Foreign policy and the Golden Rule

Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.

In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:

Wright comments:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.

If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).

I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.

In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.

It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.

What would it mean for progressives to “support” Ron Paul?

There’s been a bit of back and forth recently in the left/progressive blogosphere about whether people who meet that particular description should “support” libertarian Texas Republican congressman Ron Paul’s candidacy for president. Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald, and others have expressed varying degrees of support for Paul’s candidacy, noting that his stances on civil liberties and foreign intervention and war-making are arguably to the “left” of President Obama’s.

Others have countered that Paul is a social reactionary who lent his name to (and profited handsomely from) a series of newsletters in the 90s that trafficked in racist and other inflammatory language as part of a “redneck outreach” strategy among self-described “paleo” libertarians and conservatives. Paul is furthermore a libertarian of a peculiar sort: one who would devolve much of the power of the federal government to the states, a move whose likely effect on individual liberty is debatable at best.

I’m neither a libertarian nor do I have much street cred as a “progressive.” But what I wonder is: what’s at stake in these arguments? What sort of “support” do Greenwald, et al. have in mind? Are they proposing that progressives, who one assumes are mostly registered Democrats, re-register en masse to vote in the Republican primary? Or that they should vote for Paul in the general election were he to get the GOP nomination?

What I think needs to be kept in mind here is that Ron Paul is very, very unlikely to win the nomination and why this is the case. It’s because, among other things, his stances on issues where he is appealing to the likes of Sullivan and Greenwald, are precisely where he is most at variance with the modern Republican party and the conservative movement. The Republican Party and the conservative movement, recall, are largely a fusion of economic, social, and national-defense conservatives. And I agree with the longstanding thesis of Jim Henley that, contrary to popular belief, these factions are not really “in tension” with one another to any great degree. These three varieties of conservatives are, if not identical, largely in sympathy with one another. Among conservatives of whatever stripe, free-marketeerism, cultural conservatism, and military hawkishness are seen as mutually reinforcing. Paul’s eccentric blend of isolationism, decentralization, Austrian economics, and social conservatism are out of sync with what remains the overwhelming conservative consensus.

So it remains unclear what sort of support a progressive or liberal is supposed to offer Paul’s candidacy. Is it that they (we?) should commend Paul for promoting certain perspectives (e.g., a critique of American interventionism) that fall largely outside of the bipartisan mainstream? Liberals can certainly do that without voting for him. But beyond this, what else is “supporting” Paul supposed to mean apart from wishing (and working?) for the success of his candidacy? Are liberals supposed to support (e.g., give money to or vote for) a candidate who opposes every facet of the regulatory and welfare state going back to the 19th century on the minuscule chance that he’ll win the presidency and dismantle the American empire? This seems like an odd allocation of resources for liberals to make. A better use of those resources would seem to be to try to move the Democratic Party–which after all already has a large progressive constituency–in a more progressive direction.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum makes a similar argument, focusing more on what he calls Paul’s “crackpot” ideology:

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. This is, granted, not Mussolini-made-the-trains-run-on-time levels of toxic, but still: if you truly support civil liberties at home and non-interventionism abroad, you should run, not walk, as fast as you can to keep your distance from Ron Paul. He’s not the first or only person opposed to pre-emptive wars, after all, and his occasional denouncements of interventionism are hardly making this a hot topic of conversation among the masses. In fact, to the extent that his foreign policy views aren’t simply being ignored, I’d guess that the only thing he’s accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is. Crackpots don’t make good messengers.

Now, if you literally think that Ron Paul’s views on drugs and national security are so important that they outweigh all of this — multiple decades of unmitigated crackpottery, cynical fear-mongering, and attitudes toward social welfare so retrograde they make Rick Perry look progressive — and if you’ve somehow convinced yourself that non-interventionism has no other significant voices except Ron Paul — well, if that’s the case, then maybe you should be happy to count Paul as an ally. But the truth is that you don’t need to. Ron Paul is not a major candidate for president. He’s never even been a significant presence as a congressman. In a couple of months he’ll disappear back into the obscurity he so richly deserves. So why get in bed with him? All you’ll do is wake up in March with a mountain of fleas. Find other allies. Make your arguments without bothering to mention him. And remember: Ron Paul has never once done any of his causes any good. There’s a good reason for that.

Ralph Nader and Ron Paul team up?

Interesting interview with the progressive firebrand and the libertarian congressman (on Fox of all places), talking about the prospects for a left-right coalition:

Why I won’t vote third party

Looks like Ron Paul, whom some of his supporters hoped would make a third-party run for president, is urging people who are sick of war, assaults on civil liberties, and, er, the Fed to vote for a third party–any third party!

I appreciate the arguments that the two major parties and their candidates are either too close in policy or fall unacceptably short on certain key issues. Indeed, I’ve made some myself (see the previous post, in fact). I personally find Obama’s backpedaling on FISA and his disinclination to challenge head-on the Bush/GOP paradigm for foreign policy the most troubling. It’s also clear to me that Obama just doesn’t share my views on, say, the scope of U.S. interventionism.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to vote third-party, even though I live in about the safest “state” in the Union. For one thing, none of the third-party candidates particularly appeal to me: Ralph Nader, much as I like him, seems to have passed his sell-by date; Bob Barr, the Libertarian, while staking out good positions in some areas, is still, after all, a Libertarian, and I’m not; Chuck Baldwin appears to be a bit of a far-right xenophobe; and Cynthia McKinney is, well, Cynthia McKinney.*

I think third-party advocates, while often correct in pointing out that the major parties are actually quite similar in significant areas (e.g. the “Washington consensus” on everything from foreign intervention to broadly neoliberal economic policies), often understate the dramatic difference that seemingly “minor” policy differences can make for people’s lives.

For instance, in the broad sweep of things, there may not be much difference philosophically between a neoconservative and a liberal internationalist, but it sure as shootin’ makes a difference whether or not we, say, go to war with Iran (for us and the Iranians). And means matter too; even if Obama and McCain both want to meddle excessively in the rest of the world, it matters a great deal which one is more likely to resort to military force to do it. And Obama is clearly the more dovish candidate. Just saying “They’re all interventionists!” papers over real differences with significant, real-world consequences. (And I haven’t even mentioned domestic policy, environmental policy, etc.)

At the end of the day, I’m just not neutral (or even particularly ambivalent or conflicted) in this election. I want Barack Obama to win, and I want John McCain (and, more broadly, the GOP) to lose. I feel like it would be dishonest for me to root so heartily for one side while trying to float above the fray.
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*I would be interested in a viable Green Party (I voted Green in 2004), but the actually existing U.S. Green Party seems more like a dumping ground for every far-left pet cause under the sun than a party with a coherent philosophy and stance focusing on environmental issues, like European Greens tend to be.

Doings among the Libertarians

The Libertarian Party has nominated former Republican congressman (and Clinton impeachment manager) Bob Barr as its presidential candidate. Barr seems to be courting some of the same anti-war/small government conservative support as Ron Paul’s campaign (which is still going, incidentally).

The natural conclusion to draw here is that this will hurt McCain, if anyone. Barr is the most mainstream figure the Libertarians have nominated in years and is likely to get decent and respectful media coverage. He also represents the obvious alternative for disaffected Republicans in the traditional limited government mold. (Rather than, say, Republicans who are disappointed that McCain isn’t pro-torture enough.)

The left-populist case for Ron Paul?

This Fall I read Jeff Taylor’s Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy, in which he argues that the Democrats have traded a “Jeffersonian” ideology (decentralist, populist, libertarian, and non-interventionist bordering on pacifist) for a “Hamiltonian” one (basically the opposite). Bryan and Humphrey are for Taylor emblematic figures of this transition, with the Great Commoner playing the role of the last Jeffersonian populist and Humphrey representing the rise of centralized technocratic liberalism.

Here (via A Conservative Blog for Peace) Taylor makes the case for Ron Paul. Paul, with his opposition to the warfare state, represents the kind of Jeffersonian values that put him at odds with establishment candidates. Taylor concedes that progressives will disagree with Paul on a variety of issues, but he does his level best to demonstrate a compatibility of spirit, if not policy preferences.

There is something to this, I think. A certain strain of left-populism emphasizes the way that the playing field has been tilted by the influence exercised by powerful special interests on the government. These special privileges are made possible by government intervention, so you can see how this outlook could in principle be made compatible with a certain kind of libertarianism. And Ron Paul’s views on the Fed, NAFTA, the WTO, etc. can be given a left-populist spin if you emphasize the way these institutions act as tools of elite control and privilege. (Of course, the question that liberals and progressives would want to press is whether simply “leveling the playing field” is sufficient or merely necessary, and if more positive government action isn’t required to address social inequalities.)

Taylor recognizes that Paul remains far from perfect, even from the perspective of the decentralist left, but he argues that voting for a candidate who is strongly committed to peace and civil liberties is important in an election where the establishment candidates are already taking anti-war voters for granted:

To me, voting for Kucinich, Gravel, McKinney, or Paul makes some sense even though they’re unlikely to win. At least we’re asking for something honest and principled during the first round of voting. Ron Paul isn’t the perfect candidate and his Jeffersonianism is not as full-bodied as I would prefer (e.g., he’s too weak on the ecological dimension), but at least he’s a step in the right direction and his ability to attract a wide range of grassroots support is commendable. He’s not the only good choice, but he’s no lunatic and there is some logic behind his campaign. It’s not everything, but it is something. In a rigged system with a populace divided by secondary issues and exploited by a bipartisan elite, it may be the best we can do in 2008.

Where’s the anti-war mojo on the Left?

With all the hype around the Ron Paul candidacy (admittedly still a long shot), I’ve wondered why there hasn’t been a comparable anti-war insurgency on the Left. Why, for instance, hasn’t Dennis Kucinich‘s campaign taken off? Is it that Democratic voters aren’t motivated primarily by the war, or is it that they regard the top tier candidates as “anti-war enough”?

None of the “big three” are calling for anything like immediate withdrawal from Iraq, nor have they repudiated the Bush Doctrine in principle, however much they may have criticized the conduct of the Bush administration. Clinton and Edwards have both made hawkish statements about Iran, and Obama got flak for suggesting we might need to invade Pakistan. All in all, I don’t think you can say that the Dems are set to field anything like a “peace candidate” in the fall. So why has the base been so quiet about this? It’s doubly odd considering that you had a significant anti-war challenge in 2004 (namely, Howard Dean) at a time when the war was considerably more popular than it is now.

Catch-all blog update post

Sorry about the dearth of posting: a confluence of extreme busyness, travel, and computer issues has put a cramp in my blogging style. Although one perk is that I’ve been forced to detach from the various teapot-sized tempests roilling the blogosphere, which is always a benefit of time away from the computer.

We’re in Indiana visiting the in-laws for Christmas and enjoying some much needed R&R. In my free time I’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. This is a marvelous little book in which Lewis delineates the worldview that underlies the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Sometimes I think Lewis has (unjustly) gotten a reputation as something of a shallow thinker due to the popular nature of his apologetic works, but in this book his incredible erudition is on full display, though tempered with his lucid and homey prose.

I’ve also been catching up on my magazine reading – that is, actual printed matter. I recommend this interesting article from Mother Jones on Ron Paul’s online following, as well as the current issue’s cover story (which doesn’t seem to be online yet), detailing the environmental consequences of China’s amazing economic growth. Also, Jason Byassee has a provocative article on pornography and “Christian eroticism” in this month’s First Things that is well worth checking out.

Other highlights of the trip so far: hanging out with my brother-in-law and his wife, a trip to Half Price Books (yea!), and taking in a civic theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technocolor Dreamcoat.

Here’s a few of the notable links I’ve come across in the last couple of days: Wayne Pacelle on Animals and Christmas, two posts on Scripture from Elizaphanian, Marvin writes about stopping global warming, Christopher on recapturing the joy of the Christmas message and Christian living and in defense of the Virgin Birth.

I’m looking forward to the Christ Mass tonight at a local Anglo-Catholic Episcopal parish – the same one we attended last year. For a variety of reasons I’ve had a hard time getting into the spirit this Christmas, but I think this will be just what the doctor ordered.

I hope everyone reading has a verry Merry Christmas!

Ron Paul rising

Ron Paul breaks another one-day fundraising record. Andrew Sullivan endorses Paul for the GOP nomination here.

Also, I meant to link earlier to Chris Hayes’ interesting piece on the culture clash between “populist” and “cosmopolitan” libertarians.

Elizabeth Kucinich talks Ron Paul

As a follow up to the other day’s post, Elizabeth Kucinich praises Ron Paul (via YF). And is Mrs. K a total babe, or what? Wow!