While Phil is right that our departure from Beirut features prominently in al Qaeda propaganda, I’m not sure that particular intervention is a good model for the war on terror. This was a multinational peacekeeping operation with less than ideal rules of engagement that the State Department favored over the objections of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who was neither a pacifist nor an isolationist. John McCain was among the supporters of President Reagan’s decision to get out.
Of course we can’t just give “the terrorists whatever they want.” We shouldn’t abandon our moral and strategic commitment to Israel’s security, for example. I favored ejecting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and routing the Taliban in Afghanistan. But there is nothing wrong with evaluating whether proposed interventions and existing commitments are consistent with our just national interests. Before we deepen our involvement in the Middle East, we should first ask if doing so really enhances our own security.
So far, even some of our successful interventions in the region have come with serious down sides. Moreover, our interactions with the Muslim world are complicated. We anger many Muslims by supporting relatively moderate yet authoritarian regimes, but insisting on democratic elections at the expense of those regimes often ends up increasing the influence of Islamist political parties.
We can’t conduct our entire foreign policy so as not to give offense, but neither should we needlessly give offense or fail to make distinctions between parties whose problems with the United States are theological or ideological — and thus likely beyond peaceful resolution — and those who have political grievances that can be evaluated in light of our own interests. Maybe a candidate who cites Dennis Kucinich as a kindred spirit on national defense isn’t the best person to be making these kinds of distinctions. But at least Paul is starting the debate.