In early May, a little over a week after President Barack Obama ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Texas congressman Ron Paul staked out his position on the man who plotted the murder of nearly 3,000 people on American soil: The operation to kill bin Laden, Paul said, was “absolutely not necessary.”
Last week, however, when Fox News’s Bret Baier asked Paul about this statement during the Republican presidential candidates’ debate in South Carolina, the congressman offered evasions. Paul had voted to authorize the use of force following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he insisted, which would make his stated opposition to the killing of bin Laden hypocritical, not just stupid.
Then Paul delivered one of the lectures on foreign policy “blowback” that are a hallmark of his debate appearances. What if a Chinese dissident came to the United States, and the Chinese government started bombing American soil in order to kill him, Paul asked, likening the 9/11 mastermind to one seeking only the right to live unmolested by a tyrannical government. America should apply the Golden Rule in foreign policy, Paul declared, and stop its “warmongering.”
The Republican audience booed Paul for statements that would have earned him plaudits from Democrats. Though most criticism of him in the past month has focused on the racist and conspiratorial newsletters that he published, to great profit, for many years (and which I exposed in the New Republic in 2008), Paul’s current views on foreign policy are just as disqualifying.
At the most recent debate, Paul repeated the popular misconception that “the Taliban used to be our allies.” But it was the Afghan mujahedeen that the United States supported during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89); only later, in 1994, did some mujahedeen go on to form the Taliban. Drawing a distinction between an aggressive al Qaeda and a merely xenophobic Taliban, Paul also said, “Al Qaeda wants to come here to kill us. The Taliban just says, ‘We don’t want foreigners.’ ”
Yet the Taliban has welcomed jihadists from all over the Muslim world to fight alongside it and has been heavily funded by Pakistan, strange for a group that supposedly abhors foreign intervention. And it was the Taliban that hosted al Qaeda while it launched attacks on American embassies, the U.S.S. Cole, and the American homeland on September 11.
Paul has also tried to reassure voters that he supports America’s alliance with Israel, saying that his call to eliminate aid to the Jewish state is in line with his hope of abolishing foreign aid entirely. Besides, “Zionism is based on two basic principles: independence and self-reliance.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. But to consider Paul “pro-Israel,” one would have to ignore the content of his news-letters, which question whether it was in fact the Mossad that bombed Berlin’s La Belle discothèque in 1986 and the World Trade Center in 1993, complain that Jewish “lobbyists want people 100 percent dedicated to Israel” serving in the U.S. government, and refer to Israel as “an aggressive, national socialist state.” One would also have to ignore the interview Paul gave to Iran’s Press TV in which he called the Gaza Strip a “concentration camp” and his general unconcern about Iran’s nuclear program, which he rationalizes as a completely understandable response to the “warmongering” policies of the United States and its allies.
For his departures from mainstream Republican prescriptions, Paul has emerged as a favorite among the left commentariat, which relishes his critique of American “empire” and advocacy of “noninterventionism.” The Atlantic’s Robert Wright proclaimed “The Greatness of Ron Paul,” asserting that those who fail to sympathize with the Iranian regime’s quest for nuclear weapons lack the “moral imagination” that Paul apparently possesses. In the Huffington Post, former labor secretary Robert Reich lauded Paul’s “youthful magic.” Wrote Reich, “The young are flocking to Ron Paul because he wants to slice military spending, bring our troops home, stop government from spying on American citizens, and legalize pot.”
Asking “Why Do GOP Bosses Fear Ron Paul?” the Nation’s John Nichols hailed the candidate’s unabashed isolationism. “Paul’s notion of foreign policy is in line with [what] conservatives used to believe,” he wrote, citing those Republicans who opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies in the years leading up to World War II. Paul’s strident isolationism has inspired that rarity: left-wing praise for the enemies of a president liberals revere as the greatest of the 20th century.
Paul has attracted a particular type of liberal—not mainstream Democrats, but “progressives,” precisely the people who would ordinarily be most appalled by the bigotry expressed in Paul’s newsletters. In their support for him, these writers routinely note Paul’s opposition to America’s “empire” as the most stirring part of his candidacy. “Would that we had someone on our side who could make the case against an American empire, or American supremacy, in such a pungent way,” wrote the historian Corey Robin, though ultimately dismissing Paul as a vessel for progressive values.
This analysis sees America’s unrivaled superpower status, manifested in the presence of U.S. military bases overseas (at the behest of national governments), as the moral equivalent of King Leopold’s brutal exploitation of the Belgian Congo. America may indeed be overstretched, but that’s a condition that anyone wishing to maintain the liberal world order that has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to mankind should seek to rectify, not manage into further decline. Ending America’s role as hegemon and ceding whole parts of the globe to the likes of Russia and China is no prescription for a more just world.
Either these ostensibly “progressive” individuals are unaware of the Ron Paul newsletters, or they are willing to ignore their contents in promoting a man who shares their analysis of international relations. One suspects the latter, seeing that never has anyone with so pure a Chomskian reading of America made it so far in national politics.
But while Paul’s warnings about the costs of American “empire” have gained traction as a result of the global financial crisis and the tenth anniversary of the war on terrorism, his Cassandra-like cries are an old tune. In a December 1989 newsletter, for instance, he predicted that “Japan Will Ally With the USSR” and “The American Republic Will Be Replaced With Democratic Fascism.” In 1991, following the coalition victory in the Gulf war, he predicted “hundreds of thousands” of casualties would come to light. When that didn’t happen, his newsletter warned, “Although today there’s nothing but glory and optimism over the Persian Gulf ‘victory,’ as time passes, and the suffering and political problems continue for years, we will come to see the war as one giant My Lai.”
Ron Paul is a radical, and he has attracted radicals of all stripes to his cause, the only politician to have garnered kind words from David Duke and Louis Farrakhan. In a disquisition on Jewish bankers and the Fed in August, Farrakhan lauded the Texas congressman for “trying his best, but he’s like a man crying in the wilderness.” Those who support Paul will join him in the political wilderness, which seems an excellent place for them to stay.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to the New Republic.