Rand Paul Says It Was A Mistake To Depose Saddam Hussein And Qaddafi

Rand Paul bucks Republican orthodoxy on Iraq, Libya, and negotiations with Iran.

Rand Paul

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said that the United States made a mistake in ousting Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, and that negotiations rather than military action were the preferred course of action in Iran:

For some time, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Republican presidential contender, has been trying to persuade supporters of Israel and foreign-policy hawks in his party that he is not the isolationist many believe him to be. On Monday, he brought that message to a group of about 30 Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn.

But the message he imparted did not entirely bolster his case — and was particularly curious given the audience he had chosen: Mr. Paul said flatly that it had been a “mistake” for the United States to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. And he suggested that the situation in Libya had deteriorated because of the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“Each time we topple a secular dictator, I think we wind up with chaos, and radical Islam seems to rise,” Mr. Paul said.

Still, Mr. Paul insisted that he did not oppose all foreign military interventions. “I’m not an isolationist,” he said. “I’m somebody who believes that war is the last resort.”

Speaking at the headquarters of the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, Mr. Paul was unambiguous in arguing that Tehran had only become more powerful since the fall of Mr. Hussein, who he said had been a “bulwark” against Iran’s influence in the region. “It was a mistake to topple Hussein,” the senator said.

And he called the 2011 overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi — which he labeled “Hillary’s war,” referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of state at the time — an “utter disaster.”

“Qaddafi wasn’t a good guy, but he suppressed radical Islam,” Mr. Paul said. “Now that Qaddafi is gone, the country is in civil war, the ambassador was killed, our embassy fled.”


Mr. Paul also expressed qualified support for the Obama administration’s talks on a nuclear-containment deal with Iran. “The interim agreement that we are under now, while not perfect, is better than no agreement and no inspections,” he said.

He argued that his position mirrored what Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told Congress last month. “I’m for negotiations as opposed to war,” Mr. Paul said. “If there’s a way we can have a negotiated peace, I want peace as opposed to war.”

And he criticized those who, “I think, frankly, have a simplistic understanding of this, who think war is the only option.”

I’m not sure that the audience that Paul chose to make these comments was the best one at which to make such remarks, and it seems fairly certain that he’s going to get attacked by his Republican opponents for his positions here just as he’s already been criticized on foreign policy issues in the past by the party’s hawks such as Rick Perry, Dick Cheney, and Chris Christie. However, while I’ve been fairly critical of Senator Paul recently for his accommodations with the social conservative wing of the GOP on issues such as same-sex marriage, I do think he deserves some credit for being willing to say things that very few Republicans who want to have a national voice are willing to say. More importantly, for the most part what Paul is saying here is largely correct.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not the Iraq War was even justified, it seems clear in hindsight that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a mistake in that it set in motion a whole series of events that has brought us to the present day. The most important result of Saddam’s ouster, of course, was the fact that it made Iran a much more powerful player in the Persian Gulf region than it had been before. Prior to 2003, the Iranians were held in check to some extent by the potential of a threat from Iraq, with whom they had fought a bloody and destructive ten year long war that didn’t really accomplish anything for either side. While Iraq’s actual military power by the time the Iraq War started was probably quite overstated, it seemed to be enough to make the Iranians wary of flexing their muscles, and the potential that Saddam could rebuild the forces that had suffered devastation during the Persian Gulf War meant that Iran could never be sure that they would not be the target of Iraqi aggression again. Once Saddam fell and Iraq fell into chaos, that was no longer the case and, as a result, Iran has been able to exert its influence like never before. We have seen this not only in Syria, where Iran has long had an influence, but also in places such as Yemen and Afghanistan. And, of course, once the Iraqi insurgency began it was completely understandable that Iran would begin secretly aiding the insurgents in an effort to keep the United States tied down in the Iraqi tar pit as long as possible. In addition to helping enhance Iran’s position, of course, the outster of Saddam and the entire Iraq War can also arguably be said to be directly responsible for the rise of ISIS, a problem we are likely to be dealing with for some time to come. While we cannot be sure of what the world would be like if we had not ousted Saddam Hussein, we can be certain that much of what we have seen happen over the past twelve years would not have occurred and that the world would probably be a much better place.

Paul is also basically correct about Libya and the ouster of Qaddafi. Prior to the Libyan civil war and Qaddafi’s downfall, Libya was, at the very least, stable and was generally not a a breeding ground for Islamist terrorists. We can have a long debate on what the roots of the Arab Spring, which led to the rebellion in Libya, actually were, but at the very least it seems clear at this point that the West’s short-term desire to get Qaddafi out of the way was not very well thought through. If there had been some kind of stable opposition force that could have stepped in and taken control of a united Libya when the war ended, then perhaps things would have turned out differently. That didn’t happen, though, and it was apparent when the Western intervention began in March 2011 that it wasn’t going to happen. By the time Qaddafi was dead in August, it was apparent that nobody had a plan for a post-war Libya, much like the Bush Administration had no plan for a post-war Iraq, and the result has been the inevitable chaos that everyone predicted. Once again, Qaddafi was a bad actor but one doubts that Libya would be in the place it is today if he were still in power.

Finally, it seems as though it would go without saying that Paul is correct when he argues that negotiations are the preferable course of action in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. One of the more astounding things about the Republican response to the ongoing process in Switzerland has been the implication that many of the people who have been criticizing the President on the issue don’t seem to really want to negotiate at all. They don’t say that, of course. Instead they will say that they are opposing a “bad deal” and arguing that the United States should be pushing for some “better deal” that seems to boil down to Iran giving up its nuclear program altogether, and apparently also agreeing to recognize Israel, in exchange for, well, nothing really. Indeed, one of the most prominent critics of the President’s negotiations with Iran has been circulating the rather silly notion that a military campaign against Iran would be an easy affair, and many of his fellow Republicans and conservatives seem to agree with him. Military options should never be taken off the table, of course, but to suggest that they should be the first choice rather than the last, as many of the President’s critics on Iran seem to be doing, is simply absurd.

 I’ve criticized Senator Paul quite a lot over the past months, and I’ll probably criticize him again, but he deserves some credit for being willing to speak truths that most of his fellow Republicans are unwilling to even acknowledge.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Iraq War, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    This guy confounds me. Here he is being completely logical.
    But then he claims a single cell is the same as a person.

    The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science has long known – that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward. The right to life is guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and ensuring this is upheld is the Constitutional duty of all Members of Congress.

    I’m excited that a Republican, any Republican, realizes the foolishness of Iraq.
    But how about a little intellectual consistency?

  2. Crusty Dem says:

    He’s just positioning himself for the democratic primary.

    (checks party affiliation)

    Oh. He’s just screwed.

  3. CB says:

    Rand Paul Calls Hussein’s Ouster a ‘Mistake,’ and Qaddafi’s a ‘Disaster’

    Iraq was a “mistake”, but “Hillary’s War”, Libya, was an “utter disaster.”

    Yeah, I’m unimpressed.

  4. CET says:

    I wonder if some of the inconsistencies we’re seeing from Paul stem from his inability to decide whether he really thinks he has a shot at the nomination or whether he’s running as a way to try and pull the GOP to a more reasonable position on some of his pet issues. Pandering makes a lot of sense in the former case, but if he’s just laying the groundwork for a more libertarian-ish candidate to run again in a later election (or to become a mouthpiece for such a movement if it should ever really materialize), laying out arguments for his more unorthodox positions seems like a good idea.

  5. Gustopher says:

    @C. Clavin: there’s an internal consistency and simple logic to life-begins-at-conception as a viewpoint. When has a bunch of cells grown to the point where it is recognizably human and is worth protecting is a hard problem with no clear answer — we all agree it is somewhere before the 5th birthday, and society as a whole seems to be narrowing in on “viability” as the criteria, but modern medicine pushes that earlier and earlier (I don’t think a 5 year old is going to survive in the wilds any more than a 5 week old embryo, but that’s another matter). People want clear, easy lines.

    I honestly have less trouble understanding the life-begins-at-conception crowd than I do with the rest of the Bible thumping or the cutting-taxes-raises-revenue crowd.

  6. Jeremy R says:

    Paul initially came out against intervention in Libya, then later voted in favor of S. RES. 85. It demanded Qaddafi step down, US support for the opposition achieving an “irreversible” transition of power and endorsement of the UNSC Libya effort to “protect civilians in Libya from attack” and potentially implement a “a no-fly zone over Libyan territory”. Later still he eventually called US involvement in that UNSC backed effort unconstitutional.

    S. RES. 85 (112th CONGRESS):

    Resolved, That the Senate–

    (3) calls on Muammar Gadhafi to desist from further violence, recognize the Libyan people’s demand for democratic change, resign his position and permit a peaceful transition to democracy governed by respect for human and civil rights and the right of the people to choose their government in free and fair elections;

    (7) urges the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory;

    (11) welcomes the outreach that has begun by the United States Government to Libyan opposition figures and supports an orderly, irreversible transition to a legitimate democratic government in Libya.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    I don’t want to hi-jack this thread because I think it’s important.
    But I have to ask; if a person begins at conception…but then the embryo splits…which zygote is the person? Or is each twin half a person?

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Yeah, how big is the “occasionally rational” niche in the GOP base? Is he positioning himself against Bush, who may find it hard to disown his brother’s actions? He saw opposition to Iraq work for Obama and wants to try the same tactic? Why am I thinking Rand Paul might have a rational plan?

    I don’t think there was a keep Gaddafi in power option, at least not without becoming accessory to atrocities. All we could do was try to ride the tiger and not make things worse.

  9. @Gustopher:

    It’s a semantic slippery slope fallacy: can you point out a specific number of hairs where someone stops being bald? Then there’s no difference between being bald and having a full head of hair.

  10. legion says:

    Wow. I think his natural instinct to say whatever the audience in front of him wants to hear may have finally caught up to him… the GOP standard point is that if Obama is doing it, it’s a terrible idea and therefore negotiating with Iran is somehow treasonous. He’s gonna get hammered on that by his own party…

  11. michael reynolds says:

    Setting aside Mr. Paul’s eye-roll-inducing partisan emphasis, he’s obviously right.

    There’s no way to know what would have happened with Saddam had we let him be. I think we have a somewhat better guess as to what would happen with Gaddafi, and I suspect the end game there wouldn’t look much different from what we have now, though the dates would be shifted a bit. But obviously neither “removal” has worked out well.

    We tried two different methods. 1) Invasion, occupation, regime change, and 2) Simple decapitation. No we didn’t actually assassinate Gaddafi, but in effect that was our contribution. In both cases we got sectarian and tribal warfare.

    Between the two approaches, Mr. Obama’s is obviously superior: few if any US casualties and very little US money, vs. the decade-long sh!t storm Mr. Bush unleashed. Mr. Bush was following the 1945 plan but with no General Marshall, no Douglas MacArthur, no Hirohito, and quite obviously no capacity to plan for what happened next. Mr. Obama essentially mimicked his drone war approach which uses US technological superiority to inflict pain while suffering nothing in return.

    Neither worked. We end up with two howling mad lunatic asylums, one big, one small.

    Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Egypt. . . I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that the people of the MENA are simply not capable of rational self-government. There’s too much missing from their cultural DNA. American foreign policy is effectively reduced to favoring those thugs which stay within their own national borders.

  12. stonetools says:

    @Jeremy R:

    So Rand Paul is really all over the lot on the Libya intervention. I wonder what his position would have been if the Libyan rebels had done much better and successfully set up a democratic government like Tunisia’s.
    It’s good to see Rand Paul is thinking differently from the “All war, all the time” default Republican setting on foreign policy. But I doubt he can win the Republican nomination with that position, much as Doug obviously wishes he could. I expect tghat by primary season’s end , He’ll be back to the default Republican setting

  13. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    In 1848 a series of democratic revolutions swept all over western Europe. Within two years every single one had failed, and the reactionary governments were firmly back in charge. Was that evidence that the Europeans were incapable of self government? I think you are a bit too pessimistic there, Mike.

    You’re also ignoring current examples of stable government like Tunisia and Morroco. It only looks like the picture is all black, but there are points of light (hat tip to GHWB).

  14. Scott F. says:

    Paul is also basically correct about Libya and the ouster of Qaddafi. Prior to the Libyan civil war and Qaddafi’s downfall, Libya was, at the very least, stable and was generally not a a breeding ground for Islamist terrorists.

    Really? Is the operative term here “Islamist?” Because Libya may have been stable prior to the removal of Qaddafi, but the families of the victims of a Berlin nightclub and the Pan Am flight that blew up over Lockerbie may beg to disagree with the idea that Libya is new to breeding terrorists.

    Maybe I’m dense, but could someone explain to me why a chaotic Libya where terrorists breed is any worse than a stable state where terrorists breed when it comes to the terrorism bottom line? I fail to see how Libya descending into chaos is any worse for our national security interests than the status quo before the US got involved – which I’ll remind Doug was a Libya already destabilized by a civil war.

  15. Barry says:

    @CET: “I wonder if some of the inconsistencies we’re seeing from Paul…”

    Charles Pierce put it best – neither of those loons, father nor son, are able to talk for five minutes without clearly being whacko.

    Anybody who takes these guys seriously is promoting a fraud, at this point.

  16. gVOR08 says:

    @Barry: And within the context of the Republican Party, your point is what?

  17. grumpy realist says:

    It doesn’t take that much courage to get up on one’s hind legs and state that a military action carried out in the past was an error–we all know we’re not going to be able to go back and fix matters.

    If Rand were to take an equivalent position against a future attack on Iran and hold to it against all the screeching on the Right and the Likudnik-lovers, THEN I’ll start to believe in his cojones….

  18. michael reynolds says:


    Unfortunately Tunisia is far from stable. I don’t know that I’d bet on them lasting five years.

  19. CET says:


    I’d say it was evidence that much of Europe was not ready for representative government at that time, and I think it’s safe to say that large parts of the world aren’t ready for it now (though many are making progress on that front). I think we have developed a weird tendency to assume that stable representative democracy is some sort of default political setting that is easily reproduced across a wide range of circumstances.

    I think the historical record indicates that it is a vanishingly rare form of government that can only exist under a pretty narrow range of circumstances (prosperity, respect for property rights and protection of minorities from majority tyranny, civilian trust in authority, a military that isn’t involved in politics, not having to be constantly mobilized against existential threats, etc).

    But then, I think it’s amusing when people assume that Western democracy is immune to historical cycles and will last forever, so what do I know.

  20. lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Nonsense. This is where I do business, utter nonsense. Tunisia is fine.

  21. michael reynolds says:


    I’m glad to hear it, but I know last year when I needed to go see Kasserine it was off-limits to tourists who didn’t want to end up starring in a video. I wonder how far beyond Tunis and Sfax the government’s reach extends.

  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @Scott F.:

    Maybe I’m dense, but could someone explain to me why a chaotic Libya where terrorists breed is any worse than a stable state where terrorists breed when it comes to the terrorism bottom line?

    Because the terrorism that Qaddafi sponsored was limited in scope and target, was controlled by one man, and largely ended in the 1990s, whereas the Islamist terrorism now is unlimited in scope and target, has no central command, and, most importantly, is happening now.

    As a general rule, terrorism in the present day is more destabilizing than terrorism that happened 20 years ago.

  23. Scott F. says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    …and, most importantly, is happening now.

    You could have just left it at that, because that’s the heart of it. And you might have added that the television coverage is more pervasive.

    The other things you claim are more dubious. Terrorism by definition is random and unpredictable, so I’m unconvinced it was once limited in scope and it is now unlimited. What is “scope” when the entire idea behind terrorism is that it can happen at any place and any time? And why is lack of central command markedly more pernicious than state (or individually) controlled terrorism, if the capacity to defeat that control is equally weak?

  24. CB says:

    Whoa, I’m not sure I’m ready for this kind of fame. 26 up votes is way too much responsibility.

    It was also a little too glib. There’s nothing particularly incorrect with what Paul said, and its a relative improvement over the rest of the field. I just don’t trust the messenger.

  25. Slugger says:

    I think that the Libya thing was a fig leaf. Mr. Paul can not solely reject the centerpiece of the most recent Republican President’s policies without dropping the “R” after his name. In order to say that the war in Iraq was a mistake, he must point out that the Democrats did the same thing only worse the thousand-fold difference in American deaths not withstanding.

  26. Tillman says:

    “Iraq fell into chaos”

    Stated like it’s something that was inevitable after you depose a secular tyrant of Arab people.

    Let’s just gloss over the multiple failings of the Bush administration’s and Coalition Provisional Authority’s policies in Iraq, shall we?

    Conservatives might yet come to understand Iraq as a bad idea, not just something they should be ashamed of but something worth feeling shame over, but it seems acknowledging the failure of the occupation to create a stable Iraq without paying off its aggressors after the damage had been done is just being thrown into the conceptual dustbin of “it was gonna happen anyway.”

  27. Tillman says:

    @Tillman: Libya turned out like a miniature Iraq because the Obama administration didn’t bother occupying it. Most of our expenditure in Iraq was in the occupation, what with it lasting a decade longer than the actual war. Fiscal hawks take note. You can blame Obama for not occupying Libya and imposing some sort of order, but you’d also have to be okay with even more deficit spending. If you’re the type okay with deficit spending but worried about the debt, your concern becomes social spending or record-low taxation rates. You see how this all connects together? 😀

    Honestly, the fact that Libya turned into something close to Iraq without any U.S. presence on the ground is an even more damning implication against the Bush administration and the CPA in Iraq. They %#@$ed up so badly they resemble an everyday political vacuum in results. 😀

  28. lounsbury says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Plenty far enough. Whatever Kasserine issues might have shut you out as a tourist, Tunisia is not Libya. Nor even Algeria. Your impression is wildly exaggerated to say the least.

  29. lounsbury says:

    For reference re Tunisia, two illustrations his impression is off (both these investors are in fact personal friends):
    Pr amusingly published at ‘Farm Land Grab’ re San Lucar expansion in S. Tunisia of fruit and veg production
    Nur Energie massive CSP solar dev

    Tunisia is most certainly not falling apart and the idea Gov reach is only Sfax and Tunis is really quite bizarre and unfounded.