Iran and All, It’s Got to be Ron Paul
In 1836 the great 19th century Libertarian Richard Cobden, most famous for his campaign against the protectionist ‘Corn Laws,’ penned a pamphlet entitled Russia, in which he tried to calm the popular feelings of ‘Russophobia’ that would in time lead to the disastrous Crimean War of 1853-6. In this work, Cobden made anti-war arguments that will be familiar to any fan or opponent of Ron Paul. He argued that what we would now call the military-industrial complex, serving only the interests of the corrupt rich, was a dangerous parasite on productive, commercial society, perpetually stoking up bellicosity among the nation at large to engage in wars that weren’t in Britain’s interests. In reality, these interests were best served by a policy of peace and Free Trade rather than patrolling the globe gun in hand, which never fixed international problems and actually made them worse.
Cobden had more to say than just that, though. Hostility to Russia in 19th century Britain was largely premised on the (basically correct) perception that it was seeking to dominate and absorb the rickety old Ottoman Empire in order to expand territorially and dominate regional trade. Cobden argued that, far from fearing such a result, Britons should welcome it. Ottoman Turkey was an archaic military despotism and Russia would bring the benefits of modern Christian civilization, which in the long term meant more peace, more trade and more prosperity. Now, judging by the standards of either political freedom or economic development, Tsarist Russia was hardly a paragon of virtue, but there was a more fundamental problem with what Cobden was saying. He thought that an interventionist British foreign policy was by definition bad for Britain and bad for the world, but that an interventionist Russian foreign policy could be good for Russia and good for the world (Britain included). Since Great Britain was undoubtedly a closer approximation to Cobden’s libertarian ideals than Russia, why couldn’t it do at least as good a job?
The purpose of this little historical digression is to illustrate that the libertarian anti-interventionist argument is based on a fallacy, and has been since it first emerged. The case against government intervention at home is simple: the government has a monopoly on the initiation of force, it follows that if it concentrates on arresting criminals who rob, loot, murder or whatever and doesn’t intervene in the economy there will be an absence, or near absence, of force. All that will be left, then, is voluntary co-operation and the peaceful operation of market forces and the price system, thus producing the maximum possible prosperity and best quality of life. However, in foreign affairs, the case is very different: if a given government does not intervene that does not lead to an absence of force, it just means that other governments will intervene. To take an example, U.S. government involvement in the Congo has been basically nil over the past two decades, but that does not mean there has been an absence of intervention; rather, attracted by diamond wealth, the governments of Zimbabwe, Angloa and Sudan among others have merrily stuck their oar in, funding and arming one faction or another, the upshot being a civil war that has left literally millions dead.
So, while I can recognise that many of his specific arguments are sound (most notably: you can’t run an empire if you’re dead broke), the basic theory underpinning Ron Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy ideology seems to me totally wrong and borderline ludicrous. There is no free market in international relations that can fix things if the U.S. government gets out of the way, just a long list of other governments – variously nasty, stupid, thieving, grasping, murderous and incompetent – ready to intervene themselves. It is for lack of grasping this point that Ron Paul can make such easily falsifiable statements as ‘we gave ’em the gas’: who else could possibly have given Saddam Hussein poison gas except the almighty omnipotent federal government? (Except, you know, other governments.) My theoretical approach to foreign policy is almost directly opposite to his.
And yet, surveying the field of potential Presidential candidates, I have to conclude that the candidate likely to run the least bad foreign policy is none other than Ron Paul. Contrary to the Paulian theory it would be perfectly possible for the American government, through a pragmatic and well thought out programme of intervention, to make the world a better place (including for me). However, in reality any attempt to do so is fatally marred by a combination of chronic inconsistency and childish sentimentalism posing as ethics. The options for the future therefore appear to be these:
1) Competent interventionism
3) What we have now.
I’d prefer (1), but In the circumstances I’m happy to settle for (2).
In specifying what I mean I’ll start with a favourite of Ron Paul: Iran. I don’t agree with his blanket criticism of the CIA inspired coup of 1953. Mosaddegh was democratically elected, but was also strenuously working to eliminate constitutional impediments to his power, well on his way to becoming a Soviet puppet and openly nationalising (i.e. stealing) the assets of both Iranians and foreigners. The coup that re-installed the Shah was well executed, checked Soviet influence and genuinely protected western economic interests and property. The real problems come later. First, the U.S. gave full backing to the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ programme of modernisation that was, essentially, a direct continuation of the deposed Mosaddegh’s policies. A key part of this was economic statism, which, as everywhere else, led to inflation and misallocation of resources including in the labour market: i.e. mass unemployment. The U.S. did so partly because social democracy was then fashionable in many policy circles (especially at the C.I.A.) and partly because it had the bizarre idea that statism (as opposed to the opportunity to loot the wealthy) was wildly popular among the third world peasantry. The worst mistake of all, though, came when the Shah’s regime started toppling in the late 1970s. Carter’s administration dithered and dawdled, taking the absurd candyland position that they could only help out if the Shah didn’t kill anyone, whilst backing him with empty rhetoric and promises, until the Ayatollahs took over. At the end of it all, things would be much better if America had done nothing at all.
Ron Paul is correct that interventionism can create ‘blowback’; on the other hand, it can produce benefits that far outweigh it. The problem with the U.S. is that it intervenes enough to generate the blowback, but then changes its mind and annoys someone else instead, until everyone is angry, but nothing has been achieved. On this score, things are only getting worse. Any action like the 1973 coup in Chile that saved the country from total economic meltdown and seriously damaged the cause of global socialism is now unthinkable; instead both Left and Right are dead set on pursuing rapidly changing idealist policies that result in far, far more death and destruction and cost far more money, with no good to show for it at the end.
Take Libya. For decades Gaddafi was an open enemy of the West, funding and arming countless terrorists who went on to murder U.S., British, Israeli and other civilians in their hundreds. Then he unexpectedly flipped, abandoned his nuclear programme, became a Western ally and opened his country to investment and trade. How did the U.S. empire react? First by joining the unseemly rush to let bygones be bygones, welcoming him with open arms, then, when his regime ran into a spot of trouble, by joining in the unseemly rush to bomb him. Meanwhile, Syria remained hostile and is allowed to mow down its revolting citizenry with impunity. Any third world leader with an ounce of common sense will conclude that the schizophrenic U.S. is not an ally worth having and will instead look to a power – China, Iran, Russia – one can have some confidence in.
Then, of course, there is Israel. Officially, the U.S. is the Jewish state’s biggest ally, backing it to the hilt militarily and diplomatically. On the other hand, the U.S. is totally committed to the infantile delusion that the necessary and sufficient condition for ‘peace in the Middle East’ is a ‘democratic and free Palestinian state’ (a bit like saying that a necessary and sufficient condition for my personal solvency is winning the lottery every week for a decade; even if it’s technically true, so what?) So while Israel gets lots of shiny fighter jets it can use for totally pointless bombing raids on Gaza, it is forced to prepare to give away Judea and Samaria, so that the Arabs can fire rockets on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (or those bits of land they won’t be busily running into the ground themselves). Taking this line doesn’t make America any more popular with the Arab world, of course, it just places its actual ally in grave danger, and for no good reason, since a (Fatah or Hamas) gangster-kleptocracy basket-case in the ‘occupied territories’ won’t benefit anyone, including the Palestinians.
If you think the world needs an active and interventionist America imposing peace and security over an unruly and violent globe, you may well be right, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to get over it. Your choice is between a blundering, borderline senile America aimlessly stoking resentment to no real purpose and an America that just leaves the rest of the world to get on with it.
I’ll pick the latter and with that the only serious objection to Ron Paul goes up in smoke. On the rather more important issue of impending economic and monetary collapse he’s clearly the best choice; front-runners like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry are echoing his ideas, and all credit to them, but they haven’t spent the past three decades championing Austrian economics. They are among the increasing number of people who are rejecting the supply-side monetarism of Ben Bernanke or George W. Bush and are still on something of a voyage of discovery; it makes much more sense to support the experienced candidate who has already thought these issues through. In short, there are many good arguments for supporting Perry over an establishment corporatist like Romney, but the exact same arguments must logically weigh even more heavily in Ron Pauls’ favour. Get behind him, even if you think, like me, that he should shut up about Iran. He wouldn’t be the first supposedly fringe candidate in recent years to become U.S. President and he’d do a far better job.