Matt Johnson: Rand Paul’s disingenuous commitment to Ronald Reagan

07/17/2014 1:39 PM

07/19/2014 11:54 PM

The recent quarrel between Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Rick Perry is worth reading — especially because it reveals a few disconcerting facts about Paul.

While Politico called Paul’s July 14 rejoinder a “blistering response” to Perry’s recent attack in The Washington Post, the exchange was more aptly described by New York Magazine as a “Reagan-Off.”

Both combatants — and soon-to-be presidential candidates — heartily embrace President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and use it to justify their platforms. It’s just that the policies Paul eagerly recalls happen to be anathema to the policies cited by Perry.

The principal difference lies in their perceptions of the Cold War. Paul thinks Reagan demonstrated admirable restraint with the Soviet Union, which led to peace “through strong diplomacy and moral leadership.” Perry, on the other hand, thinks Reagan “confronted” the Soviet Union “in every theater.”

While Perry’s insistence on the undeniable wisdom of Reagan’s foreign policy is annoying and misguided, he’s clearly correct on the main point. To reductively characterize Reagan’s legacy as a model of reservation — more critically, as one that agrees with Paul’s worldview — is brazenly dishonest.

Rand and his father, former Congressman Ron Paul, have a curious infatuation with Reagan.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ron Paul ran attack ads boasting of being “the one who stood with Reagan.” His campaign website also trumpeted a glowing endorsement from Reagan under the “foreign policy” heading.

But in 1988, Ron Paul quit the GOP in disgust over Reagan’s policies and said, “I want to totally disassociate myself from the Reagan administration.” Regardless, he was fully prepared to re-associate with it when the political atmosphere seemed to welcome it.

Undisguised hypocrisy and opportunism are at work in Rand Paul’s case, too.

On June 16, he wrote, “Though many claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan on foreign policy, too few look at how he really conducted it.”

Nor does Senator Paul.

Just take a look at one of his most strident disagreements with the Obama administration, “I also want to stop sending U.S. aid and arms to Islamic rebels in Syria who are allied with ISIS…”

One of the most widely recognized features of the Reagan Doctrine was a willingness to do exactly what Paul warns against — arm and subsidize resistance fighters everywhere from Afghanistan to Central America.

During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration spent billions of dollars — yes, billions (a considerable sum compared to the $500 million Obama has requested for the Syrian rebels) — on the mujahedeen. After the Soviet withdrawal, the United States disengaged from Afghanistan, and the Taliban was born — establishing a malignant symbiosis with Osama bin Laden in the process.

One might say, given the disastrous long-term impact of arming the mujahedeen in the 1980s, that Paul is making the right decision today. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t ceaselessly invoke the name most commonly associated with the opposite view.

During the Reagan years, the United States also supported anti-communist guerillas in Cambodia, Angola, and infamously, Nicaragua. Reagan’s commitment to the Contras (an anti-communist resistance force opposed to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua) — as well as his fury over the holding of American hostages in Lebanon — led to the arms-for-hostages swap known as the Iran-Contra affair.

This criminal scandal is pertinent in the context of Paul’s Reagan-love because it tramples a long list of his supposed principles.

First, Paul is adamantly opposed to helping Iran, even indirectly. Yet he lauds an administration that sold weapons directly to Iran.

Second, Paul constantly reminds us of his commitment to the constitution. But the Reagan administration flagrantly circumvented it during the Iran-Contra affair — the embargo on Iran, imposed by Congress, disallowed the shipment of weapons.

Finally, the profits from this illegal deal went to a band of vicious, drug-slinging thugs in Nicaragua. While Reagan may not have known about Oliver North’s diversion of funds to the Contras, his affinity for their cause was no secret in the White House. He told National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, in reference to the Contras, “I want you to do whatever you have to do to help these people keep body and soul together.” One can’t imagine Rand Paul committing himself to a foreign paramilitary organization with such gusto.

Still, he implores us to consider “a new approach, one that emulates Reagan’s policies.”

Paul cynically uses Reagan’s popularity as a political tool, even though his own policies and inclinations are vastly different. Like father, like son.

Reach Matt Johnson, editorial page intern, at mjohnson@kcstar.com.

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