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Opposing Imperialism Isn’t Isolationism

Ron PaulWhen pundits and rival politicians call Ron Paul an “isolationist,” they mislead the American people — and they know it.

They know it? How could they not? Ron Paul is for unilateral, unconditional free trade. He believes any American should be perfectly free to buy from or sell to any person in the world. In that sense — the laissez-faire sense — he favors globalization, which, applied consistently, would require a worldwide free market. He’s such a strong advocate of free trade that he objects when the world’s governments, led by the U.S. government, set up international bureaucracies, such as the World Trade Organization, to manage trade. He thinks trade should be a totally private matter. That’s a solid classical-liberal, or libertarian, position.

So why is Paul repeatedly called an isolationist?

Apparently in today’s political world, being an isolationist means opposing the U.S. government’s policing the rest of the world through invasion, occupation, and war — that is, militarism. The word “isolationist” has always suggested a fear of foreigners, and no doubt those who apply the word to Paul want to cash in on that sense. So we are left with the daffy conclusion that Ron Paul is a xenophobic, head-in-the-sand isolationist precisely because he prefers peaceful trade with foreigners rather than invasion, occupation, and demolition of their countries.

If that’s what it means to be an isolationist, count me as one too.

It’s easy to understand why this inappropriate label is stuck on Paul. Establishment conservatives and progressives are terrified by him and desperately want him to go away. They’re terrified because he has done the worst thing imaginable: he has held up a mirror and reminded them of what they are.

He has shown establishment conservatives and even so-called Republican moderates (such as Mitt Romney and former candidate Jon Huntsman) that they are, and long have been, apologists for empire and therefore betrayers of the republican (small “r”) ideals they say they embrace.

When Paul condemns past, present, and future aggressive wars (such as the one being planned for Iran); when he calls for closing America’s 900 military installations in more than 40 countries and removing America’s troops from 130 countries; when he advocates an end to all economic and military aid to foreign governments (including Israel’s); when he condemns autocratic executive power; and when he opposes wholesale violation of the Bill of Rights (see the USA PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act), he is saying to his Republican rivals, You have helped destroy individual liberty by shamefully supporting the U.S. global empire, which brutalizes foreign populations, fosters an exploitative military-industrial complex, violates civil liberties, and burdens the American people with obscene debt, taxation, and Federal Reserve monetary manipulation.

That charge must be hard to take from a fellow Republican. All of his rivals are committed to the empire and the domestic national-security state. Each has attempted to one-up the others by promising to be tough on Iran, which is already subject to economic sanctions — an act of war under international law — and covert warfare by the CIA and Israeli intelligence, working with Iranian terrorists. Huntsman, who left the race before the South Carolina primary, was inexplicably portrayed as less hawkish than the other Republicans, yet he actually went further than the others in saying he would invade Iran with ground forces if he became president. “I can’t live with the implications of not doing it.... [You] got to have all options on the table. You got to be prepared to use all elements of national power,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett when she specifically asked about the option of “troops, invasion.” Huntsman had talked about reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan, but that must not be mistaken for a noninterventionist foreign policy. It was merely an attempt to attract votes from the war-weary.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are similarly hawkish toward Iran and generally. The debates were little more than exercises in out-machoing one another.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has named a foreign-policy team that is a who’s who of George W. Bush’s war council and outside cheerleaders, including Cofer Black, Michael Chertoff, Eliot Cohen, Michael Hayden, Robert Kagan, and Daniel Senor. There’s no doubt that a President Romney would carry on the neoconservative program of global hegemony — despite the increasing evidence that the U.S. government cannot control events overseas.

In light of their unstinting militarism, Ron Paul’s rivals strike back at him in the way they know best: they smear him. The thought of a staunch anti-war, pro–Bill of Rights candidate running against Barack Obama scares the daylights out of them, because they know only one way to run against a Democrat: accuse him of being an appeaser and a socialist.

That is absurd, however, because Obama is neither. He has steadfastly carried on the empire’s program of global militarism, executive autocracy, and corporatism. If you doubt it, look at his foreign-policy record and the long list of Wall Street people who advise him and give him money. And remember that he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton support economic sanctions on Iran and refuse to forswear a military attack.


Progressives’ betrayal

Which brings us to the progressives. If you think establishment conservatives are scared of Ron Paul, imagine how Obama and his supporters must feel. Can you imagine their having to run against a staunch anti-war, pro–Bill of Rights Republican? This is the same Obama who has maintained Guantanamo, launched more deadly drone attacks than George W. Bush, signed into law the authority to detain persons indefinitely without charge or trial, claimed he may kill even American citizens without due process — and has done so — gone to war against Libya unilaterally while insisting it wasn’t a war, cracked down harshly on whistle-blowers, protected torturers from legal consequences, invoked state secrets to quash lawsuits by torture victims, and on and on.

It is almost amusing to watch progressives looking for an excuse not to say positive things about Paul, despite his being the only candidate to condemn the empire. Some have pointed to his pro–free-market positions (though few — notably Ralph Nader — have noticed his anti-corporatism), while others find refuge in ugly 20-year-old ghost-written material he has renounced. They just cannot stand that a nonprogressive — a libertarian, for heaven’s sake — is the anti-war, pro–civil liberties candidate. While some progressives, such as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, can look past her domestic-policy disagreements and say, “good he’s in,” others can’t. For example, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, wrote,

Ron Paul is not a charming oddball with a few peculiar notions. He’s not merely “out of the mainstream.” Ron Paul is a full-bore crank....

Now, balanced against [his domestic policy] you have the fact that Paul opposes the War on Drugs and supports a non-interventionist foreign policy. But guess what? Even there, he’s a crank. Even if you’re a hard-core non-interventionist yourself, you probably think World War II was a war worth fighting. But not Ron Paul. He thinks we should have just minded our own damn business. And even if you’re a hardcore opponent of our current drug policy — if you think not just that marijuana should be legalized, not just that hard drugs should be decriminalized, but that all illicit drugs should be fully legalized — I’ll bet you still think that maybe we should retain some regulations on a few of the worst drugs. They’re pretty dangerous, after all, and no matter how much you hate the War on Drugs you might have a few qualms about a global marketing behemoth like RJ Reynolds having free rein to advertise and sell anything it wants, anywhere it wants, in any way it wants. But not Ron Paul. As near as I can tell, he just wants everything legalized, full stop.

Bottom line: Ron Paul is not merely a “flawed messenger” for these views. He’s an absolutely toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger for these views....

Drum sounds like a man who is beside himself because the peacenik in the race favors individual liberty and free markets rather than state socialism. So does “DougJ” writing at Balloon Juice: “For a liberal like me, who is primarily interested in the well-being of the American middle-class and in providing opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc., I just don’t see why I should be ‘challenged’ by Ron Paul.”

As noted, not all progressives take this anti-Paul position. One progressive has said that even if Paul were promising to end Social Security overnight, he would be worth supporting for his anti-war, pro–civil liberties platform. In other words, issues must be prioritized. Stopping militarism — especially the coming war with Iran — and the destruction of the Bill of Rights outranks everything else.

Progressive blogger Glenn Greenwald sees this more clearly than most of his colleagues. He writes,

If you don’t really care about these issues — war, empire, the denial of due process, suffocating secrecy, ongoing killing of foreign civilians, oligarchical manipulation of the Fed and other government policies, militarized foreign policy and police practices, etc. — then it’s easy to blithely dismiss the need to find some way to challenge the bipartisan consensus on those issues. For those for whom these issues aren’t priorities, I think you’ll hear the type of dismissive response as Drum voices: go find someone else with a comparable platform who can amplify these views (not that there’s anyone else I can think of).

And that, to me, is the vital point: despite vocally feigning grave concern about these issues during the Bush years, they are not a priority for many progressives precisely because they no longer provide any means of obtaining partisan advantage. How can you pretend to vehemently oppose the slaughter of foreign civilians, the deprivation of due process, a posture of Endless War, radical secrecy, etc., when the President behind whom you’re faithfully marching is an aggressive advocate and implementer of those very policies?

Most progressives live in a fantasy world where they imagine themselves to be champions of peace, tolerance, and the rule of law, when in fact they support — and refuse to criticize — a man, Barack Obama, who has mimicked George W. Bush in virtually every way. How can they tolerate the man — Ron Paul — who reminds them of that?

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( and editor of The Freeman magazine

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