Surely one of the highlights of the presidential primary debates held so far occurred back in mid-May, during the Republican debate in South Carolina: Ten-term Texas Congressman Ron Paul stood in front of a patriotic field of white stars on a blue backdrop and told Fox News correspondent Wendell Goler that the attacks of 9/11 occurred primarily as a response to U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades. "Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us?" he asked incredulously. "They attacked us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for ten years!"
When Goler asked for clarification that the United States invited the 9/11 attacks, Paul, with his arms folded, replied coolly, "I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reasons they did it. They are already delighted that we're over there, because Osama bin Laden has said, 'I am glad that you're on our sand, because I can target you so much easier.' They have already … killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary."
The last comment caused GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani to become unhinged. "That's an extraordinary statement -- as someone who lived through the attack on September 11th -- that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq," Giuliani seethed. "I don't think I've ever heard that one before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th." The audience erupted in applause, and Giuliani then asked the congressman to withdraw his comment. Paul instead discussed the blowback from CIA operations in the Middle East and elsewhere since the 1950's. Uproar ensued. Goler quickly changed the subject.
Congressman Paul is the only Republican presidential contender who opposes the war in Iraq; in 2002, he was one of six House Republicans who voted against authorizing the use of military force. And he opposes our military involvement with such vehemence -- both on the campaign trail and on the House floor -- that critics have suggested he ought to run as a Democrat. (Paul was unbowed in the second Republican debate last week, using the word "empire" to describe American engagements abroad and invoking his training as a doctor in offering up his assessment: "If we made the wrong diagnosis, we should change the treatment … We're not making progress there and we should come home.") While it's true that many of Paul's positions seem out of step with the current Republican Party (he also voted against the Patriot Act and Internet regulation), Paul's no lefty; his positions are in keeping with his libertarian small-government principles and his own austere interpretation of the Constitution.
First elected in 1976, Paul has long opposed government intervention abroad and within the free market system. (His libertarianism doesn't extend to many social issues: He's pro-life and adamantly opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants and birthright citizenship for their children.) Paul votes against spending bills and new government tasks so frequently (even when the initiatives have sweeping Republican support) that his dissents have earned him the nickname "Dr. No."
While Paul's pro-life views and some of his anti-immigration policies have garnered him criticism from the Libertarian Party (which nominated him for President in 1988), he's now enjoying the glow of the national spotlight for his public condemnation of the war. I spoke with Paul by phone prior to his appearance on The Daily Show last Monday night. We discussed some of his seemingly anomalous platforms, and I asked him how he hopes to steer fellow Republicans away from big-government conservatism.
"It's not going to be easy," Paul laughed. "I have to remind them of times when they actually supported small-government conservatism and took the position that we should be less adventuresome overseas." Paul is not surprised to be the only antiwar GOP candidate, since he feels the party has taken its cues virtually entirely from the Bush administration for the past six years. "They pounded it into us that we had to do this or we were un-American," he said. Paul believes that we cannot remain overextended abroad in part because we lack the money. "That's something that's very ironic," he added, "that conservatives are digging a big hole for us financially, as well as getting us involved in these conflicts around the world that never seem to end."
In the wake of September 11th, Paul supported the authority and the funding to go after Osama bin Laden. "What I did not support," he said, "was going into nation-building and the occupation of two Muslim countries, and then allowing bin Laden to go into Pakistan -- a country that is our ally and we send money to." At the time, what Paul actually wanted instead of war was for Congress to grant Letters of Marquee and Reprisal, a Constitutional decree that would have allowed private sources or bounty hunters to pursue bin Laden.
Paul quickly became fed up with the administration's handling of the war and congressional support for neoconservative proposals. In a speech entitled "Neo-CONNED!" which Paul delivered to the House in July 2003, he declared, "In spite of the floundering economy, Congress and the [Bush] administration continue to take on new commitments in foreign aid, education, farming, medicine, multiple efforts at nation building, and preemptive wars around the world."
Paul is acutely concerned about what our military presence has done in the Middle East, and how we are viewed in the Muslim world. "The Iranians don't forget about 1953, when we changed their leadership," he told me, "or the 1980s, when we put Saddam Hussein after them." As in the South Carolina debate, Paul can often be heard paraphrasing the words of Ronald Reagan, "We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics." Reagan conceded this notion in his autobiography, referring to the decision to send troops into Lebanon in 1983, which resulted in the deaths of 241 marines. Paul, who was in Congress as the time, argued against Reagan's decision then, and he quoted Reagan again to the House in 2006 when refusing to choose sides during Hezbollah's fighting with Israel.
Paul cites hard evidence found in documents like the 9/11 Commission Report to support his foreign policy claims. The 9/11 Commission concluded that numerous statements from bin Laden prior to September 11th clearly expressed anger with our military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. Following the South Carolina debate, Paul held a press conference in which he included the 9/11 Commission Report on a recommended reading list for Giuliani regarding foreign policy. Other books included Imperial Hubris, Blowback, and Dying to Win.
Paul believes we can simply back away from our position as policemen of the world. As for humanitarian crises like the situation in Darfur, he said he feels neighboring nations have every right to be concerned, along with countries with vested interests in the Sudan, and he would ask the Red Cross to get involved and people to donate money. But he believes that that is as far as our foreign aid should extend. "I don't have the right to take money from you and make you work harder or live less productively, just because I'm sympathetic with the conditions in Darfur," he maintained. "Besides, generally speaking, we go where the oil is and not where the humanitarian needs are. And most of these dollars that go to these poor nations to help certain factions end up as weapons in these civil wars."
While Congressman Paul chose not to run as a Libertarian candidate this time around, the Libertarian Party still stands by him. Shane Cory, the Libertarian Party's Executive Director told me that although Paul strays from the party on certain issues, including abortion, Paul still represents the party's core beliefs in free-market principles and non-intervention abroad. (The sole criterion for Libertarian Party membership is certifying that you will not "advocate the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.") Cory told me by phone, "I think Ron Paul has made several valid points on the war in the debates, and unfortunately a lot of Republicans have failed to appreciate them."
Many Democrats have taken notice of Paul, an unlikely ally across the aisle. Earlier this year, Paul joined with Democrats John Murtha of Pennsylvania, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, and John Larson of Connecticut, among others, to co-sponsor a resolution that would require the president to seek specific authorization before initiating military force in Iran. Dennis Kucinich, who is running for president and couldn't be further from Paul on most issues, told me, "Paul has true integrity. His word is good and he has the courage of his convictions."
Representative Abercrombie also could not speak highly enough of Paul. "He's a legislator's legislator," Abercrombie said. "He's an intellectual at heart; he is just the real thing without the slightest bit of pretense or condescension." Last week, Abercrombie and Paul teamed up again to introduce a resolution that stipulates a sunset for the president's authority in Iraq. According to Abercrombie, it was Paul's idea to force a re-authorization for the war in Congress, which would render all of the political rhetoric and smokescreens about timetables moot.
"Congress has to take up its Constitutional responsibility to reauthorize this war, if that's its will," Abercrombie explained. "Paul called me and we tried to figure out a way to get past this maelstrom of legislative futility." Abercrombie can't wait for the next GOP debate, when Paul will be able to hold his fellow candidates accountable on the future of the war. Most likely, neither can Ron Paul.