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The GOP, Ron Paul & Non-Interventionism

By Gregory Scoblete

In politics, ideas frequently spread like viruses. Even if their host succumbs, the ideas that animated them can survive to infect the body politic. Such was the certainly case with Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. In the era of the Great Society, his limited government views were resoundingly rejected by the electorate in his 1964 presidential bid. Yet those same ideas eventually culminated in a very contagious outbreak - the Reagan revolution -16 years later.

Will there be a similar legacy for Texas congressman Ron Paul? Yes, Paul's platform differs greatly from Goldwater's and Paul is even more of a long shot than was Goldwater in winning the nomination, which was half of Goldwater's great achievement, but we know one element of the comparison is already apt: Paul will not be President of the United States. But just as Goldwater's limited government creed found a receptive public years later, one theme of Paul's campaign will, with time, also carry the day: his embrace of non-interventionism.

Though he has garnered considerable Internet enthusiasm, Paul trails in all the major polls. He does not possess the name recognition of a Giuliani, the personal wealth of a Romney or the fame and establishment enthusiasm of a Thomson. He is derided by many conservative pundits as idiosyncratic, or worse, a paranoiac.

Yet, unlike the rest of the field, Paul possess a compelling foreign policy message of humility and restraint in the exercise of U.S. power. To say that such a message is unpopular, especially with the contemporary GOP, is an understatement. But it is a message increasingly vindicated by events and by the strategic realities of the post Cold War world.

During the May 15 debate in South Carolina, Paul wondered how Republicans were able to capture the presidency in 2000. "We talked about a humble foreign policy," he said. "No nation-building; don't police the world." Paul, alone among GOP contenders, opposed the invasion of Iraq and has been a critic of the enterprise ever since.

Such restraint does not sit well with many conservatives intent on seizing what columnist Charles Krauthammer dubbed the "unipolar moment" of American ascendancy in a world without the Soviet Union. To them, only the maximalist goals espoused by President Bush in his second inaugural address are worthy of America. Neoconservative champions of an "American Empire" such as Council on Foreign Relations scholar Max Boot chafe at the notion that there are, or should be, limits to American power or that the American interest should be defined as anything less than a globe-spanning, benevolent imperium. Unfazed by our inability to pacify Iraq, neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz (recently named as an advisor to the Giuliani campaign) are now agitating to expand the war into Iran.

Nor does Paul's parsimony sit well with Democrats and liberals, whose predilection to use military force seems to increase as the relevancy of the mission to U.S. security decreases. Supposedly aghast by the civil war in Iraq, Democratic statesmen like Delaware Senator Joseph Biden want to insert the U.S. into Sudan. If you blanched at the President's Second Inaugural, which pledged to erase tyranny from the pages of human memory, you won't find much comfort in Barack Obama's barely-less expansive formulation of America's interests in Foreign Affairs.

Against such an overwhelming tide of grandiosity and hubris, it sounds farcical to suggest that non-interventionism will some day sway voters and find eventual electoral success. But it will.

First though, it's important to distinguish non-interventionism from isolationism. The former seeks a more rigorous and delimited definition of America's interests, while the latter a walled garden that completely cuts America off from the world. Non-interventionists are not pacifists, but they do reserve war fighting for moments of actual national peril. (Paul, for instance, voted to authorize war in Afghanistan in 2001.) They do not view the military as an instrument of social policy. If war is to be fought, non-interventionists demand a Congressional declaration of war to ensure that the conflict is one in which the nation's resources are fully brought to bear.

Unlike isolationists, non-interventionists do not fear expanding and liberalizing trade (Paul has frequently said as much). Non-interventionists are confident in American strength and, unlike isolationists, are optimistic about America's engagement with the world. What they do not seek, however, is dominion over it. Non-interventionists trust that Western values are persuasive on their own terms, and become correspondingly less so when they are imposed on societies at gunpoint. Finally, non-interventionists tend to possess a truly conservative skepticism about government and the malleability of human nature. They do not believe America should squander its blood and treasure as it pursues utopian schemes like "ridding the world of evil."

The precise content of Paul's campaign platform won't be adopted, even many years down the road. With calls to withdraw from NATO and the UN, it's far too radical. Yet the contours of his non-interventionist approach to foreign policy will ultimately win the day. For starters, thank President Bush. The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have exposed and discredited a number of dubious theories endorsed by the war's advocates. It reminded us that the proper role of a military is to destroy states, not coax democratic ones from the rubble. Yet it also underscored that even if we were adept nation builders, an "American Empire" won't protect us. Unraveled terror plots in the U.S. and Europe discredit the notion that "freedom is the antidote to terror" or that we must "fight them over there so they don't come over here."

When the Bush administration leaves office, it also will leave a list of serious foreign policy failures. The administration will pass off a military vastly weaker than the one it inherited and larger nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. On the singular issue of Islamic terrorism, the record is largely abysmal. President Bush inherited one jihadist safe haven in a relatively weak state, Afghanistan. He will leave office with two safe havens: one in nuclear-armed Pakistan, the other in Iraq -- in the heart of the oil-rich, increasingly unstable Middle East. Far from discredited and marginalized, our intelligence services warn that the ideology of radical Islam is enflamed. As the coup-de-grace, the administration is proposing to shower billions of dollars worth of advanced weaponry on the very Sunni autocrats responsible for whipping up the jihadist frenzy.

There will be a great incentive among politicians and policymakers to put a good deal of distance between themselves and this record. (Bush's basement level approval ratings don't help either.) But there is a deeper reason why non-interventionism will find more fertile soil years hence. America's current global commitments reflect antiquated, Cold War-era priorities that will only become more untenable as time passes.

During that conflict, we subsidized the defense of the free world to deter Soviet adventurism and to allow the battered nations of World War II to focus resources on reconstruction. We undertook an interventionist foreign policy (in Korea, South East Asia, and the Middle East) to thwart the Kremlin's ambitions.

Well, mission accomplished. Today, American military decampments in Asia and Europe reflect strategic entropy. With the Soviet Union resting comfortably on the ash heap of history, with much of the world free and democratic, there is no serious reason why the U.S. is still defending South Korea, Europe, Taiwan, Israel and the Gulf monarchies. Without exception, these nations possess the economic resources to sustain a modern military capable of meeting their unique security needs.

Paul argues for such a transfer of responsibility. With time, this chorus will grow because there is no threat to the U.S. on par with Soviet communism that necessitates the type of global posture America assumed during the Cold War. True, radical Islam is a serious global menace, but it is not one that will be beaten back with U.S. military bases and defense commitments to autocratic client-states. Indeed, many of the same policies so instrumental in containing communism - the use of proxies, reliance on pliant autocrats and an intrusive military posture - are now the very ones likely to exacerbate the current danger.

And besides, even if the U.S. does not consciously - and conscientiously - shift its policy to reflect this new reality, the retiring baby boomers will force such a change. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the federal budget and demographic trends knows that the U.S. cannot sustain both its mammoth defense budgets and its entitlements as the boomers retire en-masse. When forced to choose, it's difficult to imagine baby boomers will prefer defending billionaire Saudi fundamentalists to Medicare.

Ron Paul's rebuke of America's current Cold War posture will be vindicated, but only when the costs of America's commitments and their irrelevance to U.S. national security become clearer. Until such time, Paul, like Goldwater, will likely pass his time in Congress waiting for America's political class to catch up.

Gregory Scoblete is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.
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