Foreign Policy: Paul The Pariah, Paul The Prophet

 Warren Ojala of New Ipswich holds a sign supporting Ron Paul on the roadside in Manchester, NH. i i

hide caption Warren Ojala of New Ipswich holds a sign supporting Ron Paul on the roadside in Manchester, NH.

Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images
 Warren Ojala of New Ipswich holds a sign supporting Ron Paul on the roadside in Manchester, NH.

Warren Ojala of New Ipswich holds a sign supporting Ron Paul on the roadside in Manchester, NH.

Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Ross Douthat had a great column to start the new year, offering his own interpretation on the Ron Paul phenomenon. His last few paragraphs:

"There's often a fine line between a madman and a prophet. Perhaps Paul has emerged as a teller of some important truths precisely because in many ways he's still as far out there as ever.

The United States is living through an era of unprecedented elite failure, in which America's public institutions are understandably distrusted and our leadership class is justifiably despised. Yet politicians of both parties are required, by the demands of partisanship, to embrace the convenient lie that our problem can be pinned exclusively on the other side's elites — as though both liberals and conservatives hadn't participated in the decisions that dug our current hole.

In this climate, it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Paul has been the only figure willing to point out the deep continuities in American politics — the way social spending grows and overseas commitments multiply no matter which party is in power, the revolving doors that connect K Street to Congress and Wall Street to the White House, the long list of dubious policies and programs that both sides tacitly support. In both election cycles, his honest extremism has sometimes cut closer to the heart of our national predicament than the calculating partisanship of his more grounded rivals. He sometimes rants, but he rarely spins — and he's one of the few figures on the national stage who says "a plague on both your houses!" and actually means it.

Obviously it would be better for the country if this message weren't freighted with Paul's noxious baggage, and entangled with his many implausible ideas. But would it be better off without his presence entirely? I'm not so sure.

Neither prophets nor madmen should be elected to the presidency. But neither can they safely be ignored (emphases added)."

Conor Friedersdorf and Glenn Greenwald take a similar position. Greenwald in particular argues that Paul's positions on foreign policy/national security/civil liberties are so much better than the bipartisan consensus view that Paul's tacit approval of those odious newsletters should be heavily discounted. As Greenwald puts it, progressives who don't support Paul must apparently accept the following preference ordering:

"Yes, I'm willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America's minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for "espionage," and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America's minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court."

I'm of two minds about this line of argument. On the one hand, there is no denying that Paul's worldview has helped him to launch a powerful critique on American foreign policy. This can't just be dismissed as "yes, he was right on Iraq, but..." either. As Douthat, Friedersdorf and Greenwald observe, Paul really is the only candidate to bring up these issues (not named Gary Johnson or Jon Hunstman.) His hypothesis that the United States has invited some blowback by overly militarizing its foreign policy cannot be easily dismissed.

Think of it this way: Paul is a hedgehog. He knows One Big Thing and uses it to construct his worldview. We know from Philip Tetlock that hedgehogs are less likely to be right when making predictions than foxes — those people who know a little about a lot of things. Hedgehogs outperform foxes is in getting big macro-consequential events correct, however. We tend to ignore such predictions, however, because hedgehogs usually lack the emotional intelligence necessary to persuade nonbelievers. I want Paul banging on about the dangers of excessive government intrusion and overexpansion. That's not nothing.

Here's the thing, though — precisely because Paul is a hedgehog, he brings other less-than-desirable qualities to the table. I don't think his intriguing take on foreign policy and civil liberties can be separated from, say, his totally-insane views about the Federal Reserve. In fact, let me just edit Greenwald's proposed tradeoff so that it's a bit more accurate:

"Yes, I'm willing to continue to have some Muslim children inadvertently die by covert drones and cluster bombs, and a disproportionate percentage of America's minorities imprisoned for no good reason, and the CIA taking action with minimal checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for "espionage," and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers and lots of rhetoric & covert action against Iran that makes Glenn Greenwald hyperventilate in exchange for avoiding a complete and total meltdown of the global economy due to the massive deflation that would naturally follow from a re-constituted gold standard."

I don't like this choice, but it's an easy one to make.

To read the rest of this article visit ForeignPolicy.com.

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