During the breakfast this morning, I got into an exchange with Ron Paul on the Iraq War and U.S. foreign policy.
It started when James Poulos asked Paul how he would respond to supporters of the war who argue that if we withdraw from Iraq the terrorists will follow us back. Paul described the major flaws in U.S. foreign policy and said suicide terrorism is caused by occupation. Over the course of his answer, he said: “Why bother coming over here looking to kill 3,000 here, when they can pick us off one at a time over there?”
I followed up by asking him whether such a statement, in fact, confirms the pro-war argument that were we not over there, they’d attack us here.
“I would say it’s a lousy trade off, sort of like taking young men and putting them out as decoys,” Paul said. In answering the question, he also once again cited Reagan’s decision to pull out of Beirut as recognition that the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in the Middle East.
Because this has been an area of interest for me recently, I pointed out that terrorists have cited the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon as a motivating factor for them, and used it as a recruitment tool, because it demonstrated that the U.S. was weak and would pull away from the first sight of casualties.
At first, Paul said: “I don’t think so, I think it’s the fact that we didn’t really remove ourselves from the Middle East.”
I responded: “But bin Laden specifically cited our withdrawal from Beirut as showing that we’re weak and when you show us a few casualties, we’ll withdraw.” After we went back and forth about what bin Laden actually said, Paul responded:
“Which means if they resist, there are some benefits to it, which is logical. If they resist. But there’s no motivation unless we’re there, unless there’s occupation. This is the way he encourages his people, that he can be successful, which brings common sense to us. I just think we have to deal with it in the context of occupation.”
Paul’s argument, in essence, is that the terrorism against the U.S. is caused by our involvement in the Middle East and that there’s a vicious circle. We meddle in their affairs, which causes terrorism. People say we can’t back down and so we respond by meddling in their affairs more, which creates more animosity toward us and leads to more terrorism. He accepts the fact that there may be a short-term increase in terrorism as a result of our withdrawing from the Middle East until we reach the point where we can completely overhaul our foreign policy to remove the central motivating factor for terrorists-our presence in their lands.
My problem with Paul is that I don’t believe giving terrorists exactly what they want is a good way to go about discouraging terrorism, nor do I believe that the motivations of the modern Islamist movement are exclusively about U.S presence in the Middle East. They see it as their goal to remake the world according to their definition of pure Islam, and the U.S. will always collide with that vision. The “they hate us for our freedom” argument may have become trite, but it is shorthand for all the aspects of modernity that Islamists see as a threat, and the U.S. is the greatest symbol of them. Also, even if you accept the fact that our policies in the Middle East contribute to terrorism, it doesn’t mean that our actions are wrong. It doesn’t mean, for instance, that we should have allowed Iraq to annex Kuwait.
In other news, Paul identified Dennis Kucinich as the Democratic candidate he considers himself closest to (allowing for the fact that they have major disagreements on economic policy). He also responded to recent press reports of a statement attributed to him that “By far the most powerful lobby in Washington of the bad sort is the Israeli government.” Dave Weigel has the details.