Of the declared or potential Republican candidates seeking the nomination for president in 2012, Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) strays the least from his core principles. Paul, to either his benefit or detriment, has developed very clear and concise foreign policy positions, which have engendered a dedicated fan base specifically because of his core assumptions about foreign affairs. Compared to a number of other potential GOP candidates who vacillate depending on real world events, Ron Paul is the best positioned to challenge President Obama over foreign policy.
If Ron Paul does not succeed in securing the nomination, adopting his core assumptions may benefit the eventual nominee who will challenge President Obama in 2012. However, previous arguments that President Obama was an indecisive leader or was too professorial have been contradicted following the May 2nd raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Following the killing of bin Laden, President Obama’s approval ratings ticked up noticeably. The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center conducted a poll the next day and on the question of terrorism and his handling of Afghanistan, the president’s approval ratings had improved noticeably. On the overall question of Obama’s job as president, his approval ratings have increased to 56 percent from 47 percent. On the question of the president’s handling of Afghanistan, his approval ratings hover around 60 percent and his approval ratings on his handling of the issue of terrorism, a traditionally Republican area of expertise, are at 69 percent. According to polling by The Washington Post and Pew Research Center, the president receives credit from three-quarters of Americans for the killing of bin Laden while 61 percent of Republicans believe he deserves some credit for the operation.
Where does this leave Republicans? If the GOP is going to challenge the incumbent president on foreign policy, Ron Paul or potentially Jon Huntsman, are best suited for the task. Other potential candidates will be better off forfeiting a foreign policy debate with the president in favor of a debate over the economy, the deficit and high unemployment. While it is unlikely that this bounce in the polls will hold for the president longer than several weeks, the operation in Pakistan will undoubtedly give many Americans pause and they will reconsider their previously held assumptions that President Obama is an indecisive leader.
One aspect of the president’s current high polling numbers that is certain to fade relates to Afghanistan. While the American public might give the president high marks on his handling of the war, overall the war enjoys very low public support. Afghanistan has enjoyed years of consensus on Capitol Hill. However, the war was more or less a second or third tier issue during the 2010-midterm elections. This is likely to change resulting in a vulnerable issue that the GOP establishment has yet to take advantage of.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in March found that the Afghan War, which costs $100 billion a year, is only supported by a third of Americans. Further, the poll found that three-quarters of Americans favor a more robust withdrawal of American troops by this summer.
This all points to Ron Paul gaining ascendency as the foreign policy candidate. While Paul has consistently opposed further involvement, he had originally supported the Afghan mission on the grounds of pursuing bin Laden. His opposition to the war is based on a calculation that the conflict is no longer worth the cost in American lives and treasure. Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, there will inevitably be increased calls for an accelerated withdrawal of American forces.
During the recent FOX News sponsored debate in South Carolina, Ron Paul had this to say, “[Bin Laden] wasn’t caught in Afghanistan. Nation-building in Afghanistan and telling those people how to live and getting involved in running their country hardly had anything to do with finding the information where he was being held in a country that we give billions of dollars of foreign aid to, at the same time we are bombing that country. So it’s the policy that is at fault. Not having the troops in Afghanistan wouldn’t have hurt. We went to Afghanistan to get him, and he hasn’t been there. Now that he’s killed, boy, it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it, get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn’t helped us and hasn’t helped anybody in the Middle East.”
Further, according to Paul, “Osama bin Laden applauded the 9/11 attacks. Such an act of deliberate killing of innocent lives deserves retaliation. It is good that bin Laden is dead and justice is served. Targeted retribution is far superior to wars of aggression and nation-building. In 2001 I supported giving the president the authority to pursue those responsible for the vicious 9/11 attacks…The sad tragedy is that it took ten years, trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of American casualties and many thousands of innocent lives to achieve our mission of killing one evil person. A narrow, targeted mission under these circumstances is far superior to initiating wars against countries not involved in the 9/11 attacks.”
Ron Paul’s across the board appeal to Republicans and some Democrats is that he posits that foreign policy adventures by the United States have resulted in blowback, or the unforeseen consequences that result from U.S. actions overseas. According to Paul, “Our military assistance to the Mujahedeen in the 1980s (now the Taliban) helped the Muslim defenders—one of whom was Osama bin Laden—oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. At that time we were still not seen as occupiers, and the radical Muslims, encouraged by the U.S., were expected to direct all their efforts toward the Communist threat. That all changed with the breakup of the Soviet system and the end of the Cold War, when, as the lone superpower left standing, we named ourselves the world policeman. It was then that the resentment by Arabs and Muslims became directed toward the United States, now seen as an invader and occupier.”
Because of Paul’s consistent arguments against further U.S. involvement overseas his foreign policy positions will only gain in popularity. Should the GOP establishment chose to ignore or gloss over these assumptions on the grounds that they are the ravings of “Dr. No” the GOP establishment might very well allow the president to control the overall narrative.
Glenn Greenwald argued in Salon, “In 2008, the sicko Ron Paul opposed the legalization of Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program and the granting of retroactive immunity to lawbreaking telecoms, while the Democratic Congress — led by the current U.S. President, his Chief of Staff, the Senate Majority Leader, the Speaker of the House, and the House Majority Leader — overwhelmingly voted it into law. Paul, who apparently belongs in a mental hospital, vehemently condemned America’s use of torture from the start, while many leading Democrats were silent (or even supportive), and mainstream, sane ProgressiveNewsweek and MSNBC pundit Jonathan Alter was explicitly calling for its use. Compare Paul’s February, 2010 emphatic condemnation of America’s denial of habeas corpus, lawless detentions and presidential assassinations of U.S. citizens to what the current U.S. Government is doing.”
The U.S. electorate is war weary after ten years and Congressman Paul offers an appealing choice. This is not the first time Paul has argued against the perceived hawkish policies of fellow Republicans. Mr. Paul gained titanic amounts of his now loyal followers in the last Republican presidential debate sponsored by FOX News in 2007.
During the four years since that debate, Paul has not waivered or flip flopped on his opinion of our foreign involvements. Specifically, during that debate, he held back no punches against the more popular neoconservative Republican candidates. During a 2007 debate he offered a forceful response to FOX News host Chris Wallace’s question, “Congressman Paul, your position on the war is pretty simple: Get out. What about, though, trying to minimize the bloodbath that would certainly occur if we pull out in a hurry? What about protecting the thousands of Iraqis who have staked their lives in backing the U.S.? And would you leave troops in the region to take out any al Qaeda camps that are developed after we leave?” Paul’s response, “I am less safe, the American people are less safe for this. It’s the policy that is wrong. Tactical movements and shifting troops around and taking in 30 more and reducing by five, totally irrelevant. We need a new foreign policy that said we ought to mind our own business, bring our troops home, defend this country, (and)…our borders.” His response garnered a significant amount of applause.
For many of his supporters, Paul has been a long time Constitutional advocate for modern policies and foreign policies that would garner the approval of the Founding Father’s vision of the United States. Paul is well known for arguing when federal powers may be used to inject American forces abroad according to powers delegated to the president. The Constitution vests in Congress, not the president, the right to declare war. By that logic, many would consider the Iraq war illegal, since Congress had not issued such a declaration.
Supporters of the Iraq War have attempted to use “authorization of force” resolutions to justify U.S. actions in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. According to Congressman Paul’s reasoning this would constitute unsound logic. According to Paul’s logic and the many anti-Iraq War activists, Congress cannot constitutionally deputize its power to the president to declare war. Congressman Paul makes his critique even stronger by connecting it to the just-war tradition. It is an uncontroversial part of that tradition that a war cannot be just unless it is initiated by one holding authority to do so. In our government, it is Congress that possesses this power. Absent a Congressional declaration of war, then as this reasoning dictates, the Iraq war was unwarranted.
Paul would argue that it is important to understand that in the American system of governance, war without a Congressional declaration is unwarranted as well as unlawful. “To be sure, the U.S. Constitution is not perfect. Few human contrivances are. But it is a pretty good one, I [Paul] think, and it defines and limits the scope of government. When we get into the habit of disregarding it…we do so at our peril,” Paul argues in The Revolution: A Manifesto.
For all of the appeal of Ron Paul’s foreign policy positions, he does raise eyebrows over his positions on the Federal Reserve, returning the United States to the gold standard and his Libertarian leaning views on domestic drug laws and what role the U.S. government should play in Americans daily lives. Paul asserts that his views on just wars and when wars are lawful and unlawful, he has aligned himself with the Founding Father’s. Paul ardently will argue that he has injected his point of view in national debates over potential and past wars because when our children look back at this place in history they will see that there should always be differences of opinion. Paul can typically be found to utter this often cited phrase by Thomas Jefferson, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
This is what he explained to me over coffee. I often think of it when I hear him speak, and I have deep respect and admiration for him for his principled stances on foreign affairs based on his interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. For many of Paul’s supporters, they argue that both Democrats and Republicans need to take note and develop a more nuanced understanding of foreign policy. Their arguments are that the U.S. can ill-afford hawkish foreign policy adventures in other counties. Further, the strength of Paul’s appeal for many is his often-cited argument to look inwards and confront the various challenges that face many Americans.
Paul likes to cite this speech by Daniel Webster, “A free government with arbitrary means to administer it is a contradiction; a free government without adequate provisions for personal security is an absurdity; a free government, with an uncontrolled power of military conscription, is a solecism, at once the most ridiculous and abominable that ever entered into the head of man.”
“The people who say there will be a bloodbath are the ones who said it would be a cakewalk, it would be slam dunk, and that it would be paid for by oil. Why believe them? They’ve been wrong on everything they’ve said. Why not ask the people…why not ask the people who advise not to go into the region and into the war? The war has not gone well one bit,” Paul argued in the 2007 debate.
Despite the crosscutting appeal of Ron Paul he invariably suffers from a fatal flaw that a number of potential and past candidates for president have. Call it the Gingrich Syndrome. While Paul does garner a significant amount of support for arguing for or against anti-establishment policies he does have the tendency to be a little more candid than he should during media interviews.
In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Paul made the causal argument, “I see the whole thing as a mess…And I think that we are going to be in Pakistan. I think that’s the next occupation, and I fear it. I think it’s ridiculous, and I think our foreign policy is such we don’t need to be doing this. So when I talk about doing it differently, I talk about in the context of our foreign policy and not in the fact of whether or not we should have gotten him. As a matter of fact, I voted for the first authority. I think what’s the real tragedy is that we didn’t get him 10 years ago when we could have and should have.”
Paul has done a better than expected job of winning the support of the left and right with his anti-establishment views on war and overreach by the federal government. However, for Paul to have a significant impact on this year’s presidential election he would be well advised to often internalize thoughts and views before openly expressing them. Perhaps, part of Ron Paul’s appeal to many on the left and right is that he does not refrain from expressing sentiments felt by some.