There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Ron Paul’s views on foreign policy, but there’s everything wrong with the way he has been presenting them in his public appearances and in the debates.
Paul basically believes that national defense should focus on defense and that overcommitting our resources in foreign wars and foreign aid missions weakens our ability to defend our own nation and undermines our credibility and effectiveness in foreign policy. Secondarily, the huge cost of our foreign wars has helped put us into a vast pit of deficit spending and weakened our economy, and that economic vulnerability is as big a threat to national security as all the missiles in China. This is a reality-based and absolutely reasonable foreign policy position to take.
However, because of the way he presents his positions, detractors have been able to paint Paul as an isolationist, as anti-American and even as a Muslim sympathizer – largely unfairly – but nonetheless pretty effectively.
Paul’s downfall comes in his apparent fascination with the theory of “blowback,” a not very insightful foreign policy meme derived from the CIA’s use of the term as presented in the book Blowback by Chalmers Johnson. Johnson’s development of the idea is naive and simplistic and basically comes down to the unsurprising notion that sometimes when people are angry with the United States it’s precipitated by something we did to them. Our foreign policy hasn’t always been terribly gentle and not surprisingly we’ve made some enemies. Blowback is more like payback, when people or nations try to get revenge for wrongs we’ve done them in the past.
As part of a comprehensive view of foreign policy the idea of “blowback” certainly has a valid role. But if you lead with it, as Ron Paul has an unfortunate habit of doing, it creates the impression that it is the entire basis of your understanding of foreign affairs and that you are essentially saying that whatever happens to America, from the events of 9/11 to the latest bombing in Afghanistan, is not the fault of the terrorists, but has to be blamed on the United States because we wronged them first.
This is a view which is both logically fallacious and offensive to a lot of people. If it’s the only part of your foreign policy which registers with an audience, then it’s not surprising that some of them conclude that you’re sympathetic to the terrorists. Even Neoconservatives can see the fallacy in concluding that primary responsibility for any action lies with someone other than the actor himself. While motivations are worth considering, no matter what they are, the person who consciously chooses to commit a new and original act of violence still gets most of the blame. No matter how he was provoked he could have chosen not to do wrong.
The problem for Ron Paul as a candidate is that you cannot explain the nuances of an idea like this or put it in the larger foreign policy context in a sound byte or a 30 second debate response. So the result of bringing it up without enough time to explain it is that all that gets through is that you’re blaming the United States for provoking whatever attacks it has received. Paul is not wrong to raise this issue, but if that’s all you’re going to be able to communicate about your foreign policy it’s not going to play well with a lot of people.
That being the case, it would be far wiser to express a simple and positive position on foreign policy and leave issues like “blowback” on the back burner to be explained in a position paper in the proper context. Leading with a controversial issue like this is a bad idea, no matter how much some of your followers cheer when you stick it to the neocons by bringing it up. Ron Paul doesn’t need to win over the folks at Antiwar.com. He needs to win over the borderline War Hawks who are far more numerous and influential in the Republican Party.
More recently Paul has faced a similar problem to the controversy he created over “blowback” with his apparent defense of the right of Iran to have nuclear weapons. On this issue he’s largely correct. Iran is a sovereign nation and we really don’t have any more right to tell it what to do than China does to tell us. And if someone is going to try to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons it should be those who are most threatened by them and the international community, not the United States acting unilaterally. But all of that doesn’t make a good sound byte, so he ends up being portrayed as wanting Iran to have nukes.
Tonight’s debate on CNN is specifically focused on foreign policy and it would be a wonderful opportunity for Paul to counter some of the negative impressions he has created in the past and offer a simple and positive foreign policy statement which would win supporters he needs instead of being misinterpreted and taken out of context and used to fuel attacks against him.
He should avoid bringing up ideas like “blowback” which he won’t have time to explain and focus on short, clear and positive statements about how the role he would have America play in the world. Here are some simple statements which would fit with his beliefs and serve him much better than the things he has said in the past.
For a general statement on our role in foreign affairs he could say:
“I believe that America should lead by example and pursue peace through strength. A great nation does not need to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors.” (throwing int he right buzzword here could win a lot of points with GOP primary voters)
If asked specifically about “blowback” and 9/11 he could say:
“Our past foreign policy cannot be used to justify the actions of terrorists and murderers. One wrong does not excuse another and those who commit acts of terror should be held directly responsible.” (doesn’t rule out the possibility of holding the US responsible, but doesn’t push it either)
If asked about Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons he could say:
“Iran is already a threat to its neighbors and some of them have their own nuclear arsenals. Our primary concern should be the safety of our nation, our citizens and our property and so long as Iran does not directly threaten us we should respect Itheir sovereignty as much as we do that of other nuclear nations.”
If asked about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan he could say:
“We should only go to war to protect our nation, its people and its immediate interests. Long wars for vague purposes are too costly and harm national security by weakening our economy. We should focus on retasking the military to be a more modern and effective force for defending our borders and protecting our citizens as its first priority.” (shows an interest in making the military better and more useful, not irrelevant)
If asked about how to deal with terrorists he should say:
“Terrorism should be treated as the most serious kind of crime. We should go after terrorists with every resource at our disposal, but our focus should always be on bringing the terrorists to justice with some due process of law. In fighting terror the military should act as an arm of law enforcement and with Congressional authorization, to apprehend terrorists wherever they are and bring them to trial and punishment.”
All of these statements are in keeping with Paul’s positions as I have been able to work them out from his more developed statements on these subjects. None of them is so long or complex that it could not be produced as a short answer in a debate.
How hard would it be for him to avoid his past mistakes and present his ideas in a more positive way? Why haven’t his advisors and debate prep team not tried to equip him with a better arsenal of responses? Or is it possible that he has been given this sort of advice and is too set in his ways and sees changing his presentation of these ideas as a concession he’s not willing to make?
I can’t answer these questions, but I sure would like to see him sell his ideas better to a broader audience in tonight’s debate. He’s polling surprisingly well and if he could lay some of these criticisms to rest who knows how well he could do in the primary.