Magazine | February 20, 2012, Issue

The Peril of Paul

Republicans should isolate the isolationists

It has become a routine occurrence in the 2012 Republican presidential debates for the contenders to say that “anyone on this stage would be better than Barack Obama.” But is this truly the case when it comes to Ron Paul?

On foreign policy, at least, it is doubtful. Paul advocates what he calls a policy of “non-interventionism,” but it is, in truth, a conspiracy-minded worldview similar to that of the isolationists of decades past, or to the more recent fulminations of figures such as Pat Buchanan, who eventually abandoned the Republican party for a third-party presidential run.

Paul’s isolationist foreign-policy views are a mixture of gross oversimplification and blatant misinformation — which helps explain their seductiveness, especially to the uninformed or conspiracy-minded.

Over the years, he has dabbled in conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks of 9/11, questioned the motives of U.S.-government officials at the CIA and FBI, and expressed paranoia about such legislation as the PATRIOT Act and a provision of the recent National Defense Authorization Act that he claimed would give the government greater authority to detain Americans suspected of ties to terrorist groups.

Unfortunately, Paul’s isolationism is filling an intellectual — and moral — vacuum created by two factors. One is President Barack Obama’s failure to explain, in meaningful terms, the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy to a public that is increasingly war-weary. Another is the inability of Republican candidates, focused thus far primarily on economic issues, to articulate a worldview sufficiently compelling to unite conservatives, if not also liberal hawks, in the way that President Reagan did during the Cold War.

A review of some of the main tenets of Paul’s foreign policy reveals how much of it is based on a misunderstanding of basic facts, and calls into question his seriousness as a candidate for the presidency.

One of Paul’s frequent refrains during the 2012 campaign has been his interest in preventing a war with Iran. In the Tampa debate on January 23, he claimed that “we’ve already committed an act [of war] by blockading the country.” Although U.S. law has long prevented the importation of Iranian oil, and an embargo against Iranian oil is now being adopted by U.S. allies such as the European Union, a naval blockade against Iran, of course, does not exist; and it is a questionable assertion to state that sanctions against Iran constitute “an act of war.” But this exchange, which occurred without any objection to Paul’s misstatement of the facts from his fellow candidates or the questioner, is consistent with a recurring Paul theme: America, not its enemies, is to blame. He frequently argues that it is the U.S., not Iran, that is being provocative, but he ignores the fact that Iran has been killing Americans for decades and has committed multiple acts of war against America.

Similarly, Paul, like Pat Buchanan and other isolationists, frequently denies that Iran is developing the capability to make nuclear weapons. In a January 2012 television interview, he asserted that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “did not find any evidence that they are on the verge of a weapon.” But the IAEA, which serves as the world’s nuclear watchdog, released an alarming report in November 2011 that explicitly warned that “information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

In a time of fiscal austerity, Paul and his libertarian allies often advocate views on the defense budget that make President Obama — who is overseeing the gutting of the Defense Department — look like a hawk. The congressman draws a false distinction between defense spending and what he calls “overseas” or “militaristic” spending. He often cites such spending as the source of America’s fiscal woes, when, in reality, it is not defense spending but the spiraling growth of entitlements and domestic discretionary spending that drives America’s ballooning debt and deficit. Zeroing out the Pentagon’s budget would do little to solve the current predicament.

Nonetheless, Paul supports deep cuts to defense spending even more devastating than those proposed by President Obama. Because the so-called supercommittee failed to propose major deficit-reduction legislation in November, current law now mandates a staggering half-trillion-dollar “sequester” cut to the core defense budget over the next decade. The congressman, however, thinks that this doesn’t go far enough. In a November 2011 debate on national security, he said, “Well, they’re not cutting anything out of anything. All this talk is just talk. Believe me. They’re cutting — they’re nibbling at baseline budgeting, and its automatic increases.”

#page#This message has been parroted by Paul’s son, Senator Rand Paul, and Paul’s allies at such organizations as the Cato Institute and, surprisingly, the tea-party group FreedomWorks. They and the senior Paul should know better. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, echoing the concerns of current and former uniformed military leaders, has warned that these cuts “would do catastrophic damage to our military and its ability to protect the country. It would double the number of cuts that we confront, and it would damage our interests not only here, but around the world.”

In support of his efforts to cut overseas spending, Paul often alleges that we are “diluting ourselves in 900 bases in 130 countries.” But as the fact-checking site PolitiFact found, there are only 13 countries confirmed by the U.S. government to host more than 1,000 deployed American personnel. Even if Paul is characterizing installations with fewer than 1,000 U.S. troops present as bases, the 900 he cites appear to include any U.S.-leased space, including offices or installations such as radar or other support facilities, including many with no U.S. personnel present.

Pervasive among Paul and his followers is the belief that they are only trying to return America to the type of foreign policy envisioned by the Founders. But any such assertion is spurious. The various efforts by America’s early presidents to repel and eventually wage war against the piracy of the Barbary States are forceful counterexamples. So too is the clear belief in the universality of the Declaration of Independence’s principles that is evident in comments from Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in 1777 that “it is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”

Like the America Firsters of the 1940s, Paul preaches as an alternative a policy of strict neutrality toward other countries; and like many on the anti-war left, he blames America first and foremost for causing the majority of the international problems that it now confronts.

To take one example, Paul has used U.S. foreign policy to explain away and excuse the malignant ideology behind al-Qaeda’s 9/11 assault on America. At a September 2011 debate in Florida, he proclaimed that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda “wrote and said that we attacked America because you had bases on our holy land in Saudi Arabia, you do not give Palestinians fair treatment, and you have been bombing.”

It is statements such as these that raise questions about how many of Paul’s supporters in the contests so far are even Republicans, and how many are really being drawn to Paul because of his foreign-policy views in an election year that is focused much more on economic policy. Many polls indicate that Paul’s foreign-policy views are limiting his appeal. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, found that “Paul’s opposition to military intervention overseas is seen by 49 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents as a major reason to oppose him.”

National-security conservatives ignore Paul at their peril, however. Paul has explicitly stated that it is his goal to amass a sizable number of delegates in an attempt to advance his libertarian message. This would serve only to make the party of Reagan look small and legitimize a virulent strain of libertarian isolationism that, up to now, has been rightly relegated to the fringes of the party.

– Mr. Fly is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, and Mr. Zarate is its policy director.

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