As Ron Paul has risen in the polls, so has the frequency of attacks against him. “Any stick will do to beat a dog” goes the old saying, and the whacks against Paul range from reasonable to ridiculous. Expect the attacks to continue. Expect them to get more ridiculous.
And expect the worst attacks to come from Republicans.
Let’s cut the crap. The GOP establishment’s main beef with Ron Paul is his foreign policy. This ideological chasm is the subtext to most attacks on Paul from the right. To their credit, some of Paul’s critics are man (or woman) enough to confront the congressman on this subject directly. Paul welcomes these challenges and wants his fellow Republicans to debate what a true conservative foreign policy should look like. But the members of the Republican establishment do not want any such discussion. In fact, they fear it.
Most of the 2012 Republican presidential contenders subscribe primarily to a neoconservative foreign policy — the reflexively pro-war, world-police dogma that has been the dominant view in the Republican Party for at least a decade. When Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain was asked by David Gregory on “Meet the Press” in October, “Would you describe yourself as a neoconservative then?” Cain replied: “I’m not sure what you mean by neoconservative … I’m not familiar with the neoconservative movement.” Cain was being honest — he simply knew how most Republicans viewed foreign policy and generally agreed with them. What was this “neoconservatism” Gregory spoke of? Said Cain: “I’m a conservative, yes. Neoconservative — labels sometimes put you in a box.”
“Neoconservative” certainly is a label that puts you in a box. The prefix alone invites curiosity (which is why neoconservatives don’t like it) and the term itself suggests that it represents something different from plain old conservatism (which is why neoconservatives really don’t like it). Neoconservative Max Boot outlined the ideology in 2002: “Neoconservatives believe in using American might to promote American ideals abroad … [The] agenda is known as ‘neoconservatism,’ though a more accurate term might be ‘hard Wilsonianism’ …” Of President Bush’s “hard Wilsonianism,” columnist George Will and National Review founder William F. Buckley said the following during an exchange in 2005:
WILL: Today, we have a very different kind of foreign policy. It’s called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush doctrine is that America must spread democracy, because our national security depends upon it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in national building. This is conservative or not?
BUCKLEY: It’s not at all conservative. It’s anything but conservative …
National Rifle Association President David Keene made a distinction between what he saw as Ronald Reagan’s more traditionally conservative foreign policy and the neoconservatives’ comparative extremism:
Reagan resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. … After the  assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets.
Keene then asked: “Can one imagine one of today’s neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?”
The fact that a significant part of Ron Paul’s campaign has been to constantly point out distinctions between how past conservative Republicans have approached foreign policy and the current neoconservative approach that dominates the GOP irritates those who’ve spent their careers trying to blur these distinctions. Wrote the neoconservatives’ intellectual godfather Irving Kristol in 2003:
One can say that the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills …
That Herman Cain had never heard of neoconservatism until his interview with Gregory is a testament to the neoconservatives’ success. That Paul might now be “converting” the GOP back toward a more sober or traditionally conservative foreign policy threatens that success.
The enduring influence of neoconservative foreign policy can be seen in this election. Many and perhaps most conservatives continue to find much to like about Ron Paul on limited government and fiscal issues, but will frequently add that they like Paul “except on foreign policy.” Paul has even been called “unelectable” by many due in no small part to his foreign policy views.
But no one ever says that they like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich — except on individual healthcare mandates, cap and trade, TARP, amnesty or any of the countless anti-conservative positions both candidates hold. The laundry list of Mitt’s and Newt’s offenses against conservatism is a mile long — but both candidates remain ultimately acceptable, or are deemed “electable,” so long as both generally hold neoconservative foreign policy views. And they do.
Paul is to the right of Romney and Gingrich on every issue conservatives find unsettling about both candidates. But Paul does dissent from contemporary Republican orthodoxy on foreign policy. It is without question foreign policy that makes Paul “unelectable” in the eyes of the Republican establishment but Romney and Gingrich ultimately acceptable despite their countless big-government offenses.
Hell, even the slightest hint that a Republican candidate could be wandering off the neocon reservation causes immediate alarm. During a Republican debate in June, Romney dared to say: “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can … our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation.”
Of Romney’s uncharacteristic comments, Politico’s Ben Smith reported: “Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said her inbox was flooded Tuesday morning with emails calling Romney’s comments a ‘disaster.’”
“I’d thought of Romney as a mainstream Republican — supporting American strength and American leadership, but this doesn’t reflect that,” she said. “Romney has proven himself a little bit of a weathervane and I guess he senses that positioning himself in this place is good for his campaign — attempting to appease Ron Paul’s constituents without actually being Ron Paul.”
For a brief moment, Romney dared to utter what many traditional conservatives have long said about the limits of American foreign policy. For neoconservatives, this minor transgression amounted to a “disaster.”
For every one of Paul’s foreign policy positions the Republican establishment calls “nuts,” you can find revered conservative figures, past and present, who have expressed similar positions: The Iraq War was a “mistake” (Bill Buckley, Robert Novak, Jack Kemp); America shouldn’t be the “world’s policeman” (Paul Weyrich, Grover Norquist, Dick Armey); America’s constant intervention overseas causes “blowback” (Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Pat Buchanan).
There has long been an ongoing discussion on the right about foreign policy, but Paul’s popularity has pushed this discussion in a more non-interventionist direction. For Republican insiders, this is heresy and it is the real reason they attack Paul — whether they admit it or not.
For neoconservatives and a Republican establishment married to that ideology, there will continue to be much to fear from Ron Paul pushing forward with this foreign policy conversation. There is even more to fear from him having the last word.
Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger