TCS Daily


It's OK If Ron Paul Is Right

By Gregory Scoblete - May 18, 2007 12:00 AM

Quixotic presidential candidate Ron Paul landed himself in a bit of hot water - make that a boiling cauldron - for remarks he made in last week's GOP debate suggesting that America's containment of Saddam Hussein led to 9/11.

Responding to a question about whether Paul was blaming America for the 9/11 attacks, he stated: "They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there."

Mayor Giuliani interjected in high dudgeon sending the crowd, and later conservative pundits, to their feet. But what Ron Paul said is, in fact, utterly uncontroversial and utterly true. Nowhere did Paul suggest ala Ward Churchill that the U.S. deserved to be attacked, he merely sought to explain the motives of those who attacked us. His explanation was certainly incomplete and a bit ham-handed, but it was not inaccurate or blatantly false.

In fact, if Ron Paul was "blaming the victim" as Mayor Giuliani indignantly implied, then he is in the company of such notorious America-haters as the current President of the United States, the former Assistant Secretary of Defense, the editorial boards of the Weekly Standard and Wall Street Journal, and many, many conservative pundits and intellectuals.

Cause & Effect

In a now famous November 6, 2003 address, President Bush explicitly linked U.S. policy with the rise of Islamic terrorism:

"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export."

This "accommodation" takes many forms, from the generous subsidies to the Mubarak regime in Egypt to the protection of the Saudi "royal" family and other Gulf potentates, first from Saddam Hussein and now from Iran.

In fact, the entire neoconservative argument for "regional transformation" rests on the notion that the prevailing political order in the Middle East - a political order sustained by American patronage and protection - has nurtured the conditions for bin Ladenism and must therefore be overturned.

Paul Wolfowitz - hardly a blame-America-firster - defended the removal of Saddam Hussein explicitly on the grounds that it would assuage one of bin Laden's grievances. In an interview with Vanity Fair the former Assistant Defense Secretary said that U.S. forces stationed in Saudi Arabia had "been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It's been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina."

Wolfowitz was correct, of course. In a 1998 fatwa signaling his jihad against America and the West and in interviews, bin Laden cited the stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia (necessary for containing Saddam) and the supposed depredations visited upon Iraq by the U.S. through sanctions and the no-fly-zones among his principle grievances. More significantly, America's support for "infidel" regimes led bin Laden to conclude that only by striking the "far enemy" (the U.S.) could he sufficiently weaken American support for the "near enemy" regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, making them easier targets. This initially put him at odds with his number two, Ayman al Zawahiri, who wanted to focus the jihadist firepower on Middle Eastern governments.

On a more transactional level, American support for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan is widely understood as have playing an instrumental role in the formation of al Qaeda. Pakistan's intelligence service routed American arms and Saudi money to radical forces in Afghanistan to beat back the Soviet invasion. The beneficiaries of this covert subsidy included Osama bin Laden and many of the "Arab Afghans" volunteers who would later form the nucleus of al Qaeda.

Lastly, opinion polls in the Middle East routinely portray a region bristling against American policies and influence (though not, it should be noted, with unrestrained hostility for Americans as a people). Throw in radical Islamic teachings, which reinforce the need to cleanse "holy soil" of any infidel influence, and you have the toxic stew from which al Qaeda sips.

Different analysts weight these two factors - radical theology and nationalistic umbrage - differently. I've argued earlier that this interpretative divide is largely fictitious, that radical Islam is both a reaction to American policies and an expression of Islamic fundamentalism. But it is simply counter-factual to suggest that America's Middle East policy has played no role whatsoever in the terrorist threat we're now confronting.

So why was Paul savaged?

I believe it's because many conservatives, especially since 9/11, have become increasingly unwilling to internalize the simple maxim that government actions have consequences - many of them unintended, some of them negative. Conservatives are rightly skeptical of grand government initiatives aimed at curing various domestic ills. Yet some have become convinced that the same bureaucrats who cannot balance the budget will nonetheless be able to deftly manage the political outcomes of nations half a world away. The tendency is so acute that it led the libertarian blogger Jim Henley to wryly observe that for some "Hayek stops at the water's edge."

Furthermore, understanding why bin Laden struck at America is not the same as excusing the murderers of 9/11 anymore than observing that Hitler desired Lebensraum excuses his invasion of Poland. Knowing your enemy is the all-important first step to defeating him.

Indeed, Paul has done the debate a fundamental service by raising the complex issues of cost and benefit when it comes to America's Middle East policy. You can argue, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski did, that a few "stirred up Muslims" was worth the price of driving a defeated Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. You can also argue, as the Bush administration has done, that 9/11 was not a serious enough event to merit a substantial rethinking of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. You can even claim that more, not less, intervention in the Middle East is what is required to bring about needed change.

What you cannot seriously argue is that the world is a "consequence free" zone in which U.S. actions can never catalyze harmful reactions.

American policy cannot be held hostage to the umbrage of religious fanatics, but we should pursue our policies with the clear-eyed understanding that government is a blunt instrument and that bureaucrats in Washington are not all-knowing sages capable of fine-tuning events and people in far away countries to precisely accord with our interests.

Indeed, beneath his awkward syntax, Ron Paul was making a serious point: that less intervention in the Middle East would ultimately improve American security. If Mayor Giuliani disagrees, he should at least explain why.


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