Wednesday, December 26, 2007

No Longer Strange Bedfellows

Ron Paul and Progressives

Since Ross Perot's breakout performance in 1992, the spectacle of a curious, lurching Third Party candidacy has been a significant feature of each Presidential campaign. 2008's Gimp Who Makes You Go Hmmm is Ron Paul, and commentators have dutifully been pressing finger to temple trying to spin filaments of his quixotic campaign into a broader tapestry of meaning.

I did this in 2004 with Ralph Nader, whose just-silly reprise of his 2000 campaign struck me as an apt, American expression of the cul-de-sac in which events after the Cold War had driven the Left. Since then, with the Iraq debacle, neoconservatism has turned itself into the mullet of political ideologies. It's tempting to see in that a vindication of the do-little liberalism of the '90s, its fetishization of multilateralism and the UN, and even Oslo. For me, it's merely a vindication of the aphorism: "If your opponent is committing suicide, get out of the way". '90s liberalism looks good now only because it had no active role in creating the Middle East nightmare we face.

It's also played no active role in formulating an alternative. This is a byproduct of a bigger problem. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, liberals have been struggling with an existential question: where do we go from here in foreign policy? Liberal analysis-paralysis led smarter and better people to cede the anti-totalitarian enterprise in Iraq to the cabal of dreamers, incompetents, bigots and losers who took down Saddam and then the country of Iraq with him. Rumsfeld's statue has since fallen, but this hasn't shaken the idea tree. Every day you wade through swamps of Netroots dudgeon about the Bush Administration and the harm it has wrought, much of it right and all of it rightful. You get a lot of opposition, but little in the way of policy prescription.

One of the more striking places in which the moribundity of left-liberal thought on the Middle East is located is in the convergence of "reality-based" talk and the kind of right-wing isolationism associated with people like Pat Buchanan. Ron Paul reminds us of this. His foreign policy campaign is marked by Lindberghian riffs on our Middle East foreign policy. Paul's campaign so far has seen some outsize success, at least on the Internet, and this is due in no small part to support by "progressives". What is singular is to the extent that Paul is embraced by Left-leaners, it is because of his call for immediate and total disengagement from the Middle East.

This is interesting, because while Paul has seasoned his message with guilty suggestions that 9/11 was the rational and inevitable response to American foreign policy, his call for us to get out of Iraq has nothing to do with any Leftish reading of the Middle East narrative. Rather, it is a basic result of his Libertarian beliefs. Paul feels we have violated the individual rights of Iraqis by attacking their country unprovoked, and like a good Jeffersonian he seeks to relieve us of foreign entanglements.

This is lost on progressives, who feel the Democrats have dropped the ball on opposing the war in Iraq. There has been a backlash on the Left as signs and symbols of Paul's views on race, and ties to lunatic groups on the far-Right, trickle into view. Sara Robinson, a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, sums up Paul's appeal to progressives while warning them away from him:

Straight talk is powerful. Americans are addicted to it -- and, too often, addled by it. We've seen this before with Ross Perot and John McCain, two other right-wing candidates who charmed us with their apparent penchant for telling us uncomfortable but necessary truths. (And to give [Ron Paul] his due: pointing out that 9/11 was the inevitable outcome of decades of monstrous US foreign policy was a very necessary truth.)

While that vulgar calculus makes sense to Robinson, with Paul it is simply an expression of dogmatic isolationism. Just as Jerry Falwell thought (or loudly pretended to think) America brought 9/11 upon itself because of its embrace of sin, Paul thinks our abandonment of Jeffersonian principles made us the target of radical Islamists.

There is no small irony in progressives flocking to Paul because of his guilty isolationism, and then recoiling from him when, as Dave Niewert says, they realize "he carries with him a whole raft of positions well to the right of even mainstream conservatives." That raft of positions is cognate with his total hands-off approach to foreign entanglements, including his calls to immediately cease all aid to Israel. Disengagement from Iraq and cutting off Israel appeal to progressives, so now they are now seeking out a libertarian crank to represent them.

Update: It's no wonder that Glenn Greenwald has found a home at Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine (1, 2).

Update: Another turn: progressives will join Charles Lindbergh's modern avatar, the Jew-phobic Justin Raimondo, in fleeing from this:

Correction: Sara Robinson of Orcinus, who I quoted in this post, writes to correct my misidentification of her as "a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times". She is a journalist, but...
While there is a Sara Robinson who is a math and science writer for the NYT, I'm not her (though you're far from the first one to mix us up).

Apologies to her and you for the error.

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