I was in a Minnesota casino hotel room with a six pack watching the results and fallout of the Iowa Caucus. It was the closest I’ve ever come to fulfilling my teenage dream of being the next Hunter S Thompson.
Then Fox News cut away mid-speech from Ron Paul, who came in third just 3% behind the nominal winner Mitt Romney, to hear what Newt Gingrich had to say. Newt had come fourth, 9% behind Congressman Paul.
The issue Romney and Gingrich were attacking him on was Paul’s opposition to the use of military force to prevent Iran getting a nuclear bomb. This is a hot button issue for the GOP candidates. Speaking after Iowa each of them, except Paul, made a point of mentioning the possibility of confrontation with Iran.
But while Paul’s stance may place him outside the mainstream of Republican presidential candidates it doesn’t place him outside the mainstream of the American public. Polling evidence indicates that opposition to action against Iran is not the sole preserve of half a dozen hippies and that support tumbles when diplomacy is given as an option.
How has Paul come to this position? He is neither opposed to war per se nor even to pre-emptive war. He told an audience in Iowa that, “You don’t have to wait until they have put their feet on our soil”
Paul’s opposition seems more specific than a simple pacifism. Quite simply, he doesn’t view Iran as a threat. He told the same Iowa audience that, “there are no signs” that Tehran is building a bomb. Given that Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said on CBS’s Meet the Press on Monday night “Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? Uh, no, but we know that they are trying to develop a nuclear capability” - then the hysteria directed at Paul by his neo-conservative and liberal interventionist critics seems overdone.
Paul has other reasons for not seeing Iran as a threat. He has claimed that the Iranians feel surrounded, with unfriendly nuclear armed states like Israel and Pakistan on their doorsteps and US military bases in every neighbouring country. The Iranian are acting logically, Paul appears to believe, to actual threats. He spoke of his belief in a reasonable Iran again in Iowa when he said, “What are the odds of [the Iranians] using [a nuclear weapon]? Probably zero. They just are not going to commit suicide. The Israelis have 300 of them”. If the Iranians are reacting logically they can be reasoned with or, if you prefer, appeased.
This is more problematic. When the Iranian president says he wants to see Israel, “wiped off the map” is he reacting rationally to perceived dangers or is he just a loon? Just as history shows that interventions can go badly wrong it also shows that some people are exactly as dangerous as they appear to be. Paul’s insistence on seeing unreasonable people as being as reasonable as he is could be a major weakness.
But does it matter? The fact is that with a trillion dollar deficit and a debt ceiling rising like a Fourth of July rocket America cannot afford another war. Watching presidential candidates speculate on which country to bomb next is a bit like watching a bunch of homeless guys peering through the window of a BMW dealership and wondering which i8 to buy.
The people up in arms about Paul’s foreign policy have got it back to front. America’s wealth was not based on its ability to project military power; America’s ability to project military power was based on its wealth.