WASHINGTON -- Looking back over the political campaign last year, and trying to figure out what were the wisest words spoken, I have no problem determining that they came from Republican Libertarian candidate Ron Paul.
A lot of Americans think the Texas congressman is off-the-wall, as he takes unusual positions on almost any topic (although the money is pouring in for him on the Internet). But I think his wisdom is something we might attend to at our own gain.
Several months ago, he was asked at one of the debates why he, having been one of the few early and angry opponents of the invasion of Iraq, was such an "isolationist." The feisty Paul, who never minces words, answered with unusual clarity, even for him.
"I am not an isolationist," he responded. "I am a non-interventionist." He went on to say that he believed passionately in all kinds of exchanges, conferences and meetings with the rest of the world; he believed in employing the "soft power" of education and the rich exchange of ideas that the United States so excels at, but he did not believe in America's intervening in other people's affairs.
In fact, if we look even cursorily at the most recent tragedy to strike in large part because of our military and political meddling in a part of the world where we have no natural geographical or cultural attachments -- the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- we can see one result of our unseasoned interventions.
Years ago, we refused to support the beautiful "democrat" at all -- and in fact were totally against her. Over the years, we went up and down with support for the military in Pakistan, gave arms to the Afghan "mujahadeen" slipping across the border into Pakistan in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s, and then left them to fall into the Taliban's ugly embrace instead of doing something to assure a reasonable and moderate future for Afghanistan when it would have been possible. (You must remember that Pakistan and Afghanistan are part of the same story.)
Indeed, until the very last moment -- this fall, to be exact -- we were still trying to stage-manage one of the most violent and complex countries in the world, a country halfway across the globe and a nuclear power divided up between a violence-prone military, tribal areas now turning toward the most rabid forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and a talented middle class that has never been able to establish and hold onto presidential and political power.
Even at the end, it was Washington that was meeting with Bhutto and the Pakistani government and urging the two to create a coalition government with the kind of concord that has never existed in Pakistan.
In years to come, historians will surely ponder the almost criminal casualness of Benazir's return. The government and the powerful Pakistani military refused to give her, or allow her, the most elemental security, including even American private security people such as Blackwater USA. (This, in fact, might have well been an appropriate place for them to operate.) Her assassination took place as she posed in an open car, in a country where assassination threats are a dime a dozen.
The aftermath of her assassination was as though a shroud lifted, exposing the secrets of Pakistan's military and political makeup. The government lied about the cause of Bhutto's death, putting forward the ludicrous story that she had "hit her head" on the car and forcing the humiliated doctors who examined her to lie about the injuries.
So where is Pakistan now? Many observers and analysts expect the worst. With so many tribal groups, with so many wars awaiting fruition on virtually every one of Pakistan's borders (India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, China, Baluchistan), and with so much confusion about who really supports which guerrilla movement, not to speak of problems arising from the country's well-developed nuclear capacity, Pakistan stands as a prime candidate for implosion.
And because Pakistan stands as the very pivot of balance in southwest Asia, it could now well serve as the cause of disintegration in the entire area. To say that such developments threaten whatever is left of hope for the development of a stable Afghanistan under serious American tutelage is to put it mildly indeed.
So we come back to Ron Paul's question: isolationism or non-intervention? And we ought soberly to be asking ourselves a whole universe of questions about those concepts. Where and for what should we reserve military intervention (the ultimate act)? What international principles are we operating on and representing as a nation? Finally, what on earth are we really doing with such an endless involvement in Pakistan, a country so remote from us physically and from our true interests?
I'll admit it, I'd rather be called an "isolationist" in today's world than an "interventionist." I want us to be an example to the world and a protector of our interests, not an occupier of countries we don't like. I want us to represent our old principle of multilateralism instead of this madcap pre-emptive war.
This is the discussion the candidates should be having with us during the campaign.
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