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The Republican "national security" debate sponsored by Neocon Central the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation captured perfectly the intellectual and political bankruptcy of the Republican party when it comes to foreign policy. Here the party’s pandering demagoguery, reflexive ultra-nationalism, and visceral hostility to liberty was on full display in all its exhibitionistic belligerence. It was only natural, therefore, that the first question was asked by disgraced former US Attorney General Edwin Meese, who was forced to resign as Reagan’s AG as a result of his complicity in obtaining big defense contracts for a phony "minority"-owned company. Here is his "question":
"At least 42 terrorist attacks aimed at the United States have been thwarted since 9/11. Tools like the Patriot Act have been instrumental in finding and stopping terrorists. Shouldn’t we have a long range extension of the investigative powers contained in that act so that our law enforcement officers can have the tools that they need?"
What a set up for Newt Gingrich! And he certainly took advantage of it: naturally he was given the first answer with poor Herman Cain having outlived his usefulness and been unceremoniously dumped, Newt is the "mainstream" media’s new darling. That’s because he can always be counted on to reiterate the neocons’ favorite talking points, and on this occasion he did not disappoint:
"BLITZER: Speaker Gingrich, only this weekend there was an alleged terror plot uncovered in New York City. What do you think?
"GINGRICH: Well, I think that Attorney General Meese has raised a key point, and the key distinction for the American people to recognize is the difference between national security requirements and criminal law requirements.
"I think it’s desperately important that we preserve your right to be innocent until proven guilty, if it’s a matter of criminal law. But if you’re trying to find somebody who may have a nuclear weapon that they are trying to bring into an American city, I think you want to use every tool that you can possibly use to gather the intelligence.
"The Patriot Act has clearly been a key part of that. And I think looking at it carefully and extending it and building an honest understanding that all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives. This is not going to end in the short run. And we need to be prepared to protect ourselves from those who, if they could, would not just kill us individually, but would take out entire cities."
In less than 200 words, Newt managed the wholesale bifurcation of American law into two parallel tracks, one that acknowledges how "desperately important" it is to "preserve your right to be innocent until proven guilty," and the other which recognizes no such necessity and, in fact, negates it.
Oh, isn’t he glib isn’t he clever? With a mere sleight of hand he has obviated the Constitution and upended the legal and moral traditions of two hundred years. What an achievement! He smiles a greasy, easy grin, well-pleased with himself. The audience dutifully applauds.
"I’ve spent years studying this stuff," he adds, and one could well believe he had indeed spent years learning how to start out with a libertarian premise "It’s desperately important that we preserve your right to be innocent until proven guilty" and coming out the other end with a purely authoritarian conclusion. This, as I’ve pointed out in the past, is Bizarro Conservatism a doctrine that preaches the precise opposite of what the traditional "less government," pro-individual rights conservatives used to believe.
Newt’s clash with Ron Paul over this issue defined the parameters of the subsequent hour or so: this was the first Paul-centric debate, preceded by his rise in the polls and his increasingly important role as the ideological catalyst of this GOP presidential primary. Once again, as in the economic sphere with even former Federal Reserve board member Herman Cain echoing Paul’s call to audit the Fed the Texas congressman set the tone of the discussion with his ringing defense of the Founders’ concept of what freedom means:
"I think the Patriot Act is unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty. I’m concerned, as everybody is, about the terrorist attack. Timothy McVeigh was a vicious terrorist. He was arrested. Terrorism is still on the books, internationally and nationally, it’s a crime and we should deal with it.
"We dealt with it rather well with Timothy McVeigh. But why I really fear it is we have drifted into a condition that we were warned against because our early founders were very clear. They said, don’t be willing to sacrifice liberty for security.
"Today it seems too easy that our government and our congresses are so willing to give up our liberties for our security. I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security. You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights."
Newt thought he’d won by making a dramatic pause and intoning:
"Yes. Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point."
Looking like a Halloween pumpkin left out in the rain, Gingrich went into novelist mode, scaring the children with the specter of "losing a major American city" and bringing his fist down hard on the podium as he thundered
"I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we’re going to stop you!"
Paul’s answer was perfect:
"This is like saying that we need a policeman in every house, a camera in every house because we want to prevent child-beating and wife-beating. You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state. So if you advocate the police state, yes, you can have safety and security and you might prevent a crime, but the crime then will be against the American people and against our freedoms. And we will throw out so much of what our revolution was fought for. So don’t do it so carelessly."
In short: why not just set up a dictatorship and be done with it? Paul is too polite to point out that Newt would make the perfect dictator, strutting about the stage and puffing out his chest like a peacock on parade so I will.
I thought I detected an elegiac note in Paul’s remarks, a sadness in his voice as he pleaded with his audience not to throw away the Founders’ gift "so carelessly." As if he fears that they probably will, anyway.
There is reason for pessimism: we are, after all, living in a time when a half-baked professional bloviator like Gingrich is considered a conservative "intellectual." With the help of the "mainstream" media which would like nothing more than to see the singularly unattractive and baggage-laden Gingrich up against their hero Obama the Newtster is having his moment in the sun. It will, however, be a brief moment and he’s not really running for president anyway. Everyone knows his campaign has been a vanity project and moneymaking operation from the outset.
Quietly gaining traction, the growth and development of the Paulian movement occurring largely beneath the media’s radar, the Paul campaign has achieved tremendous gains for the peace movement in America. No matter how it ends, it has created a new chapter in the history of the foreign policy discourse in this country: anti-interventionism is no longer considered the exclusive preserve of the "radical" left. For the first time since the 1930s, the anti-imperialist tendency in American conservatism is in the ascendant: the Old Right is back, more organized and intellectually coherent than ever.