Ron Paul and the Foreign Policy Disconnect

by dday

At the risk of inciting a riot in the comments and eliciting a lot of responses with multiple exclamation points in them, I'm going to write a post about Ron Paul. For some reason, you have to take up sides on Ron Paul to remain a member in good standing in the liberal blogosphere. You either stress only the good side, and love what he brings to the national debate, touching on subjects like imperialism and civil liberties and executive power which ought to get a wider hearing in public, or you stress only the bad side, rightly pointing out his overt racism and anti-Semitism, and believing it was Abe Lincoln's fault that Southern states started seceding from the Union and firing on federal garrisons, etc. Josh Marshall gave a rare balanced take today, which was more concerned with trying to understand the phenomenon.

A while back I was peppered for a few days by emailers pointing me toward an article detailing Paul's alleged history of anti-Israel politics and slurs and goading me to 'disavow' him. I told these good souls that I found it hard to disavow him since I hadn't avowed him in the first place. And the response I got was that it was a matter of all the liberals and Democrats who were on the Ron Paul bandwagon.

But who are these people? The Democrats and liberals who are on the Ron Paul bandwagon?

And this is what I mean: the alternative Ron Paul universe, supporters and critics, all living in a some sort of bubble, alternative reality, in which Paul is a key driver in our national politics, notwithstanding the fact that he barely registers in the polls and does not seem to have moved the needle one notch the GOP nomination contest in terms of shifting the terms of the debate toward his views on foreign policy.

I think it's pretty clear, actually. We're involved in a war with no end in sight, which both parties have had the opportunity to end and have failed. Nobody on either side of the political aisle is speaking with any kind of clarity about ending the Iraq war other than Ron Paul, and about the Washington consensus on foreign policy in general. Dennis Kucinich is to a certain extent, but his effort to ape the Paul money-bomb ended up with maybe a hundred grand or so. Ron Paul has a clear message that is a part of American history, one of isolationism. And he critiques American foreign policy in a way that is never done in public discussion.

That's why his Meet The Press appearance is almost a cultural artifact, an example of how wedded to the institutional narratives and consensus opinions the modern Beltway media has become, and how baffled they are by any differing opinion. Tim Russert was attacking Paul, sometimes giving up all pretense of neutrality, but he did so in his same narrow fashion, and when the subject turned to Paul challenging the core arguments of foreign policy and imperialism, Russert had to ignore them for a lack of knowing what else to do.

MR. RUSSERT: Let's talk about some of the ways you recommend. "I'd start bringing our troops home, not only from the Middle East but from Korea, Japan and Europe and save enough money to slash the deficit."

How much money would that save?

REP. PAUL: To operate our total foreign policy, when you add up everything, there's been a good study on this, it's nearly a trillion dollars a year. So I would think if you brought our troops home, you could save hundreds of billions of dollars. It's, you know, it's six months or one year or two year, but you can start saving immediately by changing the foreign policy and not be the policeman over the world. We should have the foreign policy that George Bush ran on. You know, no nation building, no policing of the world, a humble foreign policy. We don't need to be starting wars. That's my argument.

MR. RUSSERT: How many troops do we have overseas right now?

REP. PAUL: I don't know the exact number, but more than we need. We don't need any.

MR. RUSSERT: It's 572,000. And you'd bring them all home?

REP. PAUL: As quickly as possible. We--they will not serve our interests to be overseas. They get us into trouble. And we can defend this country without troops in Germany, troops in Japan. How do they help our national defense? Doesn't make any sense to me. Troops in Korea since I've been in high school?

He tried to "nail" Paul because he didn't know that exact number of American troops overseas (and by the way, neither would Russert if it wasn't on the TelePrompTer), but by saying it out loud, he almost made Paul's argument for him. What reason is there for over a half-million Americans to patrol the rest of the world, in 140-plus countries? Shouldn't the public have the ability to question the wisdom of that policy? Shouldn't at least someone with the Presidential platform give a dissenting viewpoint?

Matt Stoller had a great post about these "untouchable symptoms" that ought to be up for mainstream debate. Here are two of them that relate to the nexus of the excitement Ron Paul has been generating:

Subject: End American empire
Factoid: As of 1998, America had troops stationed in 144 countries around the world.

There are any number of ways to talk about this issue, from disparities of foreign aid to complaints about the IMF to the war in Iraq to the CIA and blowback. The bottom line is that America has troops everywhere in the world, it's expensive, the way it is done now is a bad idea, and we need to bring them home and return to being a republic. That or we need to figure out how to be a responsible international power again and get rid of the Blackwater-style military we are building and the gunrunning vigilante CIA-style Cold War and post-Cold War nonsense.

Subject: End the war economy:
Factoid: Money for Iraq keeps passing in 'emergency' legislation to avoid being subject to budget rules.

For some reason, Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans argue that they are fiscally responsible while ignoring their votes to spend 700-800B a year on war. Libertarian charlatans like energy expert Amory Lovins think that the corporate sector and the military sector are legitimate parts of the state, but that other spending is wasteful. The whole notion of the military not being a part of the overall government is crazy, and reflective of a huge, corrupt, and Soviet-style misallocation of capital through secret budgets and fear.

Until some progressive takes to a big platform and makes these same arguments in a coherent way, there will always be room for an isolationist paleocon like Ron Paul to make it for them. Yet it can certainly be folded into a progressive foreign policy critique, one that recognizes the virtue of diplomatic relations, one that understands how comforting the afflicted and surging against global poverty is far more effective than sitting men with guns all over the world. Edwards and Obama have done this to an extent, but Ron Paul has opened the Overton Window on this enough for them to be much bolder.