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Opposing Imperialism Is Not Isolationism

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When pundits and rival politicians call Ron Paul an “isolationist,” they mislead the American people — and they know it.

They know it? How could they not: Ron Paul is for unilateral, unconditional free trade. He believes any American should be perfectly free to buy from or sell to any person in the world. In that sense — the laissez-faire sense — he favors globalization, which, applied consistently, would require a worldwide free market. He’s such a strong advocate of free trade that he objects to the world’s governments, led by the U.S. government, setting up international bureaucracies, such as the World Trade Organization, to manage trade. He thinks trade should be a totally private matter. That’s a solid classical-liberal, or libertarian, position.

So why is Paul repeatedly called an isolationist?

Apparently in today’s political world, being an isolationist means opposing the U.S. government’s policing the rest of the world through invasion, occupation, and war — that is, militarism. The word “isolationist” has always suggested a fear of foreigners, and no doubt those who apply the word to Paul want to cash in on that sense. So we are left with the daffy conclusion that Ron Paul is a xenophobic, head-in-the-sand isolationist precisely because he prefers peaceful trade with foreigners rather than invasion, occupation, and demolition of their countries.

If that’s what it means to be an isolationist, count me as one too.

It’s easy to understand why this inappropriate label is stuck on Paul. Establishment conservatives and progressives are terrified by him and desperately want him to go away. They’re terrified because he has done the worst thing imaginable: he has held up a mirror and reminded them of what they are.

He has shown establishment conservatives and even so-called Republican moderates (such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) that they are, and long have been, apologists for empire and therefore betrayers of the republican (small-r) ideals they say they embrace. When Paul condemns past, present, and future aggressive wars (such as the one being planned for Iran); when he calls for closing America’s 900 military installations in over 40 countries and removing America’s troops from 130 countries; when he advocates an end to all economic and military aid to foreign governments (including Israel’s); and when he opposes wholesale violation of the Bill of Rights (see the PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act), he is saying to his Republican rivals, You have helped destroy individual liberty by shamefully supporting the U.S. global empire, which brutalizes foreign populations, fosters an exploitative military-industrial complex, violates civil liberties, and burdens the American people with obscene debt, taxation, and Federal Reserve monetary manipulation.

That charge must be hard to take from a fellow Republican. So his rivals strike back in the way they know best: they smear Paul. The thought of a staunch antiwar, pro-Bill of Rights candidate running against Barack Obama scares the daylights out of them, because they know only one way to run against a Democrat: accuse him of being an appeaser and a socialist.

This is absurd, however, because Obama is neither. He has steadfastly carried on the empire’s program of global militarism and corporatism. If you doubt it, look at his foreign-policy record and the long list of Wall Street people who advise him and give him money.

Which brings us to the progressives. If you think establishment conservatives are scared of Ron Paul, imagine how Obama and his supporters must feel. Can you imagine their having to run against a staunch antiwar, pro-Bill of Rights opponent? This is the same Obama who has maintained Guantanamo, launched more deadly drone attacks than George W. Bush, signed into law the authority to detain individuals indefinitely without charge or trial, claimed he may kill even American citizens without due process, cracked down harshly on whistle-blowers, protected torturers from legal consequences, invoked state secrets to quash lawsuits by torture victims, and on and on.

Most progressives live in a fantasy world where they are champions of peace, tolerance, and the rule of law, when in fact they support — and refuse to criticize — a man who has mimicked George W. Bush in virtually every way.

How can they tolerate a man — Ron Paul — who reminds them of that?

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.