Rand Paul wants to talk about causality. Fine. Let’s talk about it.
I’m not going to get bogged down in arguing whether we should have invaded Iraq in 2003. But I don’t think you need to agree with U.S. foreign policy in general, and U.S. policy in the Middle East in particular, to reject Paul’s conclusion that “hawks” from his own party caused ISIS.
When Rand Paul says things like this, many people get upset. Their instinct is to reach for the geostrategic arguments: to say why it was necessary to go to Iraq, to say why arming anti-Assad rebels is proper, to say why Obama’s withdrawal of forces is the real reason ISIS flourished, etc.
But I don’t think these arguments reflect the grounds for people’s revulsion. People recoil from Rand’s kind of talk for much more basic and much less academic reasons. ISIS is so potently barbaric that to speak of a cause other than its members’ own depravity is distasteful. Even if it’s true that the war in Iraq created a “vacuum” for the group’s rise, to speak only in the most vague, mechanistic terms—as if the US and ISIS were mere billiard balls, to use the old “realist” analogy—ignores the essence of why ISIS is a problem for the civilized world: it is a destructive gang that runs on its own twisted logic. In this sense it operates outside our notions of cause and effect; its actions stand so far beyond moral norms that their only cause is the perpetrators themselves. If you have it in you to burn people alive, you will do so eventually, regardless of what the United States does.
I really do hate to reach for a Third Reich analogy, but I’m afraid that in our degenerated state it’s the only comparison that works. Imagine scanning the detritus of post-war Auschwitz and concluding, “if America hadn’t been so spiteful with that Treaty of Versailles none of this would have happened.” Now, there is a sense in which this is true—a very strict, hyper-rationalist sense. But thinking like this forces you to conclude that the real cause of six million dead Jews is not Adolf Hitler but people like Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau. Resist answering questions of guilt with the simple calculus of what happened first.