Kevin Drum discusses the matter of Ron Paul in an exchange with Daniel Larison.
The back-and-forth began with Drum’s post “Crackpots Do Not Make Good Messengers,” which I’m going to quote at length because his whole point is that this list of complaints is not short:
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. In fact he’s practically the dictionary definition of a crank: a person who has a single obsessive, all-encompassing idea for how the world should work and is utterly blinded to the value of any competing ideas or competing interests.
This obsessive idea has, at various times in his career, led him to: denounce the Civil Rights Act because it infringed the free-market right of a monolithic white establishment to immiserate blacks; dabble in gold buggery and advocate the elimination of the Federal Reserve, apparently because the global economy worked so well back in the era before central banks; suggest that the border fence is being built to keep Americans from leaving the country; claim that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional and should be dismantled; mount repeated warnings that hyperinflation is right around the corner; insist that global warming is a gigantic hoax; hint that maybe the CIA helped to coordinate the 9/11 attacks; oppose government-sponsored flu shots; and allege that the UN wants to confiscate our guns.
This isn’t the biography of a person with one or two unusual hobbyhorses. It’s not something you can pretend doesn’t matter. This is Grade A crankery, and all by itself it’s reason enough to want nothing to do with Ron Paul. But of course, that’s not all. As we’ve all known for the past four years, you can layer on top of this Paul’s now infamous newsletters, in which he condoned a political strategy consciously designed to appeal to the worst strains of American homophobia, racial paranoia, militia hucksterism, and new-world-order fear-mongering. And on top of that, you can layer on the fact that Paul is plainly lying about these newsletters and his role in them.
Now, balanced against that 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.
Larison objects, though, that despite his crankitude and all of that baggage, “Paul Has Been Good for Non-Interventionism“:
The amusing conceit in all of this is that Paul has been or will be bad for non-interventionism. Far fewer people paid any attention to these ideas just five years ago. Non-interventionism has gone from being a more or less marginal position to one that is starting to receive a lot more attention and at least a little serious consideration. It’s impossible to ignore that this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Paul’s last two presidential campaigns.
Drum responds that “non-interventionism” has gained support in recent years for two big reasons that have nothing to do with Ron Paul: Iraq and Afghanistan.
That’s an important bit of context. So is this: Daniel Larison writes for The American Conservative, a publication co-founded by Pat Buchanan.
Buchanan has, for years, been a much more prominent spokesman and standard-bearer for “non-interventionism” than Ron Paul has ever managed to be. If liberals want to embrace Ron Paul due to his support for “non-interventionism,” then consistency requires that they embrace Pat Buchanan too.
It’s hard not to read Larison’s defense of Paul as a proxy defense of Buchanan. If Paul’s disagreeableness, oddball conspiracy theories, xenophobia, homophobia and racism can be forgiven due to his staunch defense of “non-interventionism” in a futile presidential bid, then by the transitive property of right-wing cranks, Pat Buchanan’s disagreeableness, oddball conspiracy theories, xenophobia, homophobia and racism can also be forgiven due to his staunch defense of “non-interventionism” in a futile presidential bid.
I don’t think it’s a Good Thing because I don’t think it’s a thing at all. “Non-interventionism” is no more a principle than “interventionism” is. It’s not obvious to me that “never intervene” is a wiser, more sensible, more prudent or more just approach than “always intervene” would be.
It seems to me, rather, to be the sort of crutch one falls back on instead of engaging in the difficult, messy business of an actual principled approach to evaluating any given situation. It allows you to escape having to know or care at all about any particular situation, because you’ve got a one-size-fits-all answer to any and every question.
Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul both happened to be right in opposing the invasion of Iraq, but that had nothing to do with their principled evaluation of that situation. They’re more like my friend in algebra class in high school who always said that X=3. Sometimes X did equal 3, but even when he got the answer right it wasn’t because he understood the question.
“Non-intervention” may sometimes be the better course of action. It usually is. But it may also sometimes be the worse course of action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent three years battling against non-interventionists. I think that he and his supporter Dr. Seuss were right and their non-interventionist opponents were wrong.
President Bill Clinton chose to intervene in Bosnia. He chose not to intervene in Rwanda. One of those decisions was justified. The other proved to be a monstrous mistake.
Those same two cases — Bosnia and Rwanda — shaped the perspective of our current secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in response to Gadhafi’s lethal attempt to quash the uprising in Libya. The Obama administration chose the path of intervention in Libya, with an approach that in many ways mirrored NATO’s intervention in Bosnia. It confuses more than it clarifies to label that response as “interventionism” and to declare it indistinguishable from the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
I try to follow the just war tradition. That tradition cannot be classified as either interventionist or non-interventionist. What it does is provide two sets of principles — the first set is intended to help sort out when intervention is or is not justified and permissible, the second set is intended to help sort out what kind of intervention is justified and permissible. Overall, the tradition is intended to restrain, constrain, reduce and limit both the incidence and the execution of war, which it insists is never justifiable except in the very last resort, when every other alternative would be even worse. That’s not interventionism, but neither is it non-interventionism.
Nor can pacifism accurately be described as “non-interventionist.” Read any of the great advocates of pacifism and non-violence — Gandhi, Rustin, Yoder, King or Sharp — and you’ll encounter vehement denials of the accusation that they are advocating isolationism or non-interventionism.
So I don’t see why the non-interventionism of Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul should be seen as a principle shared by progressives or liberals. I don’t think it’s a liberal principle because I don’t think it’s a principle at all.