americans. We transferred yet more power to the president and the executive branch. We erected vast, hidden surveillance systems. We undermined fundamental principles of individual rights, due process, and the rule of law. Economic costs of these measures will easily exceed $2 trillion, possibly several times that. These are just the sorts of costs of war that classical liberals and libertarians have long warned about.
It's time for a debate about global interventionism, and we should hope that Rand Paul can start to generate that long-overdue discussion.