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Foreign Policy Apples to Oranges: Greenwald on Obama and Ron Paul

January 1, 2012

Ron Paul presents a unique dilemma for progressives.  On the one hand, his fondness for deregulating markets and the dismantling of the welfare state is consistent with the policy preferences of his GOP primary counterparts.  Paul is arguably worse on the economy than Huntsman or Romney insofar as he, unlike the later candidates, seeks to eliminate, rather than merely reduce the size of, Social Security, Medicare, and other essential programs (which are in his view “unconstitutional”).

So why are some of my Occupy Minnesota friends suddenly getting turned on to congressman Paul?  In a word, priorities.  It cannot be denied that Paul compares quite favorably with Obama on civil liberties and foreign policy, as Glenn Greenwald points out in this recent post.  Echoing Jefferson’s denunciations of George III, Greenwald makes Obama look positively tyrannical:

The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with dronescluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

I won’t quote the passage in full, as it is quite lengthy.  I think, though, that this paragraph alone raises serious questions about Obama’s credibility.

Here’s the thing, though.  Greenwald conveniently glosses over the distinction between what Aristotle would call the major and minor premises of practical reasoning.  The major premise is the general notion or notions by which one acts.  In the case of the war in Afghanistan – and, more generally, the War on Terror – the notion is something like “rooting out terrorism in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan will help save American lives.”  The minor premise is a specific circumstance, e.g. “a drone strike in Waziristan will kill five militants.”

Now obviously ends don’t justify means.  There are, according to my view at least, certain things that just should not be done under any circumstances.  With that said, a distinction ought to be made between an attack that is directed at civilians (which is arguably never justified) and an attack against combatants that results incidentally in civilian casualties (which inevitable in any war).   As for the expansion of presidential powers, the nondisclosure of government documents, and related matters, Greenwald takes it as self-evident that these measures can never be justified – and, to be clear, I find the actions of the Obama administration deeply troubling in these respects.  However, it is not difficult to think of considerations that might lead to a more nuanced view, e.g. an imminent threat to American lives.

I don’t at all mean to engage in a sophistic defense of Obama here.  Rather, what I want to suggest is that Greenwald is making an apples-to-oranges comparison between Obama and Paul.  The overall thrust of Obama’s foreign policy — that is, the major premise — isn’t cluster bombs or drone strikes; it is the belief that war in Afghanistan can help protect American lives and that the benefits of such a war outweigh the costs.  The overall thrust of Paul’s foreign policy, by contrast, is non-intervention (though presumably Paul would use military force to counter a direct attack).  That is a more relevant comparison.

At the same time, there is a sense in which the comparison is still not quite apples to apples, but more like apples to crab apples.  After all, Paul’s non-interventionism is a position at far greater level of abstraction than Obama’s views on Afghanistan.  In reality, the most relevant comparison would be Paul’s non-interventionism and Obama’s Wilsonian idealism.  Personally, I lean toward the former, though out of practical considerations, rather than the ironclad belief that the government should never under any circumstances do anything more than enforce contracts and protect property rights. With that said, Greenwald’s critique of Obama is far less damning when framed as a choice between rival philosophies, rather than as a litany of offenses on the part of the Obama administration – especially considering that the effects of Wilsonian foreign policy have not been entirely negative. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dray Prescott permalink
    February 12, 2012 4:10 pm

    So, once again, its not fascism when we do it (the Wilsonian way). What happened to the left’s belief in autonomous communities and peaceful relations. If you really read Paul’s approach, you will see that it is predicated on the uprooting of the warfare state before the welfare state. With Obama, as with Bush, you get both. If you are going to write about Paul, do it accurately.

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