Devon, PA. We face only two feasible policies in America’s engagement with the world. We can seek to be a bomb-throwing hegemon until the money, and the credit, and the bodies, run out, and can identify American national interest with our sitting atop a unipolar world, or we can identify American national interest with the security and prosperity of the United States made possible by a stalwart defense of our borders and a guarded and cautious relationship with the other powers of the world. Americans have proven, on the whole, quite comfortable with the former path, which has been our status quo for many decades.
But Americans have also reacted with anxiety and sorrow to the consequences that path has brought upon us. The Republicans did not lose control of Congress in 2006 because of the unpopularity of Bush’s calls for minor social security reform; they did not even lose it because of out-of-control deficits, though that alone would have justified it; they lost it, because a few men like Donald Rumsfeld had become some of the most loathed beings in America, because they had led us into one arguably necessary but sloppily waged war, and then, into one whose every justification has turned out to be either the deceptive ideals of men blinded by ideology or, more often, simply lies. As Daniel Larison has reminded us, Obama would not have won in 2008, despite the terrible economy, had Bush’s wars not been so dreadfully unpopular, and I presume Americans take no comfort in the close impersonation Obama’s foreign policy does of the policies of the McCain administration that was not to be.
Despite the huge unpopularity of our foreign invasions during the last decade, there has been surprisingly little serious discussion about changing course in our foreign policy among either Democrats or Republicans; indeed, we have but reaffirmed our commitments to perpetual war making in the name of the global good. Further, the news media has impressively managed to continue covering our foreign exploits without framing their reports in such a way that might lead to the raising of such fundamental questions.
Why would they? The supposed “third way” in American foreign policy, which I did not deign to mention above, is the liberal globalist way: subordinating American interests to international organizations and trying to hit the “reset” button in our relations with foreign antagonists as if their previous policies were merely the result of a misunderstanding about the fundamental goodness and good will of the American people. But the third way is the same as the first way: hegemony with a smile or, as the case may be, with a bow. In the eyes of leftist and supposedly “rightist” policy elites and their journalistic cupbearers, there is only one acceptable foreign policy position: expansion unto death. As Walter MacDougall has observed, empires are not defeated, they commit suicide. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, we can continue to start small wars in far flung places for decades more before slouching down in our mortal corner to sleep in our own blood.
And yet, in this Advent season of hope, I still found myself surprised and disappointed to read this squib in the Wall Street Journal , praising Paul’s consistency and seriousness this election cycle,
Except on foreign policy, where Mr. Paul does himself in. In discrete areas, Mr. Paul’s “noninterventionist” approach resonates with those weary of war, or with the populist sentiment that we spend too much on foreign aid. And note that Mr. Paul has made small stabs at reassuring voters of his patriotism, as with a big national TV ad that highlighted his own military service and commitment to veterans.
But none of this has addressed voters’ big concern over a Paul philosophy that fundamentally denies American exceptionalism and refuses to allow for decisive action to protect the U.S. homeland. Perhaps nothing hurt the candidate more in 2008 than his declaration that one reason terrorists attacked us on 9/11 is because “we’ve been in the Middle East.”
Far from toning down such views, Mr. Paul has amped up the wattage, claiming this year that 9/11 prompted “glee” in a Bush administration looking for a pretext to “invade Iraq.” He’s condemned the Obama administration’s killings of terrorists Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, and he insists the U.S. is “provoking” Iran.
For foreign-policy hawks, this is a disqualifier. It explains why a Washington Post-ABC poll in late September showed that Mr. Paul drew some of his weakest numbers from his own base. Of the 25% of voters who viewed him favorably, nearly two-thirds did not identify themselves as Republicans. Among self-identified “conservative Republicans,” only 8% gave him a “strongly favorable” rating. You don’t win a GOP nomination with figures like this. Even mainstream Democrats and independents have no time for Mr. Paul’s brand of isolationism, which is why his national numbers remain stuck around 10%.
My disappointment does not arise from the obvious claim that Paul’s foreign policy positions disqualify him with foreign-policy hawks. By definition it does. Nor does it arise with the continued existence of such hawks. I think the neoconservative agenda to keep the United States as a hegemonic, unilateralist, and preemptive agent in the world is a plausible foreign policy; but it is one that has committed us to unjust, prolonged, and costly military engagements that can only be initiated if we maintain an infrastructure of military might on a global scale that is expensive, turns much of the rest of the world into a simpering protectariat, and provokes those enemies we will always have to strike us and summons the otherwise indifferent to their cause. Plausible though such a policy is, its aim is to establish a permanent American order that is also a permanent order of war making.
Paul’s generally prudential and non-interventionist policies sometimes appear as nearly purblind with ideology as the advocates of a New American Century, I confess. It was ridiculous, for instance, to introduce questions of legality and sovereignty in regard to the Osama bin Ladin assassination last fall. One thing on which Donald Rumsfeld, President Obama, Ross Perot (!), and most of America smartly agree is that small, surgical strikes will be with us regardless of the size and swagger of the rest of our foreign and military policy. Further, all claims to legality in international matters founded on positive rather than natural law are incoherent: we have not global authority capable of promulgating such a law (unless we ourselves are it, and we are not). But that comment of Paul’s is hardly representative of his long-documented views, which have firmly advocated a policy of strong American defense and a recognition that our present imperial position is a graver threat to your or my security than the barbarians and tyrants who may always hate us but are capable themselves of prudent discernment when it comes to attacking us.
And so, one should immediately dismiss claims that even “mainstream Democrats and independents have no time for Mr. Paul’s brand of isolationism.” The mainstream of America has always been just one party with one voice: the assertion of power unto death — our own death. But the mainstream need not be the majority, and I am hopeful that the majority of Americans have seen the costs of militarism without end, of ideological democracy-mongering without attention to the realities of fallen human nature or account of the particular conditions of different national cultures. They can see that establishing democracies, if sincerely undertaken, is foolish and unattractive business for all parties concerned; and, when it is not sincerley undertaken, it leads to American blood shed for someone else’s lucre.
The majority of Americans, in principle, embrace the prudence of friendship with all and entanglements with none. A foreign policy that puts America first will generate enemies of its own, but fewer than a policy of American empire; there is no escaping the need to face down our enemies and kill them, but contrary to one Bush-era apologetic, we will have to do less of that, and will do it better and as lesser cost, by guarding our own gates more staunchly and by extending the mailed fist far more selectively and precisely.
Americans have already repudiated the policy of perpetual wars abroad twice at the polls. If Ron Paul can somehow evade the prevaricating labels of the WSJ and much of the rest of the journalistic and political elites, his election would be the third, and by far the greatest, such repudiation. And, far from denying American exceptionalism, it would be the most singular affirmation of our exceptional national character the world has yet witnessed. For, we would be the first great power in history to abandon its pretensions to empire not through moral or economic inannition, not through a globalizing ideal of perpetual peace that has shown itself a recipe for continuous war, but as an expression of trust that we are a strong enough nation to defend our people at home and to protect them abroad when we must. We would underscore our difference from ancient Rome in our commitment to self-government, self-sufficiency, and ordered liberty without contorting such things into a quest for unsustainable domination, for the raw riches of exotic lands, and the doomed imposition of nominally democratic regimes abroad.