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Ron Paul Ain’t Good on Foreign Policy


Freddie De Boer gives us a heartfelt defense of Paul-curiosity:

I don’t know if that grave was one of the few to be opened and explored. Even now the Indonesian government broadly obstructs attempts to investigate the events of the Year. The “conservative estimate”– that is, the one that won’t get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People– is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You’ve heard it before. You’ve likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don’t deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don’t even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You’d be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.

If you think that 1965 is ancient history, and that you are thus free from the burden of responsibility, I would remind you that the Clinton administration backed the Indonesian government in its atrocities against East Timor, where perhaps a third of the population was murdered; that Dennis Blair, former Obama intelligence official, had direct authority in our support of those war crimes; and that today, the Indonesian military is doing this to the people of West New Guinea.

I hardly need to tell you that our support of Indonesia and its military is ongoing. We are up to our elbows in the current regime, just like we were with the Suharto regime. (A Clinton apparatchik called him “our kind of guy.”) And in a democracy that makes it our responsibility. A foreign army that takes our money and our training and applies them to the┬áharassment, oppression, and murder of its own people– that’s our responsibility. Yours and mine…

..What I insist, and what people like Glenn Greenwald keep insisting, is that Ron Paul’s endless failings shouldn’t and can’t exist as an excuse to look away from the dead bodies that we keep on piling up. What I have wanted is to grab a hold of mainstream progressivism and force it to look the dead in the face. But the effort to avoid exactly that is mighty, and what we have on our hands is an epidemic of not seeing.

Here are two assumptions embedded in this post:

1. The Indonesian government wouldn’t or couldn’t have carried out serial pogroms and violent state-building exercises without the support of the United States.

2. A President Paul, by withholding support and instigation, would have prevented these bad things from happening.

The first is a matter of historical debate. The CIA surely played a role in the fall of Sukarno and the murderous rise of Suharto; it’s far from clear, however, that CIA influence was determinative either in spurring the conflict or in producing a specific outcome. It’s also surely true that the United States maintained good relations with the Suharto regime for commercial and what it perceived to be strategic reasons, and that the US continued this support while Indonesia engaged in a variety of exceedingly violent statebuilding projects at various points in its periphery. The United States continued to sell Indonesia weapons during this period, took some steps to shield Indonesia from international scrutiny, and largely avoided using commercial ties as leverage over Indonesian behavior.

Again, we can debate as to how much this amounts to “piling up dead” for which the United States presumably holds responsibility. For my part, I think that lots of countries have brutal, bloody factional conflicts, and lots of countries engage in brutal statebuilding efforts without any assistance from the United States, so in general I’m inclined to think that US positive influence (making it happen) over these events is fairly minimal, with the real responsibility of the US in this case lying in its rejection of using any tools of negative influence (political or economic leverage, which was considerable) to moderate the behavior of the Indonesia government. Political leaders have terribly good reasons to kill other people for political effect; the United States rarely has to try very hard to convince them to do so, and often cannot convince them to refrain from doing so.

And so this brings us to assumption the second, which is that a President Paul would somehow have done something to make all those Indonesia people not dead. I suppose it’s possible that a President Paul would have refrained from supporting the Suharto coup, although it’s also certainly possible that Paul’s free market commitments would have made anti-communist activity attractive; I don’t know enough about Paul’s early career attitudes regarding the USSR, the Sandinistas, etc. I guarantee you, however, that President Paul would have lifted not a finger to assist all the Indonesians killed in the wake of the coup, or in the various statebuilding projects later engaged in by the Suharto and post-Suharto governments. President Paul might not have engaged in a direct military relationship with Indonesia, but he would not have prevented American private military firms from contracting with the Indonesians in training and advisory roles; he would not have prevented the Indonesian military from purchasing all the military equipment that it could afford from US defense corporations; he would not have prevented US corporations with interests in Indonesia from calling (publicly or privately) for violent defense of their extractive and labor interests; and he would not have supported any robust international action to condemn or isolate the Indonesian government.

Now you may say “but all that stuff happens anyway,” and that’s true to a point, although it’s also true that the United States finally did exercise some restraint on Indonesia with regards to East Timor, and played a not-completely-inconsequential role in the fall of Suharto. But that’s rather my point; for progressives, Ron Paul is less change than you want, and not at all the change you’re looking for. The world of a President Paul is not one in which the United States refrains from facilitating the murder of people in foreign countries; it’s a world in which the institutional structure of that facilitation is somewhat different, mostly in that it involves private actors undertaking direct policy rather than working through the US government. It’s also a world in which all of the multilateral institutions designed to alleviate human misery are undercut or actively destroyed by principled isolationist policy.

And this is my second point; De Boer compares Paul with Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, arguing that they’re all dismissed by mainstream liberals as being ridiculous, etc. But this comparison rests on a basic falsehood, which is that the foreign policy of Ron Paul resembles that of Sanders or Kucinich in any meaningful way. Kucinich, for example, is an avid supporter of the United Nations, as well a host of other international institutions. He also supports robust foreign aid, and a variety of other positions that suggest a commitment to using US social and economic leverage in a non-violent way to improve international outcomes.
Bernie Sanders has a very similar record. Kucinich and Sanders are both firmly on the left side of the liberal internationalist consensus, while Paul rejects that consensus altogether. This means that they incidentally share a few positions, just as Kucinich and Sanders incidentally share a few positions with Jim Demint, but it doesn’t mean that they’re saying the same thing about foreign policy, or that progressives ought to think of them in the same way.

On this last issue, much of De Boer’s anger seems centered on the belief that Kucinich, Sanders, and Paul are being subjected to the same attacks from progressives for the same reasons, but I don’t think that this is true. What animates progressive rejection/derision of Sanders and Kucinich stems from the belief that their policy proposals, however sensible, are too far to the left to win, and that in any case both have a variety of personal characteristics that make a Presidential victory unlikely. What animates progressive hostility to Paul, on the other hand, is that he’s a paleo-conservative with horrific views on economic, social, and most foreign policy issues.

And so no, it’s not a tribal reluctance to come to grips with the failures of the Democratic Party on foreign policy that makes progressives inclined to reject Ron Paul out of hand. Rather, it’s a sensible, realistic appreciation of the totality of political character of Paul and the movement he represents. To my mind, this rejection is far more thoughtful and reflective than the decision to cherry pick a few of Paul’s views in isolation from the rest of his politics, then laud him as a figure worthy of consideration.

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