No Road to Damascus
The Rise of the Antiwar Libertarians
Their principles trump party politics—and are the best hope to stop a U.S. war on Syria. By Nick Gillespie.
If you’re among the majority of war-weary Americans who oppose any sort of military intervention in Syria, thank libertarian Republican lawmakers Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.
If the House and Senate vote against authorizing war next week, the efforts by these two guys will have been instrumental. Indeed, their outspoken, principled pushback is part of the reason that President Barack Obama—the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner—hasn’t already pursued some sort of strike “just muscular enough not to get mocked” by the world while not inciting retaliation by Bashar al-Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran.
Amash is not only conducting an exemplary districtwide listening tour on Syria, he’s documenting it via his Twitter feed and the Facebook page he uses to explain all his votes and positions. Paul added an amendment to the Senate resolution on Syria that declares the president in violation of the Constitution if he launches attacks without congressional authorization. Unlike the flip-flops by Republicans who were hawks on Iraq—and in-the-GOP-tank organizations such as the Heritage Foundation—no one assumes these guys will reverse their stances on bombing Arabs the second that the Party of Lincoln regains the White House.
You may not like their positions on abortion or gay marriage (I don’t particularly—and I’m a libertarian), but Amash and Paul’s intense ideological consistency is precisely why they are effective in limiting fighting overseas. They are never afraid to take on the president—or their own party. Sen. John McCain has denounced them by name as “wacko birds,” and they’ve been called everything from racists to assholes.
Compare their adamantine spine to rollover Republicans such as Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, or any of the 35 House Democrats (with Nancy Pelosi leading the charge like a latter-day Molly Pitcher!) that Think Progress figures will vote yes on military action. Then there’s the bipartisan Senate resolution, which was spearheaded by Bob Corker (R-TN) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), and hews to Obama’s bizarre, pathetic insistence that he wants to send an unambiguous message to the Assad regime without actually toppling it. As First Things editor R.R. Reno devastatingly argues, “Launching cruise missiles or airstrikes simply to ‘show resolve’ or ‘send a message’ cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.”
Such reasoning is plainly lost on Obama, whose high-flying rhetoric on “dumb wars,” transparency, and so much else has been systematically unmasked as nothing more than gas since he’s occupied the White House. “The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” Obama told The Boston Globe in 2007, years before his unilateral decision to drop bombs on Libya and back when he was trying to separate himself from the ostensibly pro-war candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, Hillary Clinton. (Naturally, she supports giving Obama carte blanche.)
If you’re antiwar, you’ve got no reason to celebrate a liberal punditocracy that has done a soul-sapping about-face now that a Democrat is in the White House. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who spent the Bush years denouncing self-evidently idiotic interventionist foreign policy, is—reluctantly!—all in: “There is good reason to fear that Syria is the most slippery of slopes—and to believe that the only sure way to avoid sliding into the middle of this brutal, messy war is to stay far away. Despite all this … Obama has to act.”
He’s not alone, of course, in following the lead of The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who asserts that “this time it’s different.” You don’t have to buy historian Thaddeus Russell’s argument that liberal progressives have always been warmongers to feel a sense of sadness and nausea when reading endorsements of symbolic killing from The New York Times’ and Washington Post’s editorial boards.
There is something equally sickening in reading the glee of liberal commentators such as the Post’s Harold Meyerson, who reflexively reduces all moral issues to questions of immediate partisan advantage. Meyerson is clearly perplexed by politicians who not only espouse principles but act according to them. “The coming collision of libertarian fantasies with reality will be instructive. Can a congressman vote to defund the government and approve a military action in the same month? Or vote to authorize cruise-missile attacks while insisting the government default on its debts?” writes Meyerson, who seems incapable of recognizing that libertarian Republicans such as Amash and Paul won’t find themselves in any such conundrum.
But they can and will vote against war and against increasing a federal budget that has exploded over the past dozen years. Even as Meyerson licks his chops at the dramedy unfolding on his computer screen, he seems anxious that things might not go according to his (and Obama’s) wishes: “Right-wing Republicans may decide not to authorize a strike because they want to embarrass the president, but even they must know that there’s more at stake than their war on Obama: life and death; the future of a crumbling country and a volatile region; our own security as well as U.S. credibility.”
Meyerson’s grotesque partisanship-über-alles mentality has its equal and opposite reaction on the right. James Ceaser, dubbed “one of American conservatism’s leading thinkers” by no less a grand poobah than William Kristol, has written a brief for Syrian intervention that at its core comes down to this: “There is the important matter of the future—a future that may one day have a Republican in the presidency. The precedent of setting too low a threshold for blocking presidential initiative in foreign affairs is unwise.” Ceaser goes on to counsel his fellow Republicans that they even “can sign on to the president’s discretion to act without signing on to his actions,” thereby hedging their responsibility.
In such a compromised moral and political universe, characters such as Rand Paul and Justin Amash are not just rare but necessary. We need more of them. Their willingness to articulate governing principles and then legislate accordingly is the reason they are leading an ideological insurgency in the Republican Party and stoking what outlets from The Atlantic to NPR to the Post are recognizing as a “libertarian moment.”
You may not agree with them on issues beyond the war, but that’s the issue that is front and center right now. Neither of them is a pacifist or an isolationist. But when it comes to purely elective war—not just in Syria but wherever our mad bomber in chief wants to drop a load next—you can be certain they will be leading the opposition.