Like Clockwork

Rand Paul penned an op-ed in The Daily Beast on Monday that lays out his overarching critique of expansive government. For Paul, the most egregious sins of the past two administrations involve the reckless expansion of executive power. For the founders, the separation of powers and the checks and balances that maintain them were arguably the most important paradigm for representative government. They were surely the most sacred. Though a man of sweeping intellect and depth, James Madison left a singular legacy in his dogged advocacy for diffuse, separate and opposed factions across government; federal, state and local.

That legacy served conservatives (Jeffersonian Democrats, Whigs, Republicans) well until the end of World War II, when a new internationalism emerged with Dwight Eisenhower’s triumph over Senator Robert Taft in the race to define the future of the Republican Party. Since then, it has been a festival of bipartisan abuses of executive power and expansion, as Taft’s defeat meant the end of any meaningful right wing foreign policy based on realism and restraint. It is not wholly outrageous that the spectre of the menacing USSR caused Americans of all stripes to adopt a utilitarian approach to the Cold War, ditching principle and tradition in the name of security from existential annihilation. After 70 years of this approach, is it not sensible to reflect and consider an alternative strategy?

Every time Rand Paul attempts to enunciate his foreign policy, one or two neoconservatives affiliated or aligned with the last Bush administration lashes out with a vicious, often unhinged diatribe against the Senator and his supposed “isolationism.” That Jennifer Rubin is Queen of The Demagogues, let there be no doubt. But Michael Gerson, Pete Wehner, Bill Kristol, Bret Stephens, David Frum, Stephen Hayes, Jonathan Tobin, David Adesnik and Elliott Abrams (and more!) also love to fling “isolationism” around with the same justification that progressives have when shouting “science!” No Valerie Jarrett style enemies’ lists here, just an objective identification of the culprits behind what is an orchestrated, dishonest smear campaign against someone with whom they disagree. That kind of behavior deserves to be called out and evidence is easy to find because, like clockwork, a new hit piece is guaranteed almost every day.

Today’s entry comes from John Yoo, the lead legal apologist for every last ounce of executive abuse and expansion undertaken by President Bush, where he says “Congress enacted in 2001 an authorization to use force against any group connected to those who carried out the 9/11 attacks. If the Islamic State is linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, as it appears to be (though this depends on the facts), they fall within the AUMF.” He goes on to belittle Paul and suggest he should remain in the Senate and should never be President. The tone of the piece is desperate and angry. The substance is even worse. Is anyone else flabbergasted that we have an impenetrable elite bipartisan consensus in Washington surrounding the AUMF’s authorization of force? The document from thirteen years ago which had nothing to do with third-generation offshoots of Al Qaeda but actually and explicitly only pertained to… Al Qaeda?  I really shake my head when I read the WSJ or some other reputable conservative outlet make this case; that the resolution we passed in the wake of 9/11 somehow relates to today. I understand their argument about asymmetric warfare and how “we don’t get to decide” when the war is over and all that. Yes, yes. But it is categorically not too much to ask that we fight this interminably long war by adhering to our standards and our rules. And I don’t care how Orwellian the foreign policy fetishists on the right go in their zeal to convince me that 2+2 = 5, I can never be convinced that Article II of the Constitution is more important than Article I.

The looming big debate over foreign policy will be a lot more productive and enlightening if it is conducted with civility and forthrightness. Unfortunately, the opponents of any reevaluation of the status quo have signaled that they have zero intention to play nice with Rand Paul. They genuinely hate his father, and are projecting their worst fever dream scenarios onto Rand and insisting all will be lost and the locusts shall plague us should the man who believes in the Constitution and separation of powers come to be Commander-in-Chief.

Below is my response to John Yoo and his fellow travelers in the conservative movement, based on an advanced reading of George Will’s column tomorrow, which I posted in the comments of his piece at National Review Online.


George Will has a column tomorrow (available online now) headlined “Rethinking US Foreign Policy” in which he tiptoes close to endorsing Rand Paul’s position without actually doing so. But he does offer this for Mr. Yoo to consider:

“The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

The Wilsonian-Bush approach to foreign policy is past its sell-by date, and the level of unhinged vitriol spewing from establishment (mostly from the Bush cabinet) organs towards Rand Paul is evidence of this. Any wonder why the factions currently losing the argument screech and squeal the loudest? Just look at the progressive left right now. But the fervor with which the Bush people have tried to knock down Rand Paul (and have so far failed at every turn) speaks to how cornered they feel. They wish that everyone would shut up and be scared of Islamists to the point that we forget the follies of their agenda and just blame Obama enough that the Bush Boys over at Commentary get to waltz back into power like nothing’s changed.

There wasn’t supposed to be an articulate voice against the uber-interventionists while Obama was in office. To their eternal chagrin, Rand shows up and starts moving people and changing the debate. No doubt George Will gets some stern emails for having the gall to give Rand a hearing before writing him off based on lame, hysterical arguments such as Yoo’s.

Two Cheers for Bob Scheer

Among the many problems with critiques of libertarianism from both right and left is the degree to which they confuse principle and pragmatism within the disparate and diffuse arena of libertarian thought. Virtually every hit piece on Rand Paul or libertarianism coming from the likes of Jen Rubin, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Free Beacon or other such neoconservative bastions takes the most extreme characterization of non-interventionism and posits that radical isolationism is the norm because libertarian allegiance to the non-aggression principle leads inexorably to a principled and committed stance to never, under any circumstances, use force. Never mind that Rand Paul believes fervently in free trade and global diplomacy and cooperation, qualities that should automatically inoculate one from the “isolationist” slur. He frequently cites how national defense is explicitly framed as the primary duty of the federal government, thus he would not hesitate to use force in a constitutional manner (where Congress regains primacy in the decision).

Paul’s foreign policy sounds more realist and pragmatic than non-interventionist, and it is far from “isolationist.” It’s difficult to imagine a Rand Paul presidency converting us to the Swiss or Icelandic model of foreign engagement, postures which would indeed be isolationist. The even-keel Paul suddenly abandoning his George Kennan infused realism for an erratic, withdrawal-at-all-costs, “leave us alone” retrenchment seems as likely as his giving us the final installment in an Iraq War trilogy. Still, the isolationist pejorative persists because the forces arrayed against Paul on the right stand in rabid opposition to him, simply because he dares to criticize their worldview. It is much easier to slander libertarians as isolationist and equate them with leftists than to actually engage with the criticisms and perhaps be forced into some painful soul-searching. In this regard, neocons mirror progressives, in that their reticence to acknowledge real failures in their foreign policy mirrors the left’s reluctance to acknowledge failures in their war on poverty, the welfare state, economics or healthcare. People hate credible challenges to their ideological dogma, which is why elements of left and right are lashing out at Rand Paul, the bearer of bad news.

Right now the attacks from the right are more noxious and unhinged than the average panicked screed from the left. But the left is no less in error in its critique of libertarianism when it states emphatically that a philosophical hypothetical about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Paul’s position on abortion (as if he’s going to be eager to federally ban the practice as POTUS; much more likely he would adopt a state’s rights/federalism stance) will, ipso facto, automatically disqualify him with 100% of the Obama coalition. But can the left really be that confident that the whole bloc of Obama millennials is going to catch the fever for Hillary the same way they did for Obama? Listen to Robert Scheer’s hour long paean to libertarian consistency in fighting crony capitalism in which he declares proudly that Rand Paul would have to be his choice against Hillary Clinton. So we’ve got a principled democratic socialist sounding off on the consistent, principled, laudable positions of Rand Paul and libertarians, and doing so in the context of Paul’s raucous reception from millennials at Berkeley. But we’re supposed to accept the smug liberal wisdom that insists Paul’s attraction to young people is all just a a mirage, because abortion. Please.

In the process of assuring the Bay Area radio audience that he was not a libertarian but a committed liberal who believes in “throwing money at the problem” and “leveling the playing field,” Scheer regaled his skeptical host and listeners with as robust a defense of libertarianism that you are likely to ever hear from someone on the left. He celebrates their consistent contempt for corporatist privilege, applauds the consistent belief in avoiding imperial temptations such as “nation building,” and even pushes back on the naive leftist assertion that libertarians are in bed with the “1 percent” and favor accelerating inequality by pointing out that it was in fact Bill Clinton’s affinity for crony capitalism, the notorious Wall St-Washington D.C. revolving door and the left’s coziness with the Federal Reserve that are chiefly responsible for growing inequality. I don’t necessarily agree with Scheer’s diagnosis, particularly regarding his claim that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was the high crime of the century, but he is surely correct to highlight that nowhere are libertarian policy prescriptions to blame for the economic turmoil of the past decade. I most certainly would not agree with Scheer’s antidote to the so-called inequality “crisis” either, as only stable economic growth in the private economy can enhance prosperity for all (though of course not uniformly; thus even with growth, you will always have “income inequality,” which shouldn’t even be “a thing” in our modern lexicon), but it is beyond refreshing to hear someone on the left instructing fellow travelers to train their ire at the bipartisan duopoly of cronies responsible for the rigged (and ongoing) Big Business-Big Government tryst, not at the libertarians who, Scheer recognizes, are not to be lamented but lauded for adhering to principle in earnest and with consistency.

Scheer also makes a crucial point in this interview about the need for the modern left to come to terms with totalitarian socialism. Though I would argue with him that there really isn’t that much of a difference between democratic and totalitarian socialism, as any system oriented around central planning and expert maintenance of an economy is ultimately going to end in tyranny, whether it begins with democratic elections or not. Managed economies are confused societies, and confused societies are chaotic and prone to corruption, abuse and authoritarianism. Still, how encouraging to actually hear a socialist suggesting that not enough socialists have come to grips with the most abhorrent socialist outcomes? I get the feeling that Mr. Scheer is uncomfortably aware of his own ideology’s shortcomings when it comes to the actual administration of government; that it is impossible to ignore that socialist regimes inevitably abuse the power they seek to consolidate.

So two cheers for Robert Scheer, who deserves the maximum number of cheers this libertarian is capable of bestowing on a self-described democratic socialist. Perhaps one day he might even discard the socialist label and come all the way over to the libertarian reservation, where liberty is exalted, where government and collectivism are scorned, and where the mutton is nice and lean

Here is an interesting interview Scheer did with Reason a while back: