Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who 24 years ago performed dismally as the standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party, has begun making waves in the 2012 presidential campaign, to the extreme discomfort of neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who dominate the foreign policy rosters of most of his Republican rivals.
While his third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses disappointed loyalists who felt he had a good shot at winning the first Republican primary test of the election year, the 76-year-old physician came within three percentage points of the top two finishers – the party's establishment candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and the latest far-right insurgent favourite, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum – out of a seven-candidate field.
Political insiders still believe that Romney, who gained the formal endorsement Wednesday of the 2008 Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, will eventually win the party's nomination. But Paul's showing – as well as the increased media attention he has received in recent weeks – suggests that he could well emerge as a force to be reckoned with at the party's convention next summer and could pose a major threat to Republican hopes of ousting Barack Obama if he decides to run as an independent in the November.
While Paul received just over one in five votes at the caucuses, it was who those voters were who flocked to his banner that proved most significant, and perhaps most alarming to the party's power brokers and its prospects for victory in November.
According to a New York Times survey of participants who entered the caucuses, a whopping 48 percent of those aged 17 to 29 said they supported Paul. By contrast, only 13 percent were for Romney.
One in three voters who participated in caucuses for the first time said they favoured the anti-interventionist libertarian. And, perhaps most significantly, 44 percent of participants who described themselves as "independents" or "other" (rather than Republicans) said they supported Paul, as opposed to 18 percent who said they preferred Romney.
Independents, who, according to most surveys, make up around 40 percent of the electorate, are generally considered critical to the outcome of next year's election.
Why independents, young voters, and first-time caucus-goers were so attracted to Paul is now the subject of considerable speculation and research, if only because the candidate himself holds such unorthodox, and, in some cases, seemingly inconsistent views on a wide range of subjects.
On economic issues, he is a loyal follower of the tenets of the so-called Austrian School founded by such free-market ideologues as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. In his more than 20 years in Congress, he has consistently voted against proposals that would increase the size and spending of the federal government, which he considers the greatest threat to individual freedoms. He has frequently called for the elimination of government departments and even of Social Security and the Federal Reserve.
A proponent of "states rights", he believes those powers that are not explicitly allocated to the federal government by the U.S. constitution, such as social issues like a woman's right to an abortion, the definition of marriage, and the legalisation of marijuana, should be left to the individual states.
Consistent with his libertarian views, he has also been outspoken in defence of basic constitutional rights, including everything from the right to bear arms to restrictions to be free from warrantless searches and seizures.
Unlike any of his Republican rivals, he has strongly and repeatedly denounced the 2001 Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the government's powers to detain terrorist suspects, the use of torture against detainees, and the growth of Islamophobia, especially among Republicans.
But he may be best known for his strongly anti-interventionist and anti-war – critics say isolationist – views on foreign policy, views that have garnered him a growing following on the left of the political spectrum, as well as the fervent opposition of Israel-centred neo-conservative and nationalist hawks.
Paul, for example, opposed Congressional resolutions authorising military force against Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and has called for radical cuts in the U.S. defence budget, in major part by withdrawing troops from bases in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, as well as hastening the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan.
"…(W)hen I see … a candidate like Ron Paul, whose foreign policy is, if anything, worse than the Obama administration apparently leading in Iowa according to some polls," said former U.N. Amb. John Bolton late last month, "it just gives me great concern."
Bolton, an aggressive nationalist par excellence now based at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), described Paul as living "in fantasy land".
Indeed, the divergence between Paul and the rest of the Republican field has been most dramatically illustrated during debates about Iran.
While the other candidates have accused Iran of building nuclear weapons, described Tehran as the greatest threat faced by the U.S., and pledged to use military force as a last resort to prevent it from obtaining a bomb, Paul has not only expressed scepticism on the first two counts and strongly opposed the third, he has argued that Washington should be able live and negotiate with a nuclear Iran, just as it did with the former Soviet Union and China and asked a logical question:
"Just think how many nuclear weapons surround Iran," he told a Fox News interviewer in August. "The Chinese are there. The Indians are there. The Pakistanis are there. The Israelis are there. The United States is there. All these countries ….why wouldn't it be natural if they might want a weapon. Internationally, they might be given more respect. Why should we write people off?"
More recently, he cited the downing of a U.S. drone over Iranian territory to question both the hawkishness of his rivals and the militarisation of U.S. foreign policy under both Republicans and Democrats.
"Why were we even flying a drone over Iran?" he asked. "Why do we have to bomb so many countries? Why do we have 900 bases in 130 different countries when we are totally bankrupt? I think this wild goal to have another war in the name of ‘defence’ is a dangerous thing. The danger is really in us overreacting…"
While such reasoning is an abomination to the many neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who are advising Romney, Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in particular, others, including some leading opinion-shapers across the political spectrum, suggest that Paul is asking precisely the kinds of questions that U.S. voters should be considering as Washington faces an increasingly multi-polar world.
In "an era of unprecedented elite failure…," noted conservative New York Times columnist Russ Douthat last week, "it sometimes takes a fearless crank to expose realities that neither Republicans nor Democrats are particularly eager to acknowledge."
"(T)here is no denying that Paul's worldview has helped him to launch a powerful critique on American foreign policy," wrote another conservative commentator, Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on his foreignpolicy.com blog who nonetheless stressed that he would never vote for Paul as president.
"His hypothesis that the United States has invited some blowback by overly militarizing its foreign policy cannot be easily dismissed."
And his critique has gained traction from left-wing analysts as well, including Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald and Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation, who recently tweeted, "I have big problems (with) Ron Paul on many issues. But on ending preemptive wars & on challenging bipartisan elite consensus on (foreign policy), good he's in."
Yet another commentator, author Robert Wright of theatlantic.com, noted this week that the value of Paul's foreign policy views lie less in their substance than "in the way he explains them".
Citing several examples, including his questioning of why Iran would not want nuclear weapons, Wright observed that "Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans."
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.