The Greatness of Ron Paul

By introducing moral imagination to the foreign-policy conversation, the Republican candidate is doing the nation an important service.

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A dispute has broken out among fans of Ron Paul's non-interventionist foreign policy about whether he's a strategic liability. Paul, says Kevin Drum, is such a "toxic, far-right, crackpot messenger" that "the only thing he's accomplishing is to make non-interventionism even more of a fringe view in American politics than it already is."

It's certainly true that Paul's hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success,  Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

It doesn't lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I'm largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

This is such a radical departure from the prevailing American mindset that some of Paul's critics see it as more evidence of his weirdness. A video montage meant to discredit him shows him taking the perspective of Iran. After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, "Why wouldn't it be natural that they'd want a weapon? Internationally they'd be given more respect."

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn't it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

Paul's error is clear: He's departed from approved Republican-presidential-candidate talking points, according to which the only explanation for an Iranian nuclear program is a desire to destroy Israel. (Even Jon Huntsman, supposedly one of the more sensible Republicans on foreign policy, seems to be a slave to the talking points: It's the Huntsman campaign that created the video montage in question!)

A favorite Paul pedagogical device is to analogize foreign situations to American ones. A campaign ad promoted by a Paul-supporting super PAC begins by asking us to imagine Russian or Chinese troops in Texas. The point is that this is how our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan look to locals.

I've long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of "moral imagination"--the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.

If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America's foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he's doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).

Paul's hawkish detractors may succeed in using him to taint a non-interventionist foreign policy. Even so, if in the meanwhile Paul gets enough people exercising their moral imaginations, maybe doves will get the last laugh.

Image: Jim Young / Reuters

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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