Kentucky Republican Rand Paul is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one of Congress' leading skeptics of U.S. military strategy, including possible strikes on Syria. On Tuesday, he offered a detailed response to President Obama's speech about the Syrian crisis. Paul joins Michel Martin of Tell Me More to talk about his opposition to military action, and what the U.S. should do.
On why a military strike could backfire
It's easy enough to say — and the president says, "Oh, this will teach him a lesson" — but his military strike is intended not to target him individually, not to bring about regime change, and Secretary [of State John] Kerry has called it an unbelievably small war that we're going to get involved with. The president says it's not really a war. So my question is, will it have any effect? Or if it does have an effect, could it destabilize the Assad regime to such a point that they lose control of the chemical weapons and they get into worse hands, such as al-Qaida or al-Nusra?
On the factions in the Syrian war
I think there's evil on both sides, and I think that's one reason I don't want to be involved in civil war. I see things in personal terms. I just can't see sending one of my sons — or your son or daughter — to fight in a civil war, where on one side we have a dictator, who in all likelihood gassed his people. But on the other side, we have Islamic rebels who've been eating the hearts or organs of their enemies. We have priests that have been killed. We have Christian villages that have been razed by Islamic rebels. We have Islamic rebels who say they don't recognize Israel and would just as soon attack Israel as Assad. So really, I see no clear-cut American interest, and I'm afraid that sometimes things unravel, and the situation could become less stable and not more stable.
On what the U.S. should do
I've thought for some time that the answer to a lot of problems in the Middle East, including Iran, include an active role with Russia. And I think, in some ways, we've taken show votes in the U.N. that are guaranteed to failure before we take them. In a reality, what we should be doing is having quiet diplomacy with the Russians to convince them that it's in their self-interest to have a more stable Middle East because trade enriches us all. And the more we can have peaceful trade, both with Russia, with China, and with others — you know, there's a self-interest in this for everyone. And I think we can't be naive in dealing with the Russians or dealing with the Syrians. But at the same time, I think we could try to encourage — and I think this is what diplomacy should do — encourage the self-interests of all parties to believe that it is in their best interest to get evil actors or rogue actors such as Syria or Iran, if you try to have less belligerent and less bellicose behavior.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to spend a good part of the program today talking over options for dealing with the crisis in Syria. We're getting reaction to the president's speech last night where he called for Congress to delay a vote on whether to proceed with military strikes - that in order to consider more diplomatic options. But President Obama also explained again why he thinks the U.S. must keep military options on the table.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America's not the world's policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.
MARTIN: In a few minutes, we're going to check in with a group of news editors from across the country to get a sense of what their readers are telling them about the issue and to find out what they think. First, though, we are joined by someone who's become one of Congress's leading skeptics of U.S. military strategy - including possible strikes on Syria - Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He's a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He offered a detailed response to the president's speech last night and you can see it on YouTube. And he is with us once again now. Senator Rand Paul, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome back to the program.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: As I mentioned, you gave your own speech last night. You said you oppose a military strike on Syria for a variety of reasons which you outline in your remarks. And I would encourage people who are interested to see that in its entirety. You said there's no clearly defined mission. You said that bad outcomes or potential bad outcomes are only likely to be made worse by U.S. involvement. But you also said in an interview that was earlier in the evening that if Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is behind the chemical weapons attack, he deserves death. So do you believe that chemical weapons were in fact used by the regime and if so, how should that be addressed?
PAUL: You know, I don't think really anybody is questioning that chemical weapons were used, that they're horrific, that it goes against the Geneva Convention to kill civilians. Unfortunately, a lot of these tragedies have occurred around the world over past decades and continue to occur. The question's whether or not there's an American interest in the Civil War. The question is whether or not a military strike on Assad will cause him to be encouraged to use more weapons or discouraged. It's easy enough to say - and the president says though this will teach him a lesson - but his military strike is intended not to target him individually, not to bring about regime change, and Secretary Kerry has called it an unbelievably small war that we're going to get involved with. The president says it's not really a war. So my question is, will it have any effect or if it does have an effect, could it destabilize the Assad regime to such a point that they lose control of the chemical weapons and they get into worse hands - like al-Qaida or al-Nusra.
MARTIN: Well, in fact, you started your speech with a reference to 9/11. And you said that 12 years later President Obama is asking us to be allies with al-Qaida. That's a quote from your remarks. You don't see a difference between state actors and non-state actors?
PAUL: Well, I think there's evil on both sides. And I think that's one reason I don't want to be involved in civil war. I see things in personal terms. I just can't see sending one of my sons or your son or daughter to fight in a civil war where on one side we have a dictator who, in all likelihood, gassed his people. But on the other side, we have Islamic rebels who have been eating the hearts or organs of their enemies. We have priests that have been killed. We have Christian villages that have been raised by Islamic rebels. We have Islamic rebels who say they don't recognize Israel and would just as soon attack Israel as Assad. So really I see no clear-cut American interests and I'm afraid that sometimes things unravel and the situation can become less stable and not more stable.
MARTIN: I do want to ask more about the whole question of the U.S. interest, but before I do that, I want to play a clip from a conversation we had last week with one of our regular contributors, Bridget Johnson. She's the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian news and commentary site. And I'm raising this because you, who've been kind of one of the thought leaders, I think if we can use that term, for the libertarian movement in this country. And this is what she said last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
BRIDGET JOHNSON: This is nauseating that we're having this argument, that somehow says a Syrian life is worth less than another life. You know, if this was happening in Brussels right now, we would be all over it. If it was European intervention we would not hesitate one minute. If it was Rwanda, that's another story. That's what we're looking at right now I believe.
MARTIN: What about that?
PAUL: You know, nothing really has to do with what ethnic group is being killed, as far as civilians are being killed. But there probably would be a difference between Europe and some other places because we have a NATO Alliance and we have treaty obligations. And so that's where we get into the fact of talking about whether or not there is an American interest. We also have troops stationed. So, for example, the use of chemical weapons - some on the Democrat side have said well, this encourages the North Koreans to use chemical weapons against our troops.
And I say well, that's absurd. I think the entire world knows, and North Korea knows, that if they used any weapons on our soldiers they would be obliterated. And it would be an overwhelming response. But it wouldn't be a pinprick, it wouldn't be we're going to leave you in power and we're not going to target every bit of your regime. If Americans were attacked, it does change the equation. The problem is, is that with regard to this is there've been horrendous killings of civilians with conventional weapons. And really, while gas is an awful thing to watch - the death is painful - to even watch these deaths - it's also bad to die from a bullet, a hand grenade, or a machete.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He's a Republican. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He offered a detailed response to the president's remarks last night. You can see those remarks in their entirety on YouTube. What about this question of U.S. national security? That seems to be the linchpin of a lot of people's opposition to this. And their argument is they do not see a national interest. They do not see a threat to America's security with this ongoing civil conflict in Syria. The president disagrees. He says that if this regime is allowed to use these weapons with impunity, it emboldens others who might be tempted. And that would pose a threat to national security directly. You just don't agree?
PAUL: Well, I don't think he fully analyzes the situation. If you destabilize Assad and punish Assad, you do embolden terrorists. You embolden al-Qaida because al-Qaida is on the other side of this war. So, one side wins if you destabilize the other side. So, he will be emboldening al-Qaida and the Islamic rebels. And I'm not so sure they're better than Assad. I think we can all agree Assad is a bad and evil actor, but I'm not so sure that we want the Islamic rebels to be in charge of Syria either.
Every chance at destabilizing Assad... the bombing campaign causes a flood of refugees into Jordan, there's already half a million in Jordan. I think a bombing campaign - I think it's hard to argue that a U.S. bombing campaign is going to cause less refugees. And I think it causes more refugees and more of a humanitarian disaster. I think it causes, or allows, the risk of Israel being attacked with a gas attack to go up, if we attack Assad. So there's all kinds of bad things. I am pleased though that there's a possibility of a diplomatic solution. I remain somewhat skeptical, but I am pleased that it's a possibility and I think people like myself who've been arguing for delaying this bombing, have allowed this diplomatic possibility to occur because if some people had gotten their way, this bombing would have occurred three weeks ago.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you about this latest initiative, which apparently, and I'm not really sure whether this was off-the-cuff or not by the Secretary of State John Kerry and then the Russian side, you know, picked up on it in advance as a formal proposal to place Syria's chemical weapons under international control. You said you were encouraged by this. Do you have any more to say about it? Do you think it's credible? Do you think it's real? What other steps do you think should be taken?
PAUL: You know, I think it's unknown and I think we should pursue this. I've thought for some time that the answer to a lot of the problems in the Middle East, including Iran, include an active role with Russia. And I think in some ways we have taken showboats in the U.N. that are guaranteed to failure before we take them. And in reality what we should be doing is having quiet diplomacy with the Russians to convince them that it's in their self-interest to have a more stable Middle East because trade enriches us all. And the more we can have peaceful trade both with Russia, with China, and with others, you know, there's a self interest in this for everyone. And I think we can't be naïve in dealing with the Russians or dealing with the Syrians. But at the same time, I think we could try to encourage, and I think this is what diplomacy should do, encourage the self-interest of all parties to believe that it is in their best interest to get evil actors or rogue actors, such as Syria or Iran, to try to have less belligerent and less bellicose behavior.
MARTIN: There are those who would argue that the threat of military strikes is exactly what encourages diplomatic response. Do you think that that's true?
PAUL: You know, I think it's hard to know and it may. You know, the president's rattling the saber and beating the drums may have an effect. But you can also argue that the most hawkish members of Congress, who have wanted a full-scale bombing three weeks ago, you would have never gotten to this possibility of a diplomatic solution had you not had some delay in this. And I think that those of us on our side who have been trying to delay it may also have contributed to allowing there to be the possibility of a diplomatic solution.
MARTIN: One more thought. Yesterday, we spoke with a former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo. He suggested bringing Assad before the court as an alternative to sanctions or military strike. I wanted to know your thoughts about that. You know, Americans have traditionally been very skeptical of the International Criminal Court but, I mean, clearly he hopes to change that. What do you think of that?
PAUL: You know, I think if Russia is really an honest signatory to the chemical weapons ban, if Syria wants to be, ultimately someone has to be responsible for killing civilians. And that's the hard part out of this. The one way, possibly, out of this is for Assad to abdicate and plead, perhaps to Russia or somewhere else. Would save another wave of civilian casualties if we could get him to abdicate.
MARTIN: Before that you go, what's your north star on this issue? What is your guiding principle?
PAUL: I think that, most importantly, when I see issues of war, I see them in a personal vein, and I am reluctant to go to war unless there's a real, valid American interest because I've seen the wounded soldiers. I have a lot of GIs in my state. I have three boys that are my sons. And I see it as if, we go to war when we have to go to war, but we shouldn't be eager for war. We should understand the limitations of war. We should understand the sacrifices our young men and women go through losing lives and limbs. And they should only do it for the highest of purposes. So it can't be something that's a chess game. It's not something we should treat as, you know, just some sort of geopolitical game that doesn't involve human lives. And so I just can't vote to go to war unless I think there's a real clear-cut American purpose in the war, that we're going to win and that we're not going fight for stalemate.
MARTIN: Senator Rand Paul is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's a Republican serving the state of Kentucky. We caught up with him on Capitol Hill. Senator Paul, thank you so much for speaking with us.
PAUL: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.