A Strategy for Peace – and Survival

by , March 11, 2008

The response to my "confession" of admiration for Barack Obama is instructive on several levels, the first being the amount of sheer emotion generated. Here, for example, is a response from some of Ron Paul’s more hard-core supporters: to hear them tell it, I’m an "opportunist," a "Benedict Arnold," and a "male Naomi Wolf"! My good friend Lew Rockwell avers that I’m "the first casualty of the post-Paul era." This note from Third Party Watch is more charitable (and here‘s someone who’s supportive), but take a look at the comments. This one is typical: "How ‘libertarian’ of Raimondo to support a guy who has a 100 percent approval rating from the Americans for Democratic Action."

I would advise my critics to apply a cold compress to the forehead, and if that doesn’t work, then pop a chill pill. Simmer down, guys! Partisan and organizational loyalties are built on emotional attachments as much as ideological convictions, and these often get in the way of political clarity and strategic judgment. In any case, the objections to my "Confession" underscore a number of misconceptions about electoral politics, libertarianism, and the antiwar movement, all of which need to be cleared up.

To begin with, Ron Paul and his supporters were never going to put even so much as a dent in the War Party’s plans to conquer the Middle East, take on the Russians, and target China. We all doubted he was going to win the nomination of his party, smash the military-industrial complex, and bring the neocons to their knees, but that wasn’t the point, now was it?

Paul’s campaign was an admirable attempt to educate conservative Republicans on the relationship between domestic and foreign policy and establish an anti-interventionist beachhead in the GOP. That he has done, and with a lot more success than I ever imagined. My hat is off to him, and we are all in his debt: after all, the man is 72 years old, has a safe Republican district in rural Texas, the establishment is out to get him anyway – and he didn’t have to put himself directly in the line of fire by launching a bid for the White House. Yet he did. Why did he do it?

I don’t pretend to have any special insight into his motivation, but I think it is fairly safe to say that Ron takes the long view. Sure, he probably gave his campaign the same odds everybody else did – a long-shot, to say the least – but since he’s interested in building a movement, not necessarily winning office, that probably didn’t bother him too much – especially as it became clear that he was making an impact in terms of educating the public. At the Republican debates, Ron struck a mighty blow for the cause of peace and a rational foreign policy each time he denounced the war and the entire militarist system. The looks on the faces of the other candidates alone made it all worth it.

Ron spoke truth to power, and his campaign will go down in history as an intellectual if not an electoral victory. If the conservative-libertarian milieu is to have a political future, then the new Republican politics of Ron Paul and his supporters will play a pivotal role. If John McCain goes down to ignominious defeat this November, the Paul campaign, in retrospect, will exert the predictive power of the ostensibly "failed" Goldwater campaign – and the Ron Paul Revolution will turn out to have been a harbinger of things to come.

Paul’s achievement is undeniable. Yet the danger posed by our foreign policy of relentless aggression has not passed. Indeed, it only looms larger, what with American warships positioned off the coast of Lebanon and the blowback from our invasion of Iraq still reverberating throughout the region and the world.

Our foreign policy has put us in mortal danger, and not only because it empowers the worldwide Islamist insurgency that aims to attack the American homeland, but also because the "Iraq recession" is fast threatening to become the Iraq depression. The U.S. is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and the $3 trillion war is going to sink us if it isn’t stopped.

Libertarians who believe their program of less government, more freedom, and a return to the principles embodied in the Constitution can survive another four years of constant warfare are deluding themselves. Unless the post-9/11 War Party juggernaut is stopped, our old Republic is doomed. Not only that, but libertarianism as a credible alternative to the statist ideologies of Left and Right will be swept away in a tide of economic and political tumult, rendered ineffective and irrelevant by much larger forces. In short, we are facing a crisis, and this is where the ethics of emergencies kick in.

In an emergency, it is necessary to focus on the immediate issue at hand: if your car is parked on the railroad tracks, and the train is barreling toward you, everything else must be put aside in the interest of survival. There’s no time to think of the fate of the car, which you still owe money on, or whether your insurance will cover the damage. There’s certainly no time to make a phone call, or to finish listening to your favorite song on the car radio. You must instead focus on the immediate priority, which is hightailing it to safety.

That is the situation we face today.

The War Party is rocketing toward catastrophe in the Middle East, escalating and extending the Iraq war to envelope Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and even Pakistan. The regional destabilization predicted by war opponents is coming to pass, and with a vengeance. Not only that, but the warmongers are active on other fronts, notably targeting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the latest looming threat, to be met with the same swaggering bluster and unmitigated hubris the U.S. government brings to its foreign policy pronouncements as a matter of course. We are faced with all sorts of potentially deadly "blowback" as a direct consequence of our deranged foreign policy, of which economic meltdown and another 9/11 are only the first two in a long list of lethal possibilities.

So what do we do about it? I don’t have all the answers, or even most of them, and I don’t pretend to. But I do know where to look for answers, and the place I would start is the history of the modern libertarian movement.

In 1960, the founder of that movement, Murray N. Rothbard, trod a political landscape very similar, in many respects, to our own. The conservative movement was a morass of warmongering, with the legions of National Review agitating for a military showdown with the Soviet Union, even if it meant a nuclear war. Rothbard, who until that point had been writing for National Review and considered himself to be a man of the Right, was isolated politically and ideologically. Unlike his fellow Rightists, he was a staunch anti-interventionist of the Old Right variety. He knew there would be no rolling back of State power unless we first rolled back – and dismantled – the rising American empire. In his recently published memoir, The Betrayal of the American Right, he cites a 1952 article by a young William F. Buckley Jr. to illustrate how the conservative movement came to sell out its small government principles. "We have got to accept Big Government for the duration," averred Buckley,

"For neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. … And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all."

Here we have dug up the roots of the betrayal of conservatism – a brazen call to throw caution and principle to the winds that echoes down through the years as a lesson for today. Buckley’s response to the alleged threat from the Soviets was to throw the Right’s time-honored program of constitutional, limited government overboard – a near perfect match for what the Fox News-Weekly Standard-National Review axis of conservative anomie proposes in the present day. The neoconservative response to 9/11 was to revive Buckley’s totalitarian bureaucracy and empower it a thousand-fold with the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the rise of the surveillance state. In place of the traditional conservative foreign policy based on prudence and the national interest, narrowly defined, the neocons in the administration embarked on a world crusade – which they compared to the struggle against Communism – and subordinated everything to their policy of perpetual war.

In 1960, Rothbard faced a very similar political scene. His reaction was dictated by strict adherence to libertarian principle, greatly aided by a creative strategic mindset that enabled him to adapt to changing circumstances without compromising his core beliefs. In Betrayal, he recalls:

"It was time to act; and politically, my total break with the Right came with the Stevenson movement of 1960. In 1956 I had been for Stevenson over Eisenhower, but only partly for his superior peace position; another reason was to try to depose the Republican ‘left’ so as to allow the Old Right to recapture the party. Emotionally, I was then still a right-winger who yearned for a rightist third party. But now the third party lure was dead; the Right was massively Goldwaterite. And besides, Stevenson’s courageous stand on the U-2 incident – his outrage that Eisenhower had wrecked the summit conference by refusing to make not only a routine, but a morally required apology for the U-2 spy incursion over Russia – made me a Stevensonian. Politically, I had ceased being a right-winger. I had determined that the crucial issue was peace or war; and that on that question the only viable political movement was the ‘left’ wing of the Democratic Party. By consistently following an antiwar and isolationist star, I had shifted – or rather been shifted – from right-wing Republican to left-wing Democrat."

My confession of Obama-mania no more makes me a "casualty of the post-Paul era" than Rothbard’s entry into the League of Stevensonian Democrats (LSD) made him a casualty of the post-Taft era.

Yes, there really was such a League, and Rothbard tells us the whole fascinating story in Betrayal, but it is worth pointing out that, while I am in no way endorsing Obama – or any candidate for office – and certainly am not serving in any official capacity in his organization, Rothbard did serve as an official of the LSD – as chief of its national and international affairs department, a perfect perch from which to insert libertarian anti-interventionist and pro-civil liberties planks into the group’s platform.

The Rothbardian strategy of aligning with the most pro-peace of the presidential candidates, regardless of their domestic policies, was correct back then, and it is correct today.

John McCain can mouth tepid free-market, low-tax bromides until the cows come home, but objectively his warmongering mania will make free markets and low taxes impossible. On the other hand, Barack Obama may be very far from a libertarian on economic issues, yet his program of getting us out of Iraq will avoid a turn in the road where tax cuts and free markets are entirely precluded. If we’re lucky, this drawback will drag us back from the brink of economic disaster and prevent the Iraq recession from becoming a full-fledged Iraq depression.

From a libertarian perspective, Hillary Clinton represents the worst of all possible worlds: a combination of warmongering abroad and coercive maternalism at home. In Hillary’s World, the Internet will be reined in and 23-year-olds will be forced to buy health insurance or face fines – and, if they persist, perhaps reeducation in a guarded facility.

Obama is often compared to John F. Kennedy, but the comparison is not just stylistic. Kennedy was a tax-cutter, unlike the heirs of his party today. His tax cuts, enacted in 1964, surpassed those of Reagan and Bush II. As the Tax Foundation points out:

"The Kennedy tax cut, representing 1.9 percent of income, was the single largest first-year tax-cut of the post-WW II era. The Reagan tax cuts represented 1.4 percent of income while none of the Bush tax cut even breaks 1 percent of income. The Kennedy tax cuts would only have been surpassed in size by combining all three Bush tax cuts into a single package."

Both Obama and Hillary are fairly characterized as modern liberals, yet the former is no ideologue. Obama opposes Hillary’s coercive national health insurance scheme, because he knows it will penalize poor and lower middle class people on the margins – who can’t afford to purchase insurance of any sort. Unlike Hillary, Obama has also been good on civil liberties issues. As Jeffrey Rosen put it in the New York Times:

"In the Senate, Mr. Obama distinguished himself by making civil liberties one of his legislative priorities. He co-sponsored a bipartisan reform bill that would have cured the worst excesses of the Patriot Act by meaningfully tightening the standards for warrantless surveillance. Once again, he helped encourage a coalition of civil-libertarian liberals and libertarian conservatives. The effort failed when Hillary Clinton joined 13 other Democrats in supporting a Republican motion to cut off debate on amendments to the PATRIOT Act."

Obama is no Ron Paul. But one has to ask: among the candidates currently running, who is? Absent a third-party run by Paul – or unless Bob Barr takes up the Paulian banner, as rumored – principled anti-interventionists, not to mention libertarians, have few choices, apart from staying home on election day.

Obama’s theme of "change" is often derided as bromidic, proof of his vapidity and that of his supporters, but this misses the point and the real source of his appeal: things really are so bad that any sort of change is bound to be an improvement. I don’t think the ordinary American realizes just how close to the abyss we are, economically – but that conclusion is slowly dawning on them. Our present course is unsustainable, and, unless there’s a change in direction, or some sort of divine intervention, we’re looking at an economic train-wreck in pretty short order. As the train hurtles toward our car, still stalled on the tracks, we have to take some sort of action to avert utter annihilation – it’s a matter of life and death.

Turning back to Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right, and the political landscape circa 1960, I would note that Rothbard’s entry into the Stevensonian movement was not narrowly based on foreign policy grounds. It also involved the pursuit of an important strategic goal: "Another reason [for supporting Stevenson] was to try to depose the Republican ‘left’ so as to allow the Old Right to recapture the party." If ever anyone represented the Republican Left, it is McCain. His defeat would cancel out the power of the neoconservatives who surround him and are rallying around the banner of his Hundred-Year War – and provide an opening for Ron Paul Republicans to take their message to the party and the people.

In the context of the challenges advocates of peace and liberty face, these days, a 100-percent rating from Americans for Democratic Action is hardly the worst one might say about a presidential candidate. One could get a 100-percent rating from, say, the American Conservative Union or the Club for Growth and still be the most dangerous and anti-libertarian candidate imaginable. As for me, I’ll take a dyed-in-the-wool, old-fashioned liberal over a red-state fascist any day of the week.

I understand, however, that many antiwar conservatives and libertarians – myself among them – could never bring themselves to actually vote for Obama, never mind recommend that others do so. Yet that doesn’t mean I can’t root for him, which is quite a different matter. In rooting for Obama, I’m rooting for the growth and development of a political insurgency against the Powers That Be, a phenomenon that goes beyond Obama and signifies a new era of political tumult centered around foreign policy issues.

Obama’s promise of "change," in the abstract, really comes down to a fundamental break with the defining characteristic of the Bush II years: our foreign policy of perpetual war. That is the first thing Americans want to change, and if Obama is nominated they will get to vote on the matter at a crucial point in our history, the historical moment when we come to a crossroads, with one signpost marked "empire" and the other "republic." The choice is imminent, unavoidable, and perhaps irreversible.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

I‘ll be speaking on March 16 at an event headlined "Iraq: 5 Years Too Many" to mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Come join me; Sean Penn; Cindy Sheehan; the Rev. Gregory Stewart, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church; and Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and putative Green Party candidate for vice president.

The program will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin Street (near Geary) in San Francisco. The suggested donation for the event is $5-$10, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. The program is sponsored by the Iraq Moratorium-SF Bay Area and other local peace groups.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, publishers of the forthcoming new edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, have set up a special Web site to promote the book. They have recently added an interview with me, which elucidates how the book came to be written and its relevance for today. Go here and scroll down.

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