In this comment to this post, a commenter named Daniel pointed out that “isolationism” is an invalid concept. (See here.)

I had forgotten that reference, so thanks to Daniel for mentioning it. When writing that blog post I considered using the term Ron Paul uses, “non-interventionism.” But that term seems to me not to encompass some of his important foreign policy positions — e.g., his objection to the use of trade embargoes or sanctions, as well as his objection to aiding an ally in a way that falls short of “intervening”.

So, what term would encompass Ron Paul’s distinctive — and distinctively wrong — foreign policy positions? The only term I could come up with so far was the metaphorical term, “ostrichism.” The OED defines it as, “The policy of hiding the head like an ostrich.” On this web page it is defined as “A policy of burying one’s head in the sand, i.e. ignoring the reality of a situation,” which explains the meaning of the metaphor. This terms is an appropriate one to describe Ron Paul’s foreign policy, because there seem to be so many realities of our foreign policy situation that he must be ignoring in order to advocate the particular positions he has. Some examples:

—Paul voted against the use of sanctions against Iran, who is currently developing its capacity to produce nuclear fuel and whose president said, in his most recent statement regarding Iran’s intentions, “If we do want to make a bomb, we are not afraid of anybody.”

He said Israel should not stop the flow of weapons to Hamas because, after all, Hamas was democratically elected (even though it’s a terrorist organization).

—He rejects the idea of preemptive strikes.

—He wants to eliminate all foreign aid, even aid to important allies like Israel. (He said this during the South Carolina debate this year.)

—He would not have killed Osama bin Laden, despite the fact that the Pakistanis were no doubt hiding him, and that bin Laden was apparently still active in directing Al-Qaeda in its terrorist plots against the United States and its allies.

—He is reported to have said, shortly after 9/11, that the threat from Jihadists “was a made up one,” and that “if we simply learned to leave them alone, they would in turn leave us alone.”

Besides the fact that there is a list of realities that Ron Paul seems to be ignoring, the picture of him, with his head buried in the sand, waiting for the first strike from our enemies, just seems so perfect! (Thanks, by the way, to Bosch Fawstin, for creating the above cartoon for me.)

Still, I know that ostrichism probably isn’t the right term, either. It can apply to any number of people ignoring any of numerous realities about a variety of situations. The term seems to have little, if any, connotation that would uniquely indicate a foreign policy position. In fact, when I Googled the term along with Paul’s name, I found some references in which Paul’s supporters applied the term to those who thought his popularity was a thing of the past.

But there’s one more definition that I found. The site that I linked to, above, also offers this as a possible definition: “Conduct like that of the ostrich: alluding to its habit of considering itself wholly concealed when only its head is hidden.”

Hmm, “consider[s] itself wholly concealed when only its head is hidden.” When do ostriches hide? Most likely when they believe they face a threat. So, perhaps we can sum up a foreign policy of ostrichism as: “Believing one is safe in the face of a potential threat, even though all one has done is chosen to ignore certain realities of the situation giving rise to that threat.”

What do you think? Any other suggestions?


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20 responses to “Ostrichism?

  1. Something that just occurred to me is that the ostrich metaphor is in some ways too generous to describe the strict, contextless “non-intervention” foreign policy of the Rothbardian libertarians. Their viewpoint is not simply about ignoring threats; rather, they need to offer arguments why we have no right to retaliate and/or deserve to be attacked. It’s as if they understand that there are strong, not-too-abstract arguments for retaliation (such as, “we don’t want crazies to kill us”) and they need to somehow paralyze our actions by injecting moral doubt. This kind of radical leveling has the odor of nihilism.

  2. My suggestion: His foreign policy = moRON PAULicy

  3. Hahaha, that cartoon is awesome. Great post.

  4. Ryan Jamieson

    I am not sure the best one word to describe Ron Paul’s views in regard to foreign policy, but from watching several interviews online on the topic of various foreign policy concerns, the best term that comes to mind is “disinvolvementist”. (I’m not sure that’s a real word, but I think some dictionaries recognize it.)
    In regards to foreign issues, the analogy that comes to mind is that of a (bad) parent who, in a fight between two children in which it is clear that one child is clearly right and the other is wrong, the parent says: “I don’t want to get involved. I have no interest here. You two resolve it yourselves.” In some contexts, this might be the correct response. However, it is disastrous if followed as a blind policy; it is clearly to the detriment of genuine American allies and to the support of actual American enemies and threats abroad.

  5. I pretty much agree with this essay but I have one complaint. You write that Ron Paul “wants to eliminate all foreign aid, even aid to important allies like Israel.” I cannot understand why this is a controversial position among Objectivists.

    Why should American taxpayers support any foreign nation? Let’s take Israel (since I assume eliminating aid to Pakistan is a little less controversial). Okay, maybe in an emergency we would extend credit but Israel’s current situation hardly warrants that description. Israel’s GDP is upwards of $200 billion. Israel’s current unemployment is 5.7%. Israel is doing quite well (thanks to some long overdue free market reforms). Of course we should support Israel diplomatically (far more than we do at present) and sell it any and all weapons it requires but why should American taxpayers foot the bill? Don’t you think that the usual bad effects (a feeling of dependency, etc.) of foreign aid apply in this case?

    Some Israelis sure seem to think so. Back in January Yaron Brook spoke at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (http://www.jims-israel.org/Public-Lecture-Series.aspx). Later that year, the institute released the following paper:
    Economic and Strategic Ramifications of American Assistance to Israel
    Yarden Gazit (http://www.jims-israel.org/pdf/PPusaidenglish.pdf). Its conclusion:
    “The extensive economic and strategic damage wrought by America’s financial assistance to Israel cannot be assessed with full accuracy until Israel disconnects itself from it entirely. Based on economic and geopolitical projections, this aid is bound to undergo changes, while its damaging effects will only worsen. Israel would be well served if the Government acts to pre-empt the inevitable and initiate a disengagement.”

    Also in support of ending US Aid to Israel is columist Caroline Glick, one of the most eloquent and insightful defenders of Israel in the English press. In a recent column (http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=209768) she wrote:
    “The direct military cost of the Second Lebanon War is estimated at $2.2b. The direct military cost of Operation Cast Lead is estimated at $1.4b. The actual costs of both wars to the Israeli economy were several times higher.

    Those who claim that Israel cannot manage without US military aid ignore the fact that neither of these wars had any discernible impact on the economy.”

    Other Israelis have come to the same conclusion. Here’s another article from the Israeli business newspaper Globes (http://www.globes.co.il/serveen/globes/docview.asp?did=1000616232):
    “The time has come to bid goodbye to the military aid that the US extends to Israel, that generous package (currently $3 billion) that enables the Israeli taxpayer to share the cost of procuring equipment for the IDF with the US taxpayer. Israel should itself initiate the process of detachment from the Washington breast”

    I urge you to read the links I have provided and reconsider your opposition to eliminating foreign aid to Israel. It is in both countries interest to eliminate it.

    • Hi Gideon,

      The context for deciding whether foreign aid would be appropriate would be the standard stated by Brook and Epstein in the Just War Theory article I keep linking to and citing all the time 🙂

      To fight and win a proper war of self-defense requires two basic courses of action: (1) objectively identify the nature of the threat and (2) do whatever is necessary to destroy the threat and return to normal life, with minimum loss of life and liberty on the part of the citizens of the defending nation.

      So, all I’m saying is that I am open to the second prong, in some contexts, consisting of giving aid to a country like Israel. It’s an option I think should be left on the table, if needed. That being said, I do believe that, at least today, Israel is better off without our “help” anyway. I was particularly displeased, to say the least, with Obama’s call for a return to the pre-1967 borders. And Paul was right that it’s extremely silly to be giving “aid” to both sides of a conflict! With “friends” like this…

      I’ll check out your links now; thank you for sharing them.

      Update: I looked at the paper by JIMS. I guess I’m not surprised at the strings attached to the money (e.g., the requirement of buying a certain amount of American weapons, etc., with the “aid”). This is not something that would be done by a government interested in maintaining a separation between state and economics! I’m also not surprised to see that Israel must spend more money than it gets from us, simply to counter the threat posed by the aid we give to its neighbors Egypt and Jordan. Glick’s column has more of the same sort of evidence as the paper, with more details about the political cost of receiving this aid and, in turn, trying to appease Obama. Yuck. And the third piece provides a good strategy for phasing out the aid. I could definitely see that, given the terms of the aid today, along with Israel’s strong financial position, it would be best for everyone that it be discontinued — provided we cut off aid to the other countries as well. What a mess!

      • I agree that some of the military aid we provide Israel appears to be a counter to the ridiculous aid we provide its enemies. But I would like to see that stopped first before we considered reducing our aid to Israel.

        I’ve always thought however that we vastly under utilize Israel as an ally and in ways that considerably increase our own costs in the region. Might we, for example, have unleashed Israel to destroy Iran’s nuclear (and other military) capabilities? (Of course if we were open about such an alliance and fully supported such an effort, the question could be raised why we don’t do it ourselves?)

        The same could be said about the hunt for Bin Laden which dragged on for years. I rather strongly suspect that the Mossad would have nailed him years ago had we given Israel the green light to pursue it.

        Look, the only reason we continually straddle the fence in the region, trying to be friends with everybody without offending anyone is because of our dependence on Arab oil.

        Were we fully unleashing our own private efforts in the area of fossil fuels, nuclear, and other energy sources, that dependence would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated entirely. In turn the Arab threat which is largely financed by oil could be greatly reduced or eliminated. A side benefit would be reducing the threat to Israel and thus its need for our military aid.

  6. Daniel

    “Ostrichism” is a funny way to label a policy of evasion–and Bosch brings that out well in his cartoon. Off-the-cuff, however, I wouldn’t use this with regards to Ron Paul and other libertarians.

    It is too kind, for starters. And it is too kind not only because it grants that they are able to see the threat posed to Israel and the United States by Islamic countries such as Iran but also, and more importantly, assumes that this is something they would shrink from in fear.

    Put differently, “ostrichism” pushes to the side a very real possibility–that libertarians, including Ron Paul, would not view an attack on Israel or America as something horrible.

    Of course whether they would or would not isn’t clear and in any case, for our purposes, the degree of evil to which some of these people have come to in their own consciousness doesn’t matter (and is a waste of time to think or argue about). What matters is the actual nature of the policy as they state it and what it would mean in practice.

    As far as that goes, I think we can take Ron Paul at his word. His “policy” is one of “non-interventionism.” It is held as a contextless absolute. What is he against? Intervention. Well, what does that actually mean on the world stage? What would it mean for the police to have a “policy” of “non-intervention” domestically? In both cases, who would profit and who (or what government’s) would gain from such a decision?

    Answering these kinds of questions would destroy any seeming credibility his “foreign policy” has in the minds of people who haven’t really thought through what it means concretely.

    And if that’s done well, I think more people will hear him talk about his “non-intervention” foreign policy or his “non-initiation of force” axiom domestically and see that in both cases it’s suicidal, that it would not protect their freedom or their lives from hostile governments and domestic criminals.

    For their freedom and lives to be defended on both fronts, you could then point out, requires a policy based, not on some contextless absolute pulled out of the ether, but on the purpose for their government to begin with, the one that has become by this point the focus of the discussion..

    In other words, Americans should argue for a government that specifically upholds protecting their lives and freedom from those who would take either away by force. They should demand a leader that believes this. And they should realize that Ron Paul is not that man.

    • Perhaps that is a good strategy, Daniel. Paul did throw out the non-intervention idea with respect to the issue of abortion, however. He signed on to the “2012 Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge,” which, if David Kopel over at the Volokh Conspiracy is right, has Paul contradicting himself with respect to Congress’s Commerce power.

      I followed the general sort of strategy you outline here in my prior post, where I take the Paul supporters’ word that he is merely trying to uphold the original meaning of the Constitution and/or carrying on the foreign policy of our Founders. Yes, our Founders were great men, and got a lot right, I said, but we need a candidate who will work to protect individual rights, which may sometimes require amending the Constitution or otherwise departing from some of the Founders’ policies. Not sure I’m succeeding in convincing many Paul supporters, though.

  7. Rebecca

    Ron Paul’s foreign policy is in no way “ostrichism.” A lack of involvement in matters which are not our business, which we have no right in undertaking, which involvement in leads us down the road of imperialism and empire-building, which expends our energy, resources, and wealth, and establishes a frightening precedent of world-policing that we as free citizens of the United States should oppose with all tenacity, is not cowardly, nor ignorant, nor arrogant, but necessary to ensure our sanctity as a sovereign nation. It appears that we have become dependent to spreading independence- independence which we will not have for ourselves if we continue to intervene in matters that do not concern us. This is no noble pursuit, whether we mean all well and good in our endeavors to force independence or not, the end result is waves of American imperialism which will ripple for ages to come, ensuring hatred and violence will one day resurface on our shores. This is what we are experiencing today, and will continue to experience if we seek to interfere further. Look to Neville Chamberlain, and his political peers of that time, and their actions and involvement towards Hitler, this is ostrachism. Look to Neville and you will see that involvement does not mean awareness, nor courage, and does not bring about peace, nor honor. Instead, we must be alert to the dangers of our environment, and face them with integrity, unlike the ostrich, however; to provoke threats as we do now, by interfering in the affairs of other states, will leave us weak and unprepared for a direct and real assault on our freedom. A war in never won by running circles around the camp.

    • As I’ve said in prior posts, I think there exists a false-alternative between a Ron Paul style “non-interventionism” on the one hand, and the nation-building, “world’s policeman” approach on the other. We need a policy of national self-interest, as laid out in this article. So there is a lot that, today, Paul and I would agree on. However, I am emphatic in my disagreement with him with respect to the Jihadist threat. Have you read the Koran and some of Robert Spencer’s commentary on it? Do you think, as I have heard Ron Paul thinks, that we brought 9/11 upon ourselves by “being involved” or “intervening” in the Middle East?

  8. I’m glad to see that you read the articles and that they made you think about this. I will add that a while back I read and agreed with Brook & Epstein’s excellent Just War Theory article. And certainly, if the circumstances were such that it would be to our advantage to send aid to a foreign force to fight some battle in the overall context of a war we are fighting together then we should certainly do it. But when Israel is in pretty good shape and the main problem is that we are not fighting the kind of war we need to fight then I cannot see a justification for what amounts to a regular subsidy of American military industries. I also don’t see a justification for an indefinitely continuing aid as opposed to a temporary aid situation in the middle of a specific conflict.

    • …or perhaps as necessary to prevent an attack. For example, we might want to help Israel destroy any nuclear weapons that Iran develops, and we might give them aid to develop detection capabilities or some such, in anticipation of the weapons being developed. But I agree that the arrangement as it currently exists is a farce, and isn’t in the interest of either country. What a shame.

  9. Talal

    what is your view on the concept of blow-back?http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowback_(intelligence)

    Quite a no. of experts have commented on this phenomena, and it seems to be part of our current foreign policy problems.

    • Not sure. Want to give me some examples of what you consider to be “blowback”?

      • Talal

        To name just one example, the CIA supported assassination of the South Vietnamese president in 1963. The CIA claimed he committed suicide by shooting himself which was kinda hard to do considering his hands were tied behind his back when he was shot. Instead of creating stability and legitimacy in a regime change it played into the North Vietnamese argument that the South was a puppet regime. It also destabilized the southern government throughout the war as well.

  10. I’m pretty sure he said that he wouldn’t have killed Bin Laden right there on the spot, but would have rather brought him to the U.S for a trial like we did with Hussain. The way you posted that paragraph makes it seem as if he said that Bin Laden isn’t a criminal at all.

    Israel’s enemies get more foreign aid from us than Israel itself does. Ending all foreign aid would actually be a net benefit to Israel. Correct me if I’m wrong, but as an objectivist shouldn’t I be categorically against my government taking my money by force and giving it to another country?

    • See my exchange with Gideon Reich, above, concerning aid to Israel. I agree, it’s a mess. But I could see leaving it open to giving them some aid in certain limited circumstances.

      Bin Laden was not just a “criminal.” And I agree with John Yoo, Yaron Brook, and Leonard Peikoff: we should have tried to get information from Bin Laden before killing him.