"We're at war in basically about seven different countries right now, none of them authorized by Congress," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) told me yesterday on Sirius XM Insight's Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, in the wake of Paul's losing attempt Wednesday to repeal the post-9/11 authorizations for use of military force. "Senator McCain would have us in 30, 40, 50. He has never met a war he wasn't interested in getting the U.S. involved in."
It was one of many colorful foreign policy comments the Tea Party senator made on everything from the Afghanistan mini-surge, to President Donald Trump's interventionism ("I try to give him a little bit of a benefit of a doubt"), to the fortunes of foreign policy realists in D.C. ("they're less likely to be completely bonkers crazy like the neocons"). You can listen to a couple of snippets on SoundCloud (1, 2), and also read an edited partial transcript below.
I started out by asking about Wednesday's 61-36 Senate vote to kill Paul's amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have given a six-month sunset to the authorizations for use of military force that were passed on Sept. 14, 2001, and again in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War:
Paul: It was an exciting time. We, for the first time in 15 years, had a debate and a full Senate vote on whether or not it is our constitutional duty and responsibility to vote on war. Ever since 9/11 happened we voted to go after those who attacked us, but that resolution has now been used to justify war in half a dozen countries, maybe a little bit more. In fact Obama bombed seven countries without any kind of approval from Congress, and I think that's wrong. It's bad for our country, but it's also a disservice to our soldiers to be at war in so many places, send them to so many misbegotten corners of the globe without really having a full spirited debate about whether or not the public supports the war.
MW: Now you say it's the first time in 15 years. Is it really the first time in 15 years that this actually was debated on the Senate floor?
Paul: I think it was the first time we had a full Senate vote on it. Two years ago I got them to discuss an AUMF because they had a water bill in the foreign relations committee; it was a water bill for Africa. They'd been working on it for seven years, and if you want to see a bunch of annoyed grumpy old Senators, try to cut off some money they're wanting to give to some other country, and boy do they get grumpy. All I did was introduce an amendment saying something about whether we should have an AUMF, and all of a sudden everything hits the fan and we come to a screeching halt. But out of it I forced a debate on the AUMF.
And this is an important point for those who are listening, is that you don't get anything around here just by sitting around, you've got to force them to do it. They will tell you just non-stop, ad nauseam, "Oh, yes you're right Senator but this is neither the time nor the place. You should bring this up in committee." Then when you try to bring it up in committee they say, "Now Senator, you know this is not the time nor the place to bring this up." Nothing ever gets discussed, and they continually squash debate, but in public they profess to love debate and they profess, "You're exactly right. We should be discussing whether we should be at war. It's the most important point we debate in Congress." And yet they stifle it and don't want to talk about it. It took 15 years to get a vote on it.
MW: So you're saying that yesterday, when your good friend Senator John McCain was saying that he would welcome to work with you on putting together language having to do with adapted authorization of use of military force, that you're not participating in overseas betting markets on that happening?
Paul: Well, here's the deal. He would be happy to work with me on an authorization that actually expands the scope of war around the world. We're at war in basically about seven different countries right now, none of them authorized by Congress. Senator McCain would have us in 30, 40, 50. He has never met a war he wasn't interested in getting the U.S. involved in. And so no, I wouldn't want to work with him on an authorization of force, because it would be basically less limiting than the one that is sitting around that they dust off, from 2001. No, I think what we need is more restriction of war-making, not more expansive war-making.
MW: Tell us a little bit about how…the existing two resolutions from September 2001 and in early 2012 are used. When we're bombing Libya, on day 83 of the bombing, is that when the president says, "Oh, by the way, we do it because of this"? How are the justifications actually used?
Paul: Well, it's worse than you think. They typically point to the one from 2001, and you'll hear people occasionally say, "Well, it authorizes associated forces." Well, read it. It doesn't say that at all. It says you can go after those who planned, plotted, harbored or abetted the people who attacked us on 9/11. What they've done is they've then extended that to something they call "associated forces" and descendants of people who might have helped us. If your grandfather helped attack us on 9/11, now you're still in the same tribe, you're of the Taliban movement. We can attack you.
But it's worse than that. They go all the way to Libya, to another country, and if someone professes admiration for the Al Qaeda strand of jihadism, the authorization from 2001 justifies it.
But it's worse than that, because every president—Bush, Obama and now Trump—have also said, "You know what, we don't really need the 2001 authorization, because we also believe we have the inherent powers of the Constitution." Article 2, they claim, allows the president to commit unilateral war anywhere, anytime, without restriction, and they say the only way Congress can stop it is to defund it. But that's patently false. The Founding Fathers said specifically and emphatically that Congress should initiate or declare war.
MW: Now, you lost yesterday 61 to 36 or 37. What is your reaction to that? Is that actually an optimistic thing because you got to vote and you got at least 36 people voting on your side? What is your assessment rationally, emotionally, of what went down yesterday?
Paul: You know, if you take that vote to the American public I think I win 60 percent. You take it to my home state in Kentucky, I think I win 60 percent. They had a vote recently that passed out of committee on the House side, and interestingly several very conservative Republicans, including a former Navy SEAL, voted for it.
In fact, I meet people all the time in the military, and this is the thing that is really misrepresented or misunderstood by politicians and the media—they think because you join the military that you believe in perpetual war, not debated or discussed. It's probably the opposite. If you're putting your life on the line and you're going to war, you actually want them to have a real debate. If you're on your eighth tour of duty in Afghanistan, and they're talking about sending you to Yemen, for which there's been no debate, I think the soldiers are rightly actually ticked off about it.
I had a conversation with a Navy SEAL who'd been in 19 years. This is about a year, year and a half ago, and he said, "Look, we can do anything you ask us. We have the ability, the strength, the equipment to go anywhere in the world and do anything you ask us. But just don't send us abroad and tell us to plant the flag, because we're just not very good about being the Mayor of Kabul, we're not good at suppressing the poppy crop, we're not very good at police work. We're soldiers. We're supposed to kill the enemy."
I think most soldiers don't like the idea of nation-building. You notice even the generals now who still advocate for more war, they always end their sentence by saying, "But it's not nation-building." I saw [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster not too long ago, and I gave him grief about the Afghan War and said it's a huge mistake. And he said, "Well, but it's not nation-building." I said, "How can it be anything but nation-building? We're on our 16th year there, and you think you're still fighting the last war. What you're doing is trying to create a nation where no nation has ever existed."
MW: […] [Speaking of] Afghanistan and McMaster: Give us a sense of your take on the president's reversal of his campaign position about Afghanistan, and your overall feeling about his foreign policy interventionism right now, your level of disappointment of where you thought it might have been going.
Paul: You know, I think President Trump's instincts are still leaning against major involvement in foreign war with great land forces. He campaigned consistently and talked for at least a decade that the Iraq War was a mistake. For five or six years he's been saying the Afghan War has lost its purpose and is a mistake. I think he still believes that. I guess the way I look at it is, I try to give him a little bit of a benefit of a doubt in that the surge in Afghanistan, all of his generals—McMaster, [James] Mattis, all these people—they wanted to put 50,000 troops in, and I think he pushed back, but did not ultimately have the will to say "no," but he said we're only sending 3,000.
I think if he were here and we were asking him, I think he'd still say he's circumspect about the idea of our intervention in Afghanistan. The disappointing thing is, though, and this is the problem with the presidency: A lot of times is you get somebody who has inclinations and has the desire to go in one direction, but then if they surround themselves with the wrong people, and if they have these generals whispering in their ears every day, you wind up with war and more of it. The generals don't like to lose. They're thoughtful, but they just don't like to lose, and they don't want to give up on Afghanistan.
But I just see no winnable solution there, and what I do see is more blood and treasure. Even the military solution they're putting forward as being so great and so much better than before, they're talking about four years to try to stabilize the country and reverse the loses to the Taliban of the last couple years. At least four more years just to get to a stabilizing zone. And my question to them is, Obama put a hundred thousand troops in there in 2011, and still couldn't completely win the war, because the Taliban sort of scurry off into Pakistan, and then when our troop levels go down they come back in.
The neocons will cry and say, "Oh, you just need to leave your troops in there forever." And it's like, well, if you want to leave 100,000 people in Afghanistan forever, have them patrol the streets and be the army and be the police and be the government, you could do that, but it's extraordinarily expensive and ultimately we have to make some decisions. Are we going to keep incurring a 20 trillion dollar debt that we incurred at about a trillion dollars a year? Is there some kind of end point at which it'll be devastating to the country to have so much debt?
MW: […] I know that you have…been involved with trying to influence the appointment of deputies, Secretary of State and this kind of thing, and trying to keep more interventionists and neoconservatives, or at least big hawks, from getting into those positions. This is perhaps a strange-sounding question, but is the Rand Paul foreign policy bench, meaning the number of people out there who share your broad views on skepticism towards the bipartisan policy that we've had here, is that bench just thin? Are there just not enough bodies of people who are smart about foreign policy, knowledgeable about these places in the world, but don't necessarily want to have John McCain's point of view on how you address the latest problem?
Paul: Well they're sort of in exile. They're not being tortured, but they're in exile. And so it's not that there's not many of them, but that they're afraid of being publicly whipped, I think. […]
There are schools of libertarian, less-intervention or non-intervention [policy] that I think grow, and include a lot of independents and a lot of young people. Cato talks about a non-interventionist foreign policy. But then there are also groups that I call fellow travelers that I try to associate with, that are more realist. They aren't perfect, but they're less likely to be completely bonkers crazy like the neocons and get involved in every war.
Now the danger is, is that it used to just be neocons, but now we have neoliberals as well. And the neoliberals would be people like Hillary Clinton, who actually was very, very gung-ho for war, and the leading advocate of getting involved in the Syrian war, which I think ultimately allowed weapons to float to some very bad people in that war, ultimately led to chaos, a vacuum in the [region], and the rise of ISIS. Hillary Clinton was also gung ho to get involved in Libya. They use their justification—less geopolitical reasons, although they use that some—they use as their justification mainly that they want to go in for humanitarian reasons, but they don't want get permission. They just want to have a presidency strong enough to do it.
The neocons go in more to try to spread their ideas of liberal democracy. They think that democracy can be spread through force, and that if we just top all these autocrats in the Middle East they're going to choose Western-style British Common Law and our Bill of Rights. I think that's a very naive worldview in the sense that if you don't have a tradition of freedom, finding it abruptly is the exception rather than the rule.
MW: Now you got 36 votes on your side. What are the conversations like with people? Do you feel like there's momentum going on there? Did you get some people who are on the opposite of you who nonetheless expressed some sympathy or empathy? Or does everyone just find you super irritating?
Paul: A little bit of both. But you know, for the most part I think most of the people who voted with me were Democrats. I think it was three Republicans, 33 Democrats. Many of the people actually do want a new war authorization that would be too broad for me, and so we don't necessarily agree on how to go forward, but we do agree it should occur. Some of these people started out by saying, "Oh we should have a one-, two-, or three-year sunset to give us time." I think some of them came around to the six-month thing because I kept telling, "No, it's not six months. It's 16 years and six months."
We've been waiting a long time; people have had a long time to formulate this. And I do think if they were forced, they would be forced into making a decision. But I'm encouraged that we got the vote, encouraged that we got 36. This wasn't like a drubbing where you get three or five votes; [it's] 36, and we bring it to the public's attention. It's coming up in the House. We just have to fight harder and longer, and eventually people are going to get tired of war in the Middle East, and [begin] asking the question, "Is it really making is any safer?"