Ron Paul is a uniquely polarizing figure in American politics. People of very diverse political views all find themselves diametrically opposed to him for one reason or another. For some, his libertarian economic policies are quite bad enough. For others, his mysteriously (literally?) ghostwritten newsletters disqualify him from consideration. Richard Cohen, a Washington Post op-ed columnist, is understandably disgusted both by the newsletters and Paul's weaselly disavowals. Cohen, perhaps best described as a centrist Democrat, also represents those in both major parties who find Paul unacceptable because of his foreign policy. Paul's international positions are "just as troubling" to Cohen as the newsletters' paranoid racism. As most people know, Paul is a non-interventionist, though Cohen prefers the pejorative "isolationist" since he can then link Paul to those opponents of war with Hitler whose reticence was allegedly grounded in anti-Semitism and other prejudices. According to Cohen, Paul's presumed intention to withdraw from treaties, cut foreign aid and abolish the CIA proves his wish to "turn his back on the world," as if a libertarian has no intention of trading with the rest of the world. But just as the commercial mentality is often presumed to lack conscience, so Cohen accuses Paul of "total indifference to what happens overseas." To the columnist, Paul fails to appreciate that "America remains a mighty nation, capable of doing good in the world [rather than] expanding an empire or making the world safe for McDonalds."
Cohen is careful to make clear that the invasion of Iraq isn't the sort of thing he has in mind -- that war "had no real purpose," he writes. But the air intervention against Libya "ain't a bad days work," and the Clinton administration's air war against Serbia was just as commendable. So is a good war one waged by Democratic presidents, or simply one in which American troops keep out of range of IEDs? Cohen's distinctions are unclear. He justifies the Libyan adventure because it resulted in Gaddafi's overthrow, but the overthrow of a comparable tyrant is probably the one remaining justification for the invasion of Iraq among its remaining apologists. If the overthrow of Saddam Hussein "had no real purpose," what purpose has Gaddafi's overthrow, since Cohen himself concedes that "the Libyan bombings will not bring democracy to that country?" If Cohen's distinctions are vague, his associations are worse. He tries to portray Paul's anti-interventionism as morally equivalent to his disagreements with civil rights legislation; both show that Paul "cannot for the life of him summon government's authority or military might to have the right thing done." That's question-begging. Who gets to say whether aiding the overthrow of a dictator, or initiating the overthrow by invading his country, is the right thing? The rightness of it may not be as self-evident to everyone as it is to Cohen -- and the rightness of it from any subjective standpoint still may not conform to right as defined by international law. I suspect that Cohen has no more basis for his sense of rightness than his conviction that good people like President Obama and the Clintons can be trusted when they intervene abroad, while Republicans can't. As Paul seems to prove, Cohen doesn't even trust Republicans when they don't want to intervene. Paul's principled reticence only seems to prove to Cohen how mean-spirited and ungenerous Republicans are.
The purpose of Cohen's column is to counter people "on both the left and the right [who] have praised Paul on this score, as if his antiwar position can be extracted from his general nuttiness to make a rational candidate." Cohen's answer to this aspiration is "No such luck," but this is exactly what needs to happen. The antiwar constituency that coalesces around Ron Paul must have an existence beyond Paul's rapidly-expiring political shelf life. It must be extracted not just from Paul's overall nuttiness, but from Paul's personality cult. It has to become bigger than Ron Paul if the position is not to be damned by association with his or anyone's eccentricities. If anti-interventionism has any chance of becoming the core of a new, transpartisan, post-ideological American politics -- and I'm not sure if it has -- two things have to happen. First, advocates have to show how an interventionist foreign policy hurts the American economy. Second, anti-interventionism has to be seen as a principled position in its own right and not as the extension of any particular domestic policy or social ideology. There are probably plenty of people who are supporting Paul more than he deserves just to keep the anti-interventionist idea alive as a force in politics -- but Ron Paul is nearly eighty years old. What is to be done when he's no longer alive? If anti-interventionism defines the Ron Paul movement, it's time for them to redefine themselves on their own terms and come out of his shadow. It should be up to them to repudiate Paul for his various failings and find another standard bearer for the anti-interventionist movement. But they shouldn't have to repudiate him for his bravest and most principled stand.