In commenting on the last Republican Presidential debate in the online Ricochet discussion that took place while it was underway, I predicted that Ron Paul would win the Iowa caucus. Later in the debate, when Michele Bachmann tore into him with regard to his views on foreign policy, Peter Robinson asked whether I would like to revise my prediction, and, impressed by the tongue-lashing she administered to her fellow Congressman, I backed off. If the latest polls are any guide, however, I may well have been wrong to abandon my original intuition.
I do not share the Iowans’ admiration for the Congressman from South Texas, but I sympathize with it. In the debates, on economic matters, his observations have been cogent and concise. As anyone who has read Friedrich Hayek can easily comprehend, there is a powerful case to be made against what Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “rational administration,” especially in the economic sphere; and Ron Paul knows how to make the argument. In addition, we have to face up to the fact that his rivals leave much to be desired. In a time of crisis, when Americans are more ready than at any time in my lifetime to return to their roots and embrace the cause of limited government, there is no one in the Presidential race of obvious stature, demonstrated competence, and evident eloquence who is willing and able to articulate the case for limited government.
What we have, instead, are a tongue-tied Governor from Texas who knows next to nothing about the national government; a Congresswoman who has never even chaired a committee, who cannot hold onto staff, who commands no support from among her colleagues, and who is apt to descend into demagoguery; a two-term former Senator who lost his seat by a margin of 18% and commands no support from among his former colleagues; a disgraced former Speaker of the House with a taste for adultery, an admiration for the “model” on which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were based, and a penchant for embracing the latest left-liberal fads; and a one-term former Governor with a gift for losing elections who pioneered the program on which Obamacare is modeled and who thinks the individual mandate a policy that conservatives should adopt. In such a field, to the unsuspecting glance, Ron Paul – who is by all accounts good-humored and charming – looks pretty good. I have a colleague who has known him for many years who firmly believes that he is an honorable man.
I do not, however, possess an unsuspecting glance, and about Ron Paul’s honor, I harbor grave doubts. When one examines the Congressman’s record more closely and when one explores what he professes to stand for today, he seems far less attractive. As Julian Sanchez and David Weigel documented four years ago in an article in the libertarian journal Reason Magazine, back in the 1980s, Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and a handful of other libertarians formed a political alliance with a group of paleo-conservatives – most of them unreconstructed Confederates, and some of them out-and-out racists. Their closest ally within this camp was Llewelyn Rockwell, Jr., who served as Paul’s congressional chief of staff from 1978 to 1982 and was vice-president of Ron Paul & Associates, the highly profitable outfit that published the Ron Paul Political Report and the Ron Paul Survival Report, and Paul, Rothbard, and Rockwell ostentatiously modeled their project on the demagogic populism pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Louisiana’s David Duke. As Sanchez and Weigel put it, “During the period when the most incendiary items appeared—roughly 1989 to 1994—Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist "paleoconservatives," producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic.”
One could, of course, choose to resolutely ignore the conspiracy-mongering, the racial prejudice, the anti-Semitism, and the visceral hostility to the homoerotically inclined which was propagated in the newsletters published by Ron Paul & Associates. One could avert one’s gaze from the implications of a remark that the Congressman once made to Cato Institute President Ed Crane: that “his best source of congressional campaign donations was the mailing list for The Spotlight, the conspiracy-mongering, anti-Semitic tabloid run by the Holocaust denier Willis Carto until it folded in 2001.” And the partisans of Ron Paul – like the partisans of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich – are inclined to be highly selective in singling out what they take to be the elements in their hero’s record that are legitimate for the rest of us to discuss. “That was then,” they say,” and this is now. Focus on the positive, get with the program, and rally around our champion.”
I think that this is a mistaken approach. If you want to try to understand what Romney or Gingrich or any other candidate would be apt to do if elected President, one would do well to look at the overall record in speech and deed of each, and the same can be said of Ron Paul. The Congressman from Texas may or may not himself be a racist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, and a believer in conspiracies, but he was certainly willing to trade on the racism, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, and the gullibility of others – and he has not fully abandoned the stratagems that enriched him twenty years ago, made him a national figure, and earned him in certain circles a cult-like status. As James Kirchik, the journalist who first dug up the newsletters four years ago, has recently reported in The New Republic, Paul, “who once entertained the notion that AIDS was invented in a government laboratory,” asserted just last January “that there had been a ‘CIA coup’ against the American government and that the Agency is ‘in drug businesses.’” Moreover, Paul
appears regularly on the radio program of Alex Jones, perhaps the most popular conspiracy theorist in America (profiled by TNR in 2009), where he often indulges the host’s delusional ravings about the coming “New World Order.” He continues to associate with the John Birch Society, the extreme-right wing organization that William F. Buckley denounced in the early 1960’s after it alleged that none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Asked about the group in 2007, Paul told the New York Times, “Oh, my goodness, the John Birch Society! Is that bad? I have a lot of friends in the John Birch Society.” Indeed, Paul delivered the keynote address at the organization’s 50th anniversary dinner in September.
There is, in fact, much in Ron Paul’s record that gibes far better with the nativism of a Pat Buchanan (whose Presidential campaign he supported in 1992) than with mainstream libertarianism. As libertarian Ilya Somin points out, with considerable consistency, Paul has opposed free-trade agreements, school vouchers, and relaxed strictures on immigration, and he has resolutely refused to distance himself from “the Stormfront neo-Nazis, racists, 9/11 "Truthers," and other assorted wackos who have endorsed him.” Those who compare Congressman Paul’s persistent association with unsavory characters to that of Barack Obama with Bill Ayers and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright have a point. It may not be an accident that Ron Paul has less appeal among genuine Republicans in Iowa than among certain Democrats and independents. Like his friend Buchanan, he is, in some respects, the heir of George Wallace.
Ron Paul’s stance on foreign affairs gibes well with the various species of xenophobia that he has stoked now for decades. In this respect, he is an heir to the thinking that undergirded the old American First Committee – which once drew support from people as respectable as Potter Stewart, Gerald Ford, Kingman Brewster, William H. Regnery, H. Smith Richardson, Robert E. Wood, Sterling Morton, Joseph M. Patterson, Robert R. McCormick, Sargent Shriver, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German Declaration of War woke these men up from their dogmatic slumber. But there were others – on the left and on the right – who stuck to their guns, and the numbers in their ranks swelled in the course of the Vietnam War. Poorly conducted wars and ill-advised foreign adventures have a propensity for reviving among the excitable the illusion that the United States can go it alone.
Human beings have a propensity for turning half-truths into overarching doctrines that purport to explain everything, and the academy is the natural locus for doctrinaire thinking of this sort. In this regard, today’s libertarianism is not unlike the old Marxism. It starts with an insight into the way the world works, and some of its adherents take the part for the whole. The old Marxists were right to think that transformations in the means of production have far-reaching consequences. They erred, however, when they jumped to the conclusion that these developments can be made to explain everything. Today’s libertarians are right when they argue that central planning cannot work, that the free market is a mechanism for collecting and distributing information, and that the pretense to “rational administration” is madness. When they assert that recessions are a natural and welcome consequence of the business cycle and that attempts to interfere with this process have a tendency to backfire and produce severe and prolonged downturns, they are on the mark.
When, however, they extend their theory of the spontaneous emergence of order from the economic sphere to foreign affairs, they make a mistake quite similar to the one that the old Marxists made. I have attended small academic conferences in which I have heard libertarians earnestly argue that we, not the Germans or the Japanese, are at fault for our involvement in World War I and World War II. I found these discussions, as I found my interchanges with the old Marxists, stimulating in the extreme. Those who make these arguments are often quite intelligent. They are also doctrinaire to the point of madness. When you are a hammer, everything that you encounter looks like a nail.
How did we get into World War I? Their answer is that we provoked the Germans to attack our ships. We did so by honoring the British blockade against Germany while refusing to honor Germany’s blockade against the British. Had we insisted on our right to trade freely with both, or had we acquiesced in the face of both blockades, we would not have been subject to attack, and we would have avoided a serious loss of American life.
How did we get into World War II? At a certain point, the American government refused to sell oil to the Japanese, and this provoked them into attacking Pearl Harbor and seizing the Philippines. Had we honored the principles of free trade, we would have avoided an armed conflict that resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives.
What this particular sect of libertarians (who are no less apt to divide into sects than were the old Marxists) refuses to acknowledge is that the American people have political interests abroad that are incumbent upon them, if they are to remain secure in the long run, to pursue. For all of his faults (which were legion), Woodrow Wilson understood that it was not in the American interest for a single imperialist power to come to dominate Europe. And for all of his faults (which were also legion), Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that it was not in the American interest for a single imperialist power to come to dominate Asia. Neither sought war. But both sought to tip the balance against the powers they rightly regarded as a threat to the United States, and soon enough they found themselves drawn into war.
I do not mean to endorse Wilsonian internationalism. That doctrine, rooted in a distortion of the thinking of Immanuel Kant, is as mad as the doctrine embraced by the sect of libertarians that I am discussing. It supposes that there can be a war to end all wars and that the world can be made safe once and for all for democracy. The truth is uglier. In the international sphere, order does not spontaneously emerge. It is imposed. It is, moreover, fragile and temporary always, and “rational administration” within the international sphere of the sort envisaged by Wilson and his admirers is no more effective than “rational administration” of the economy. Like the old Marxists, the Wilsonian internationalists and the libertarian isolationists live in an alternative universe. In the universe in which you and I live, however, there is no substitute for prudence. There are fights that are not worth the candle, and there are fights that are well worth fighting. But there will be fights – and on the basis of a sober assessment of our interests, we must choose when, where, and how to fight. In deciding, we must always look to the particulars.
Ron Paul is an adherent of the doctrinaire libertarian sect to which I refer. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not a prudentialist. He is an ideologue – perfectly willing to deny or ignore the facts if they do not gibe with the doctrine that he has embraced. He is also, let me add, a cagey character. To get a sense of what I mean, take a close look at this statement made by his former staffer Eric Dondero and then consider what the Paul campaign says and does not say pertaining to the Texas Congressman’s stance regarding the Second World War. Paul’s silences are as telling as the words he utters. In this particular, he is very much like Mitt Romney. He is less apt to lie than to speak the truth, nothing but the truth, and only a part of the truth – and to do so in such a manner as to mislead the unwary. His statements sometimes require parsing.
It is in light of this digression that you can understand Ron Paul’s stance regarding Al Q’aeda and Iran. Our troubles are, he persistently tells us, our own fault. We have provoked these people, and what they have done to us in return is perfectly understandable and, he implies, perhaps even just.
We had troops in Saudi Arabia, says the Congressman, and that is why Al Q’aeda attacked the twin towers and the Pentagon (if, of course, it was not the work of Mossad). Ron Paul conveniently ignores the fact that the troops that we stationed in Saudi Arabia were there at the invitation of the government of that country, and he never mentions the fact that the first attack on the twin towers arranged by Al Q’aeda took place before we had any troops in Saudi Arabia at all. In an alternative universe in which the libertarian isolationists reside, inconvenient truths are resolutely ignored.
Ron Paul wears blinders of a similar sort when he discusses Iran. The truth is that the Khomeini regime has been prosecuting a war against us for more than thirty years. At the outset, when Jimmy Carter was President, the theocrats of Iran seized our embassy and took our diplomats hostage. Later, when Ronald Reagan was President, they arranged for a suicide bomber provided by Hezbollah to take out our embassy in Beirut and a great many of our diplomats. Not long thereafter, they did the same for a marine unit posted elsewhere in Lebanon. Later, they arranged for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; and when we were in Iraq, they carried on a covert war in that country against our troops.
In our dealing with Iran, we have been comparatively restrained and circumspect. It is true that, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War, we provided intelligence support to the Iraqis; and when the Iranians tried to shut down the Gulf, we intervened to keep that shipping lane open. But for the most part we have held our fire, mindful that Iran could easily become a quagmire. And we have repeatedly – from the time of Reagan on (remember the Iran-Contra affair?) – made overtures to the mullahs, but never to any avail.
Given the threats that the mullahs and their minions have directed at us, given their treatment of our diplomats in Teheran, given the attacks they have concerted against our soldiers and diplomats in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, given their open hostility to our long-standing allies, and given the fact that they have prepared forces capable of shutting down the Straits of Hormuz and this past week practiced cutting our lifeline and that of our allies to the oil that travels from the Persian Gulf through those straits, we have reason to take seriously the intelligence reports indicating that the Iranians are preparing to build nuclear weapons and the evidence that they are developing delivery systems capable of reach our allies in the Middle East, Europe, and, perhaps, in time, the United States as well.
What is Ron Paul’s response to these developments? He has rejected the evidence out of hand, he has denied that we have any grounds for concern, and he has called for a 40% cut in our defense budget (as has Gary Johnson of New Mexico). You might want to ask what would be left of that budget were we to cut it by 40%. That budget has four components – legacy obligations (pensions to be paid, medical care to be provided), personnel, equipment, and research on new defense systems. I doubt very much whether Congressman Paul has in mind radically cutting the first of these four – which would leave us with the task of reducing that part of the budget that goes for present and future defense by as much as 60%. What he has in mind is simple – that we give up entirely the capacity to project power beyond our shores – and he means what he says (as does Gary Johnson).
Ron Paul’s premise (and that of Gary Johnson) is the same as that of those on the left who argued (and still argue) that the Cold War was our fault, that we provoked the Soviet Union, that if we had been more accommodating of the legitimate needs of the communist regime all would have been well. The sect within the libertarian camp to which Paul (and Johnson) belong is as loony as the fellow-traveling left, and it is just as dangerous.
As Ricochet member Percival put it in a memorable comment on this site, “If Ron Paul's stance on law enforcement were in line with his foreign policy, we wouldn't try to defend ourselves with expensive police departments. Instead, we'd try to understand the criminals and get along with them by giving them what they want – our stuff.”