Quite a few readers want to know what specifically I objected to in Ron Paul’s comments last night (video here). Here’s a more-civil-than-most e-mail from a reader:
The last debate you complimented him on making a good case for a noninterventionalist foreign policy. This time you state “And good for Rudy. Sticking it to Ron Paul on his blame America First Isolationism.” Time for Ron to go, heh?
Does it occur to you and Guliani that maybe the Saudi prince was telling Rudy the truth that it is our presence in the mideast that has turned these people against us? No, I know, it is our wealth, and our rock music and Madonna that makes them want to kill us.
It’s difficult to tease out all of my objections to Paul’s approach to foreign policy, but I’ll try to cover the big points as they relate to last night.
Whom Are We Listening To?
First, Ron Paul anointed Osama bin Laden the authentic expression of the entire Middle East. “I’m suggesting we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it,” he declared. And: “We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody did it to us.”
So, in other words, Osama bin Laden & Co. get to determine the legitimacy of our policies because these terrorists are the truest expression of the will of the people? Isn’t this a bit like saying a farmer can’t clear a field if it might upset a rattlesnake?
There are far, far, far more Arabs and other Muslims who did not become terrorists because of our actions in the Middle East. But their “perspective” accounts for nothing in Paul’s analysis. The upshot seems to be that our foreign policy must always be held hostage to whichever group of murderers decides to get pissed off at us. Sorry, no sale.
Even more annoying, Paul seems to invest in bin Laden a certain strategic omnipotence and takes his word for everything. This is usually a leftwing trope. The terrorists are “delighted” we’re in Iraq, he claims, because Osama bin Laden says so. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t (my guess is that opinions vary wildly between those terrorists who are dead and in Hell and those who are still awaiting their travel orders). But either way, why on earth is their opinion dispositive? If, as Paul gushed, the CIA is correct that there is such a thing as “blowback” (and there obviously is) surely Osama bin Laden is as subject to this immutable law of the universe as the rest of us are. “Careful what you wish for” is good advice for terrorists and dictators, too. Or perhaps Saddam Hussein is still cackling with laughter about how he has the Americans exactly where he wants them?
Again, blowback hardly blows in only one direction. Paul invokes Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal from Beirut as a wise response to blowback. But many students of the rise of Islamism see Reagan’s painful decision as a terrible error, in that it provided one of the first lessons that America has a glass jaw. One could just as easily argue that the blowback from the pullout was worse than the decision to send the Marines there in the first place. Moreover, the moral variable is left out entirely. If you send cops into a mob hangout, the cops will face blowback from criminals with guns. That hardly means the cops had it coming.
When Paul suggests that we were attacked on 9/11 because we bombed Iraq for ten years, he seems to be suggesting that a) we were wrong to be bombing Iraq in the 1990s, b) we were wrong to have put Saddam Hussein in a “box” after the first Gulf War, and c) the first Gulf War was wrong in the first place (Paul essentially says as much elsewhere, so this seems like a fair interpretation). Now, before you even consider the soundness of these positions, you should at least recognize how they disprove his understanding of the Middle East. Kuwaitis and Saudis, for example, did not support Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Kurds and Shia were quite glad that we invaded, but then upset that we didn’t follow it through, though at least grateful that we ultimately prevented Saddam from re-launching his genocidal campaigns in the north and the south. And yet, all of these concerns matter nothing compared to the One True Voice of Osama bin Laden.
If you actually listen to more authentic voices than bin Laden’s — both democratic activists and Islamist bad guys — you’ll find that one of the real reasons “they hate us” is that we support their corrupt rulers and dictators (in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere). Ron Paul’s vision of foreign policy would do nothing to dissuade that impression, because he wants to be “friends” with everybody, starting with those very same dictators. Such friendship would have led to Saddam having nukes in the 1990s and would, if implemented today, lead to Iran having them any minute now. More to the point, we were right to reverse Saddam’s aggression in 1991. We were wrong not to take out Saddam back then. And we were right to keep Saddam contained as much as we could. But not according to Paul.
Wrong from the Beginning
Ron Paul gets to luxuriate in the intellectual comfort of the Wrong Turn Ideologue. He claims all of our problems are the product of “fifty-years of bad policy.” Translation: America was wrong to stand up to the Soviet Union. If you think he’s right, good for you. There are some smart and serious people who think the Cold War was a giant mistake. But I’m not one of them (save for the argument that, had it been possible to muster the will, we should have toppled Stalin before he got the bomb). The gist of his fifty-year-mistake stance also suggests that America was non-interventionist before the Cold War. It was, immediately before the Cold War and World War II. But outside of those brief parentheses, it has been more interventionist than Paul & Co. would have you believe. Besides, is it really so compelling to say that American foreign policy in the 1930s was America’s finest hour?
The luxury of this stance derives from the fact that Paul can say every foreign policy problem is fruit from the poisoned tree. He can stand outside reality like a contrafactual sci-fi writer, saying that if we only had taken a different fork in the road everything would be fine. I don’t buy that. But even if he were right, that ship has sailed (to horribly mangle a metaphor). Declaring in 2007 that we should adopt Robert Taft’s foreign policy is flatly childish and absurd. But it’s intellectually safe because it forces the opposition to prove a negative.
By invoking the memory of Taft, Paul snatches Mr. Republican out of history and holds him up like a false god. And the key word here is “false.” Sure, Taft was a “non-interventionist” — though that term had a very different resonance back then — and yeah, he probably would have opposed the Iraq war. But Paul’s argument from authority amounts to a classic neo-isolationist gambit because he knows nobody is going to get into an argument over WWTD? (What Would Taft Do?)
So, for the record: Taft believed the Soviets presented “a menace greater than we have faced before in our history.” Taft supported the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. It’s true he voted against NATO (and let the record show Taft was very, very wrong about that; William F. Buckley — presumably an authentic conservative — called Taft’s foreign policies “otherworldly”). But Taft voted for the U.N. charter. In fact, his rationale for opposing the North Atlantic Treaty was that it violated the “theory” of the U.N. charter. He favored “one hundred percent support for the Chinese National Government on Formosa.” And he was adamant that America do whatever it takes, even send U.S. troops, to protect the Suez. He favored “occasional extensions . . . into Europe, Asia and Africa,” and favored keeping six divisions in Europe until the Europeans could defend themselves. Oh, and while he disagreed with Ike about sending troops to Korea, once they were committed, Taft’s view was that they had to be supported.
Paul Is Fine, But We Don’t Need A Taft
Does that sound much like Ron Paul? Not to me. Moreover, whether Taft was right or wrong, it’s quite clear he was responding to the reality of his time. Paul, on the other hand, has his head in the historical sand.
After the first debate, when so many GOP candidates tried to claim the Reagan mantle, David Frum pined for a candidate to say “Ronald Reagan was a great leader and a great president because he addressed the problems of his time. But we have very different problems — and we need very different answers. Here are mine.” I think Reagan’s still a bit more relevant today than that. But surely reasonable people can agree that the problems we face today are very different problems than the ones faced by Taft — and we need very different answers.
I like having Ron Paul in this race and participating in these debates. But not only is he no Robert Taft, but, when it comes to foreign policy, we couldn’t use him if he were.