The following remarks were prepared for delivery to the Conservative Political Action Conference following a speech by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
It is a privilege to address CPAC, and a challenge to follow Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). In the spirit of debate, I want to offer a small criticism of Sen. Paul–not a McCain-Graham criticism, but a constructive criticism.
I love the guy, and his filibuster was brilliant. Long overdue. But while he was right on the Constitution, he was wrong on the law of war, especially the distinction between a combatant and a non-combatant. Conservatives cannot follow his definition, as it now stands, or we will not deserve to be taken seriously on foreign policy.
Let’s start in Benghazi. The attack on the U.S. consulate last Sep. 11 was the worst national security failure since the original 9/11. It truly deserves the label “scandal,” for three reasons.
One, because President Barack Obama and his administration lied about the attack. Two, because the media aided the cover-up. Three, because the president did nothing to rescue those at the consulate, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
But Benghazi was not just a national security failure. It was a constitutional failure.
The president has a constitutional duty to act as commander-in-chief. He failed to do so. He did not, as he had once claimed, issue “three directives” when he knew “what was going on” in Benghazi. Nor did he communicate with his Cabinet throughout the evening after learning of the attacks. And we now know that they did not talk to each other, either.
President Obama’s dereliction of duty in the Benghazi scandal reinforced a growing global perception of American weakness. Al Qaeda has lost its leader, but it has regained its momentum. We have done little to challenge Chinese ambitions in the western Pacific. We have capitulated to Russian demands on missile defense in Eastern Europe. And, most of all, we have failed to prevent Iran from advancing towards nuclear weapons.
In speeches, the Obama administration continues to insist that a military option is on the table. But Iran considers our actions, not our words. And what Iran sees is a president committed to retreat.
In June 2009, Iran was surrounded, east and west, by U.S.-led troops: over 60,000 in Afghanistan and over 130,000 in Iraq. That likely encouraged Iranians to rise up against their government after the stolen elections that summer.
We could have helped the Green Revolution. We could have declared the government of Iran illegitimate. We could have helped Iranians overturn their regime–and its nuclear program, and its support for terrorism worldwide–without firing a shot. But we allowed the regime to regroup.
Five years later, by 2014, Iran will face no U.S.-led troops in Iraq; 12,000, at most, in Afghanistan; and one less U.S. Navy carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Iran is the key strategic challenge in the Middle East today. It has formed alliances with diverse terror groups and connections with Muslim Brotherhood governments, bridging the Shia-Sunni divide to fight common enemies. Yet the regime remains weak because it is hated by its own people. We can remove Iran as a threat if we commit to a policy of regime change–by peaceful transition if possible, and by military removal if necessary.
Regime change is rarely the right policy–but it is in Iran. The irony is that Iran is one of the few places in the Middle East where the Obama administration refused to support a popular revolution. But the regime can be toppled, and must be before Iran harms our allies or the U.S. homeland.
We suspect–and Iran believes–the president lacks the will to confront Iran, much less change it. But do we conservatives have the will ourselves?
That question has become even more acute since Sen. Paul’s filibuster last week. The filibuster was a brave, heroic gesture of opposition. It proved that at least one leader, a Tea Party leader, was prepared to stand up for the Constitution and for the principle that individual liberty comes before government power.
But Sen. Paul was wrong about one thing: it is not as easy to distinguish combatants from non-combatants as he suggested.
A foreign terrorist on foreign soil does not stop being a terrorist simply because he is far from the battlefield. If we accept that a terrorist at a café is never a legitimate target then we cannot protect ourselves from terror. In our zeal to roll back government power we will have placed our liberty in danger.
Similarly, in embracing the sequester, we cannot accept defense cuts that may prove more costly over time by putting our security at risk.
We cannot be serious about protecting individual liberty from government if we are not also determined to protect liberty from all enemies, foreign and domestic. The reason we have our Constitution, and not the Articles of Confederation, is our former system of government could not protect the nation–or pay its debt. As we confront today’s debt we must not make defense, which is the first priority of government, the first target for cuts.
The Benghazi attack happened because the president sacrificed military readiness for ideology and domestic politics. We must learn from that mistake.
Our Constitution calls for limited government. It also calls for a government that can defend the nation. As we pare back the expansive government that accompanied the war on terror, we must see that war through to victory and ensure that our military is ready for the next challenge.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned: “No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country.” War led to centralized power and the destruction of liberty over time, he said. Yet he also warned: “[W]hen a democratic people engages in a war after a long peace, it incurs much more risk of defeat than any other nation.”
Benghazi reminds us: we cannot defend liberty if we do not take the fight to our enemies.