The reaction to the showdown between Rep. Ron Paul and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been fascinating. Paul suggested that the recent history of U.S. foreign policy endeavors overseas may have had something to do with terrorists' willingness to come to America, live here for several months, then give their lives to kill as many Americans as possible.
Perhaps, Paul suggested, the 15-year presence of the U.S. military forces in Muslim countries may have motivated them. For that, Giuliani excoriated him, calling it an "extraordinary statement," adding, "I don't think I've heard that before."
Let's be blunt. Giuliani was either lying, or he hasn't cracked a book in six years.
The "blowback" theory isn't some fringe idea common only to crazy Sept. 11 conspiracy theorists. It doesn't suggest that we "deserved" the Sept. 11 attacks, nor does it suggest we shouldn't have retaliated against the people who waged them.
What it does say is that actions have consequences. When the Arab and Muslim world continually sees U.S. troops marching through Arab and Muslim backyards, U.S. trade sanctions causing Arab and Muslim suffering and U.S. bombs landing on Arab and Muslim homes, it isn't difficult to see how Arabs could begin to develop a deep contempt for the U.S.
This isn't to say we should never bomb an Arab or Muslim country. Certainly, to the extent that the Taliban in Afghanistan gave Usama bin Laden and Al Qaeda refuge after the attacks, we had no choice but to attack and topple them from government.
But we also shouldn't just attack any Arab or Muslim country, which is what we did with Iraq. Saddam Hussein's government was brutal, ruthless and tyrannical. No doubt. But so are a number of countries with which we're allies (read: Saudi Arabia).
Hussein's government wasn't a threat to us. It wasn't militant Islamist. It was secular. There were no WMDs. And Saddam Hussein had no connection whatsoever to Sept. 11.
But let's get back to Rep. Paul. After last week's debate, reaction to Paul from pro-war types was swift and severe. The head of the Michigan GOP demanded he be excluded from future debates.
Several activists have called for him to be purged from the Republican Party (given what the GOP stands for these days, perhaps that's not such a bad idea). One former staffer declared Paul an "embarrassment" and announced he'd challenge Paul for his seat in Congress.
This is all patently absurd. Actually, it's offensive. No one knows precisely what morbid formula inspired the Sept. 11 attacks. Most likely, it was some mix of U.S. foreign policy exacerbating radical Islamists' already deep-seeded contempt for Western values.
But to suggest that we shouldn't even consider that our actions overseas might have unintended consequences is, frankly, just ignorant. And to attempt to silence anyone who says otherwise as outside the bounds of civilized debate is doubly ignorant.
If you get stung by a hornet, it makes sense to see if there's a hornets' nest near your home and, if there is, to exterminate it. It doesn't make sense to forge out looking for hornets' nests anywhere you can find them, smacking them with sticks. You're bound to get stung again.
It also makes sense to see if there's something you're doing that's attracting hornets, like perhaps storing perfume by a window. None of this suggests you deserved to be stung; it only means you're rationally looking at what caused you to be stung in the first place and trying to prevent it from happening again.
Those who find Rep. Paul's foreign policy vision fringe-like or crazy would do well to read what other libertarian non-interventionists were saying before the Iraq war began. They were remarkably prescient. Some even predicted a Sept. 11-like attack years before it happened. For example:
— The Cato Institute's Gene Healy: "After our quick victory, and after the "Arab street" fails to rise, you're going to hear a lot of self-congratulation from the hawks. But the fallout from this war is likely to be long-term, in the form of a protracted and messy occupation, and an enhanced terrorist recruitment base."
— Ted Galen Carpenter, also of Cato: "The inevitable U.S. military victory would not be the end of America's troubles in Iraq. Indeed, it would mark the start of a new round of headaches. Ousting Saddam would make Washington responsible for Iraq's political future and entangle the United States in an endless nation-building mission beset by intractable problems."
Now contrast those forecasts — both made before the war — with predictions from the war's architects:
— Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz: "We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."
— Vice President Dick Cheney: "I don't think it would be that tough a fight."
— White House economic advisor Glenn Hubbard: "Costs of any [Iraq] intervention would be very small."
— OMB Director Mitch Daniels: "The United States is committed to helping Iraq recover from the conflict, but Iraq will not require sustained aid."
It's striking just how right people who think like Ron Paul were before the war, and how incredibly wrong those now pilling on him were. And yet Paul Wolfowitz was promoted to head the World Bank; Dick Cheney is still vice president; and Mitch Daniels is the governor of Indiana.
The people who were wrong were rewarded. And they go right on mocking the people who were right.
Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog, TheAgitator.com.