Campaign books are usually forgettable, uniformly boring, and go mostly unread. However, Sen. Rand Paul’s recently published addition to the genre is neither forgettable nor boring: if it goes largely unread then that will be a shame. For it is a sincerely written, even passionate defense of liberty in the tradition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative – the book that launched the contemporary conservative movement and eventually landed Ronald Reagan in the White House.
It covers a wide range of subjects, from the economy to our criminal injustice system, many of which are outside the purview of this column. Yet Taking A Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America does such a good job of weaving all these separate strands together into a comprehensive worldview that deciding where to mark the cutoff point is a difficult task. And so I’ll start, somewhat arbitrarily, smack dab in the middle of the book with the chapter entitled “The War on Liberty.”
The scene opens in Ferguson, Missouri, which Sen. Paul visited during the recent unrest – while the rest of his congressional colleagues stayed away. Paul recalls one woman in her seventies got up at a meeting he attended and said: “Where the hell is my Democrat congressman? I haven’t seen him since this whole thing started.”
Of course she hadn’t: Rep. William L. Clay, Jr., inherited his office from his father, who held the office virtually unopposed for 32 years. He’s a political hack of the worst sort who takes his voters for granted, just as his party does. What’s interesting about Sen. Paul is that he is challenging the monopoly the Clays and the Clintons hold on the minority vote. Here is someone who talks about the “two Americas” – the Other America, albeit in ways that would make socialist Michael Harrington (whose book of that title energized a generation of lefties) blanch. For Rand sees the wall separating these two Americas as an artificial barrier created, for the most part, by the State: by a justice system that penalizes the poor for being poor, and a “war on drugs” that has incarcerated an alarming percentage of the black male population. Paul points out that he has introduced bills to expunge the records of those who have committed nonviolent crimes, so they can find employment. But “nothing gets done,” he laments, even as America’s first African-American president sits in the Oval Office.
While excoriating the violence that accompanied the Ferguson protests, Paul aims his fire at “cops in tanks”:
“[T]housands of peaceful protesters were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and a police department that showed up at the protest in gear more fitting for Fallujah or Kandahar…. Why armored vehicles in a Midwestern inner suburb? Why would cops wear camouflage gear against a terrain patterned by convenience stores and beauty parlors? Why are the authorities in Ferguson, Mo., so given to quasi-martial crowd control methods (such as bans on walking on the street) and, per the reporting of the Riverfront Times, the firing of tear gas at people in their own yards?”
What’s impressive about Sen. Paul is that he puts all this in the context of “an erosion of our civil liberties and due process of law that allows the police to become judge and jury – national security letters, no-knock searches, preconviction forfeiture, and broad general warrants.” The problem, he says, is systemic. The military occupation of Ferguson dramatizes the wholesale militarization of American society in the post-9/11 era, where the lower rungs of society are literally living under occupation.
This is the kind of talk that speaks directly to black America, to Latino America, to urban America – and to all Americans who are wondering what the heck is going on with cops looking like Darth Vader’s Imperial Stormtroopers and murdering people left and right. No wonder the Democrats – and their neocon carbon copies on the right – are scared to death of him. He’s breaking down the right/left Fox News/MSNBC dichotomy that has forced voters to “choose” between two differently packaged versions of what is essentially the same poison. And he does so by reaching back into the nation’s past, evoking its founding principles:
“If I am elected president of the United States, the Constitution will again be the law of the land. There will be no government overreach by my administration. I will continue to fight every day to restrain government and promote personal freedom. That’s my promise.”
Against this, his Democratic – and Republican – opponents have only the promise of a “free” lunch to offer. And that kind of low-rent bribery isn’t going to restrain the rising anger of the Other America for very much longer.
Paul’s foreign policy platform is as taboo-defying as his domestic prescriptions: he cuts through the fog of confusion generated by both the right and the left, and presents an analysis that is bound to appeal to a new American majority disgusted with the failures of the past. “If there is one theme that connects the dots in the Middle East,” he writes, “it’s that terrorism is a direct result of chaos, and chaos is a direct result of toppling secular dictators.” The pattern repeats itself with monotonous regularity in the cases of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria’s Bashar al Assad, “and yet, still today, those who steer our foreign policy either refuse to understand or are incapable of understanding the indisputable fact that the same actions produce the same results.”
Unlike each and every one of his Republican opponents, Paul condemns the Iraq war as having produced a “vacuum,” and “into that vacuum has poured radical Islam.” Libya today, he writes, is a “terrorist wonderland,” where jihadists swim in what was our Embassy pool: what Paul calls “Hillary’s war” is the disaster-producing template for our interventions throughout the region. It was Ms. Clinton who championed the cause of arming the Syrian “moderate” rebels, who have now defected – along with their US-provided arms and training – to Al Qaeda. Sen. Paul opposed this at the time, just as he opposed the proposed bombing of Syria, predicting that those arms would be used against us by our enemies – and he was 100 percent correct. Yet US support to the “moderates” continues, as their patrons in the Gulf ship money and arms to ISIS. “This is insanity,” says Paul, “pure and simple. It has to stop.”
And the source of the madness is unrealism, the extremism of reckless “idealists” who want to make the world safe for democracy – and wind up leaving nothing but destruction in their wake. In contrast to this crusader spirit, Paul holds up the banner of a prudent realism that “rejects the Wilsonian vision of recreating the world in our image or the utopian vision of nation-building. Our government,” he avers, “has trouble running the post office. What makes it think it can be somehow successful building nations abroad? Foreign policy realism rejects the idea that we are the world’s policeman. So do I.”
This is a remarkable statement for a Republican politician to make, and all the more so since Sen. Paul is seeking his party’s presidential nomination. The conventional wisdom is that this is his Achilles heel, which will trip him up on his road to the White House. However, as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. Poll after poll shows the American people want us to mind our own damned business and stay out of the internal affairs of other nations. It’s only inside the Beltway that the interventionists represent the dominant strain of thought – but then again, is anyone surprised that people who think they can centrally plan the domestic economy and manipulate social attitudes at home believe they can rule the world in a similar fashion?
I’ve taken issue with Sen. Paul’s insistence that the mere existence of our embassy in Baghdad, and our consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, somehow requires us to become militarily involved in the region. He repeats that insistence here: I won’t repeat my critique. Suffice to say that the vagueness of Sen. Paul’s proposals – “aiding the Iraqi government in defeating ISIS” – are potentially “gateway drugs” that could easily lead us down the slippery slope to the same addiction to interventionism that caused the present chaos in the first place. He writes:
“Some say ground troops will be necessary. I agree. I just want those ground troops to be Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Saudis – the people who live there.”
Yet Paul’s own analysis of the causes of the rise of ISIS contradicts this hopeful scenario: a few pages back he’s telling us that the Qataris and Saudis are funding and supporting ISIS. Does he expect them to go to war against their own proxies? And I would note that he leaves out one significant portion of “the people who live there” – the Iranians.
Oddly, for a lengthy chapter that deals exclusively with foreign policy, there is little mention of Iran, and no discussion of the debate around its nuclear energy program. One wonders why that is.
It is the Iran-backed militias, and Hezbollah, who are now in the field, on the ground, fighting ISIS and beating them. Is it too much to expect of a self-declared “realist” to acknowledge this fact of reality, and even applaud it? Well, yes, in the present atmosphere, it may well be too much to expect, given that Iran is the new bogeyman which has replaced Iraq in the neoconservative demonology – although perhaps in the not so distant future the Senator will muster the courage to fully embrace his self-proclaimed realism. One could argue that these are mere details, but when it comes to foreign policy it’s all about the details, wherein the devil resides.
On the other hand, aside from some purposeful vagueness and a significant omission or two, Sen. Paul’s foreign policy platform represents a radical break from the bipartisan interventionist tradition, and certainly signals a rupture with the recklessness that has characterized Republican thinking on this issue. The narcissistic self-regard of Marco Rubio‘s “New American Century” and the blustering faux machismo of a Lindsey Graham are entirely missing from Paul’s proposals – and just as importantly, from his tone. Instead of chest-beating rhetoric meant to mask an inner insecurity and fear of decline, he touts the virtues of diplomacy:
“Some argue that we shouldn’t negotiate with the Chinese or the Iranians or the Russians. We can’t trust them! We take China’s money; how can we not negotiate with them? … Both China and Russia have radical jihadist threats of varying degrees of their own.”
On the issue of diplomacy Sen. Paul takes direct aim at his Republican antagonists:
“I have been a particular target of the neoconservatives. To this crowd, anyone who doesn’t agree with them on every war is the next Neville Chamberlain. To this crowd, diplomacy is a dirty word. To this crowd, anyone who doesn’t clamor first for the military option is somehow an isolationist.”
Yet, as the Senator shows, it is the neocons who are the isolationists: their policy of isolating Cuba, for example, has been a complete failure. Whereas the policy of open trade with the countries of what was once the Soviet bloc was perhaps the main reason for the collapse of that unlamented empire. China, Vietnam, and other nations with “less than stellar” human rights records, Sen. Paul points out, have seen improvement in the lot of ordinary people once diplomatic and trade relations were established. And those regimes have paid the price of the resulting prosperity as their authority is increasingly undermined.
Paul makes an excellent point about the value of diplomacy, one I never thought of, when he writes:
“Theoretically, diplomacy is similar to a market transaction. As I see it, it’s only successful when both parties feel they have won, when each party perceives they have gotten the best possible outcome from the bargain… [T]he market can also literally mend ties that seemed irreparable.”
The answer to terrorism, says Paul, isn’t interventionism – it’s capitalism. Not the crony capitalism that is creating an oligarchy in this country, or even less free versions of the same system that have been entrenched in the Middle East for centuries, but an economy that allows people to breathe, to live, and to produce unhindered by self-serving bureaucrats. Paul cites the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose fiery suicide inspired the “Arab Spring”: Bouazizi’s little vegetable cart was the target of Tunisian bureaucrats and cops who prevented him from making a living without applying for expensive licenses and paying bribes. His self-immolation set off a prairie fire in the Middle East that is still burning today. Bouazizi’s brother is cited by Paul as saying his sibling “believed the poor had a right to buy and sell.”
This is the great liberating principle that, in the end, will defeat the jihadists and free the Middle East from the twin devils of colonialism and homegrown autocracy. Now if only the Senator would apply that principle to Israel – where Palestinians are held in a condition of helotry, unable to buy, sell, or even travel freely – he would win much respect outside the narrow universe of the GOP’s interest groups.
I haven’t covered even half the topics dealt with in Sen. Paul’s very interesting – and well-written – book, both for lack of space and because a lot of it is outside the purview of this column. The chapter entitled “Can You Hear Me Now?” is perhaps the most passionate attack on the Surveillance State in print, right up there with the writings of Glenn Greenwald. If Paul is elected President, there is no doubt in my mind that the unconstitutional – and unconscionable – violations of the Fourth Amendment that have been hoisted on us in secret by our government will come to an end. That alone may win him the support of not only libertarians but the majority of Americans who fear their own government more than they fear a band of savages holed up in the desert thousands of miles away.
I urge you to pick up a copy of Taking A Stand, read it, and decide for yourself. I’ve been critical of the Senator in the past, but I’ve praised him when he puts on his man pants and sticks up for his principles – and us ordinary folks. And in this book his passion for liberty and his concern for those of us who don’t live inside the Beltway come through loud and clear.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.