Saturday, February 2, 2008

Is Ron Paul right?

I mentioned in my previous post that I think I'm going to vote Ron Paul in the primary. Let me say at the outset that this is still a purely pragmatic decision. Ron Paul can't win, and I'd be less likely to vote for him if he could. He's a purist, and I'm not sure that makes for good governing. I liked Giuliani for the same reasons I like Paul -- but Giuliani is less pure and, I thought, better at winning political battles. (Ironic that Paul's the last one standing.) I think I'll vote for Dr. Paul mostly because I just don't care whether Romney or McCain gets it. Either is acceptable, neither is very good.

Now, the message I want to send by voting Ron Paul is purely domestic. It's the same argument I made for Giuliani: I think that social conservatism (in other words, civilization) requires limited government. The most critical issue for me is the Constitution: both because I believe in the rule of law, and thus obeying the laws we have, and because I think it provides a remarkably wise form of limited government. (Incidentally, that's why I'll vote GOP no matter what this fall: judges.)

But the sticking point with Ron Paul is foreign policy. He wants out of Iraq. He thinks Muslims would stop blowing up our buildings, trains, planes, etc., if we just got our troops off the Saudi peninsula. He wants to eliminate the CIA. This is nutty stuff.

His argument is twofold. Internationally, he thinks our cause is better served by a less confrontational stance: confrontations escalate. Domestically, he thinks war begets big government.

The domestic part really grabs me. I think it's hard to deny, historically, that Woodrow Wilson and FDR were eager to get into Europe's wars not only (maybe not even primarily) for humanitarian or geo-political motives, but because it gave them the authority to institute progressive policies at home. Of course the New Deal was already in place -- but FDR's policies only took off, and only produced the dirigist prosperity he wanted, with the War. This is an argument that was made directly by The New Republic at the time -- and it is one that has kept them pro-war and pro-big government ever since.

The argument is even more intriguing, however, looking at this primary season. John McCain's only "conservative," or even Republican credential is his support of the war. There should be no question that without the war, he could never have gotten this far. (Indeed, Bush creamed him pre-9/11 running on a less interventionist foreign policy and criticizing Clinton's actions overseas.)

Consider Rudy Giuliani, too. Now, as I've argued (link above) I like Giuliani for his domestic policies. And he probably lost on his domestic policies, namely his failure to reach out to social conservatives. But would Giuliani ever have considered running such a campaign if he didn't have the War on his side? Without Iraq and 9/11, he wouldn't have run, wouldn't have gotten as far as he did, or would have had to reach out as a complete domestic conservative.

I don't like Mitt Romney, but he surely would do better if people weren't wondering what kind of Commander in Chief he'd be.

And of course Ron Paul himself would be much much more popular with conservatives if it weren't for the war issue. He is by far the most consistent conservative of all the candidates -- except on the war.

In short, this primary suggests that Dr. Paul is right: war makes people, even conservatives, care less about limited government.

But what about on the foreign side? Is it really "right" -- morally or practically -- for us to run away from the battle in Iraq? Let me say that I have been very much in favor of Bush's conduct of the war -- but I may be coming around.

I think a couple distinctions are important. The first is between the Soviets and any other enemy. Historically, conservatives only got interested in meaty foreign policy when fighting the USSR -- before that, as Ron Paul often notes, conservatives were the party of non-interventionism, and Democrats the party of muscular foreign policy. (Though there is some question-begging here: it's not clear to me, based on my limited knowledge of twentieth-century American history, that there were what we call conservatives before the anti-Communist Bill-Buckley insurgency of the 1950s.) In any case, the Soviets were a different kind of enemy because they were big government incarnate. In that one unique instance, it was easy to make the case that we should fight our enemy overseas and limit our government here at home, because the two were inherently linked. Normally, that just isn't the case -- and it certainly isn't the case with al-Qaeda. Without any clear link between war and limited government, war naturally leads to the growth of government.

But an even more important distinction is between moral relativism and pragmatic non-interventionism. What drives conservatives so nutty about liberal critiques of the war is that they often equivocate about us and the enemy, as in Ward Churchill's infamous statement that the dead on 9/11 were "a thousand little Eichmanns." Conservatism is, at its heart, moral realism; conservatives can't stand to hear this kind of equivocation. Same goes for saying the Israelis are the same as Hezbollah and Hamas, or even comparing them to Hitler, as is too-often done. There is a difference between democratic states and terrorists who kill civilians.

That's what makes people angry about Ron Paul's statements. When he says 9/11 is the result of us having troops in Saudi Arabia, it sounds like he's justifying the actions of terrorists, and even "taking marching orders from the enemy." Are we supposed to just run away? But of course, that's where the argument starts to shift. Of course you run away from a place that gets you killed. In addition to the moral question, there is also a strategic one: granted the terrorists are wrong, what should we do?

In this fascinating interview, Ron Paul makes a very interesting point about Ronald Reagan. Reagan was not afraid to call the Soviet Union the "evil empire." He was not afraid to fight them and defeat them, and he certainly didn't believe in coexistence with moral evil. BUT he didn't invade. He beat them economically, he beat them morally. Part of that was a weapons build-up, which Ron Paul probably opposed (in company, by the way, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI). But Reagan did not win the Cold War by force of arms.

I have argued elsewhere that the best way to overthrow truly evil governments might be business as normal, swamping them with personal communication, American trade, and the normalcy that challenges their lies. I hope to pursue that argument further. Ironically, Ronald Reagan, the hero of muscular-defense conservatives, may be the greatest proof: he never equivocated about the sheer moral evil of Communism, but that didn't mean he put troops on the ground.

Those who know Western history recognize that the battle with Islamo-fascism (or whatever you want to call it) is as old as Islam itself. But here's an interesting point: we tried to invade in the Crusades, and failed. We then retreated to defense by sheer force of arms -- and barely kept them at bay. When did the tide start to turn? Not when we sought military might, but when our own culture advanced. The victory was won at home, not abroad. Of course, we have had to fight them in the Mediterranean every step of the way (think Barbary pirates). But as our civilization advanced at home (at least on the technical level -- we can debate elsewhere the cultural challenges of Modernity), the Muslims became more of a nuisance than a challenge.

Instead of fighting in Iraq, for example, why not promote democratic peace and prosperity in places like Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan? (Note: I don't know much about these countries. I do know they aren't our enemies.) Could we strengthen Lebanon without using guns?

In short, I may be coming around to Ron Paul's point of view. War isn't worth it. We have better "weapons," and war provokes further attacks and, much more importantly, the loss of principle at home. Better to have Ron Paul than John McCain.