Is Ron Paul a Champion of Freedom?

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

In describing Ron Paul’s attitude toward America’s role in the world, most observers use the term “isolationist,” or even “fiercely isolationist.” Paul has tried to distance himself from the isolationist label, but the identification has stuck, and properly so.

Nonetheless, even as Paul aggressively promotes an ideology—call it radical noninterventionism—that in the past has been rejected as dangerous or eccentric, he has made some inroads on the national political culture and been embraced by an impressive number of young people. Ross Douthat, the New York Times voice of moderate Republicanism, has written that there is a “plausible case that Paul has moved the Republican Party in his direction, and might move it further still.”

To his admirers, Ron Paul and his purist brand of libertarianism are the embodiments of the idea of freedom. In domestic affairs, this means freedom from overregulation and big government. Internationally, Paul and his co-thinkers equate freedom with American withdrawal from the world, militarily but also diplomatically, and a disavowal of what they identify as a tradition based on militarism, interventionism, and imperialism.

Paul has benefited from generally favorable press coverage during the current presidential campaign. Few commentators have subjected his views to the kind of sustained scrutiny that was applied to Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital. Paul’s extremism has thus gone mostly unexamined. This is unfortunate, because the record is easily accessible in speeches, blog posts, and interviews.

Especially disturbing is the hostility of Paul-style libertarians to every effort in the postwar period to use American power to advance the cause of freedom. To be sure, libertarianism has many wings and tendencies, and there are some of the faith who believe that libertarian principles should not be applied to international diplomacy. But purist libertarians, for whom Paul is a leading figure, have opposed the entire fabric of America’s Cold War policy to contain the Soviet Union and replace communist regimes with governments committed to democracy. They have called for the withdrawal of American forces from the Korean peninsula, rejected the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, predicted catastrophe in the Bosnian intervention of the 1990s, and urged the United States to extract itself completely from Middle East diplomacy.

Indeed, isolationist libertarians reduce the topic of foreign affairs to one issue: American involvement, which is invariably said to lead the country toward disaster, quagmires, dead-ends. The one exception is World War II. Since the United States was attacked in that epic struggle, libertarians acknowledge that the country had no choice but to respond. But even here, purist libertarians can be cagey. They accept the war as unavoidable, but remain unmoved by the view that it was a fight against the greatest enemies of humanity who have walked the earth. Instead, libertarians fret that the national mobilization required to defeat our adversaries led to yet more power for the Leviathan state.

Ron Paul is squarely in the tradition of libertarian isolationism and hostility to America’s role as a promoter of freedom. To take a few examples of recent Paul pronouncements:

  • He argued that the United States should walk away from the Arab Spring, as it lacked “constitutional authority” to involve itself in the transformation of Middle Eastern politics.
  • He opposed the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. Instead, he proposed working with Pakistan to arrest the founder of Al-Qaeda and presumably have him handed over to American authorities for questioning and trial.
  • He chastised the American government for funding election monitors in Ukraine. Paul was indignant over the role of USAID in providing modest assistance that had the effect of thwarting a stolen election in 2004.
  • He called for the disbanding of NATO, charging that the alliance’s expansion “only benefits the U.S. military-industrial complex.”
  • He dismissed the overthrow of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi as a “short-term victory for empire” that may prove “devastating to the Libyan people.”

On many issues, Paul’s views dovetail with those of more traditional critics. Like many civil libertarians, he opposes the Obama administration’s use of drone aircraft as a principal weapon in the war on terrorism. He is not alone in his criticism of U.S. involvement in Libya, nor in his advocacy of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But outside the fringes of the radical left, few would share his description of American foreign policy as “driven by neo-conservative empire radicalism, profiteering in the military-industrial complex, misplaced do-good internationalism, mercantilistic notions regarding the need to control natural resources, and blind loyalty to various governments in the Middle East.”

That someone with such a cartoonish view of American actions over recent decades commands the respect of thousands is worrying in itself. It is also curious that although he publicly invokes his passion for individual liberty, Paul seldom pays tribute to the men and women of other countries who are defying the odds in their efforts to build free societies. Perhaps he is put off by the fact that so many foreign democracy advocates appreciate the assistance the United States has provided, or have pleaded for such support, which Paul would deny them as a matter of deep principle.

Libertarians bolster their isolationist arguments by citing the various enemies American policies have created through the years. But they consistently ignore the successes—the many instances in which American policies made a difference in the freedom equation. Would Ron Paul have supported Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi over two frustrating decades? Would he have encouraged the forces in Indonesia that ended dictatorship and forged the Muslim world’s largest democracy? Would he ignore Russian dissidents who oppose Vladimir Putin and, under constant duress from an all-powerful regime, seek moral sustenance from the United States? These kinds of probing questions need to be posed to a man who styles himself as a champion of freedom, and to the movement that cheers him on.

Morgan Huston assisted in preparing this post.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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