Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) outlined his foreign policy vision at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday, arguing the United States should consider pursuing a "containment" policy against both "radical Islam" and a nuclear Iran.
The address came on the heels of Paul's recent visit to Israel and his strong criticism of Hillary Clinton’s handling of the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya were killed.
"Understandably, no one wants to imagine what happens if Iran develops a nuclear weapon," said Paul. "But if we don’t have at least some of that discussion now, then the danger exists that war is the only remedy. While I think it unwise to declare that we will contain a nuclear Iran, I think it equally unwise to say we will never contain a nuclear Iran."
Paul’s support for a policy of containment extended to radical Islam, which he likened to the threat of Communist ideology during the Cold War.
"Like communism, radical Islam is an ideology with worldwide reach," said Paul. "Containing radical Islam requires a worldwide strategy like containment. It requires counterforce at a series of constantly shifting worldwide points. But counterforce does not necessarily mean large-scale land wars with hundreds of thousands of troops nor does it always mean a military action at all."
Paul blasted "neoconservatives" and a foreign policy that attempts to be "everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time."
"Many of today’s neoconservatives want to wrap themselves up in Reagan’s mantle, but the truth is that Reagan used clear messages of communism’s evil and clear exposition of America’s strength to contain and ultimately transcend the Soviet Union," said Paul. "The Cold War ended because the engine of capitalism defeated the engine of socialism. Reagan aided and abetted this end not by ‘liberation’ of captive people but by a combination of don’t-mess-with-us language and diplomacy."
Paul described his philosophy as a "balanced" approach based on his reading of one of the architects of Cold War strategy, George Kennan.
However, some experts disputed Paul’s conclusions.
Danielle Pletka, vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Paul’s speech failed to address the actual debates among foreign policy experts.
"I respect the thoughtful tone and the enthusiastic research that went into the senator's speech," said Pletka. "Unfortunately, the restraint that he calls for in addressing the challenges of the day is directed toward straw men. Who has suggested we invade Iran? Or Syria? Or anywhere else?"
"The theory that needed more exploration was deterrence," Pletka said. "We are big and we are strong in order not to fight. We are mighty in order to persuade others of the fecklessness of challenging us not in order that we might adventure abroad in search of new conflict. It is that keen understanding that animated men like Paul Nitze, more truly the intellectual architect of our winning Cold War strategy."
The speech may have also set back Paul’s outreach to the pro-Israel community.
One senior official at a prominent D.C. Jewish organization called it "frankly bizarre" and "outside the bipartisan political and policy consensus."
"Both Republican and Democratic elected officials all the way up to the president have emphasized that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger massive proliferation across the Middle East," said the official. "The reason containment is off the table is because [containment strategy is] one of the best ways to ensure that a nuclear war actually breaks out."
Lee Smith, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the real strategic threat during the Cold War was not communist ideology per se but the nuclear-armed nation-state it represented—the Soviet Union.
"I think [Paul’s speech was] a little confused," said Smith. "The United States is served best when it deals with the world in terms of nation states. … The major strategic threat to American interests right now is the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies."
Smith also noted that the U.S. containment policy during the Cold War depended on the same kind of proxy wars and arming of foreign fighters that Paul seemed to object to in his speech.
"Proxy war was the heart of a successful containment policy," said Smith. "Containment was a bloody, active affair."
"From looking at Sen. Paul’s speech, we’re not quite talking about the same ideas of containment," Smith added. "What containment means for him is the same as what it means for the most of the commentariat and probably most of the Obama administration. ‘Containment’ just means anything but the use of military force."