Swords into Plowshares: Ron Paul’s Most Important Message

Swords into Plowshares: A Life in Wartime and a Future of Peace and Prosperity
By Ron Paul
Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity

One day in the summer of 2012 when he and his staff were packing up his congressional office, I interviewed Ron Paul for the documentary film Of By For. He told me that, legislatively speaking, his 28 (non-consecutive) years in Congress were a failure, that he had had close to zero impact on policy.

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But there’s little question that Paul has had what might turn out to be a more consequential career than any of his Capitol Hill counterparts—precisely because passing legislation was never his goal.

Instead, he used his platform educate people on libertarian ideas. Initially prompted to run for office to fight by the bad monetary policy of going off the gold standard, his focus was on economic issues. In addition to his many committee hearing confrontations with Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke over monetary policy that now live on as popular YouTube videos, Paul warned Congress of the housing bubble and coming economic collapse years before those guys featured in The Big Short.

But the issue that transformed Paul into a counterculture hero who mobilized millions of disaffected voters was war. During a GOP presidential debate in May 2007, Paul tangled with Rudy Giuliani over the causes of 9/11. When Paul had the temerity to declare his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to suggest that United States military interventions in the Middle East might have provoked a violent response from al-Qaida, Giuliani disingenuously claimed he’d never heard something so absurd, earning rapturous applause from the Republican faithful in the hall. But many thousands of people who saw that clip were energized, many of them veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who had seen up close the folly of those stupid wars, and many others who were growing more and more alarmed at the loss of civil liberties from the Patriot Act.

Now retired from electoral politics, Paul has made the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity one of his main prioritiesSwords into Plowshares—published by that institute—does for war and foreign policy what Paul’s End the Fed did for monetary policy and economic issues: outlines a sober, reasonable analysis of why the status quo is both morally wrong and practically unworkable, and offers ideas on how to change things for the better. It also explains how Paul connected the dots to realize that the most important factors that cause the runaway growth of government—and the corresponding loss of liberty— are the monetary regime of Federal Reserve System coupled with an expansionist foreign policy that relies on perpetual war.


During his first stint in Congress from 1976 to 1985, Paul, like many libertarians and constitutional conservatives, had a general view of foreign policy that the Founders did—friendship with all, entailing alliances toward none. But because the Vietnam War had just ended and America seemed unlikely to enter any wars in the near future, Paul said, he didn’t think much about war. That is, until the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombings and the Grenada invasion. These events seemed minor, but perhaps necessary, in the anti-communist fight against the Evil Empire, but, Paul writes, “I believed that, instead of being forgotten, these interventions would contribute to resentment and cause blowback to be directed at us.”

Blowback, as Paul pointed out in his exchange with Giuliani, is a term coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences that result from US intervention. Whether it’s covert action to replace a country’s government with a more cooperative one, or the result of official, out-in-the-open public policy—like the policy advocating “regime change” in Iraq that was in place between the two wars there—intervention always sets in motion unforeseeable circumstances that are usually harder to manage than the original situation that was used to justify the intervention. In other words, actions have consequences, no matter the ideas attached to them.

The blowback of 9/11, says Paul, stems directly from the strategy employed by the war lobby when the Cold War ended in 1991. They had to discourage public opinion from demanding a peace divided now that the Evil Empire was gone, so they went about looking for new dragons that needed slaying. The first Persian Gulf War proved serviceable. This was a significant escalation in the US presence in the Middle East, which had began in earnest with the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. Blowback from that had already been significant—in the1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the subsequent embassy siege and hostage crisis— but the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia made it easier for Osama  bin Laden to gain support for al-Qaida, which, of course, became strong enough to execute the attacks of 9/11, and to destabilize the Middle East and South Asia.

Conservatives are entirely comfortable taking into account the possibility of unintended consequences in the analysis of domestic policy (e.g. how welfare programs create a greater demand for welfare), but they quickly brand anyone who uses the same approach to foreign policy analysis as part of the “blame America first crowd,” or even as a traitor.

But explaining that 9/11 was blowback is far different from excusing it. The fact that Paul was, by far, the most popular presidential candidate among active-duty military personnel, as well as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, suggests that those who see with their own eyes the implementation and consequences American foreign policy are more likely to understand—and want to avoid—blowback than is the average American voter. Most people who join the armed forces do so thinking they will be defending America; their views change quickly and clearly when they experience the Hell of a war that is so obviously about something else.

Though Paul was a flight surgeon in Vietnam from 1963 to 1965, he seems to have come to his knowledge of the consequences of war and foreign policy in a more cerebral way—by evaluating the facts about American foreign policy informed by knowledge of exactly what government is.

“Most people naïvely believe the governments intend to promote peace, liberty, and security. It’s more accurate to say governments use force, including war, to secure power and wealth for privileged class at the expense of the rest of the people,” Paul writes. A viewpoint so at odds with what most of us were taught to believe about the American government probably strikes many people as overly cynical, even conspiratorial. This view, however, is one that most effectively refutes the most harmful myths about the nature of the state that emanate from social contract theory and Marxism, and is stated most clearly in Franz Oppenheimer’s The State and Murray Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State. And it provides deeper understanding of Paul’s analysis of who makes up the DC war lobby—Paul points to two main culprits, one seeking money, the other power—and how they get what they want.

First, the military industrial complex—the same guys that Eisenhower warned about back in 1961. Only in the financial sector do you find a constituency more wealthy and powerful than the huge companies who supply the tools and technology for the US military, intelligence, and homeland security operations. They, along with the countless smaller companies that serve as subcontractors and suppliers for everything from fighter planes to computer software to food service workers, have plenty of willing servants in Congress, all of whom work hard to brings contacts to these companies to create the illusion of economic prosperity in their states and districts. And don’t forget the military personnel—from generals to grunts—who often take their pensions with them to the “private” sector, where they cash in as lobbyists, consultants, and mercenaries. (For an exhaustingly depressing look at just how huge, corrupt, and abusive this industry has been post 9/11, read James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed Power and Endless War.)

Second, the neoconservative movement—the intellectual wing of the war lobby—whom Paul excoriates as modern-day Jacobins—ideologues obsessed with the view that the survival of the West requires the United States to be the world’s lone “superpower,” continually “exporting” its political and cultural aims, not through free trade and sensible diplomacy, but through use of war, covert intelligence, and economic sanctions. Neoconservatism is the dominant ideology among every sector of the US foreign policy establishment, and that establishment shapes the foreign policy views of both the Democrat and Republican parties. Remember how quickly both George W. Bush and Barack Obama abandoned their campaign pledges for a more “humble” foreign policy? (That’s assuming that either candidate was being honest during their campaigns.)

It’s easy to see why both the politicians and the war lobby work hard to promote an expansionist foreign policy, Paul writes, but if they admitted that it was to build an empire that will make them wealithier and more powerful, the people might get angry enough to demand change. However, if they convince Americans that they are unsafe, the people won’t object, because they think they’re being made safe by all the war spending.

I’m not sure who could make an honest, disinterested argument that Paul’s analysis is incorrect, but I am sure that politicians like Paul have a hard time getting important, but relatively complex, ideas like this across when they’re competing against politicians who side-step serious policy questions with sound bytes that appeal to emotion.

Those who benefit from war know that cynical appeals to emotion are their most powerful tools. As Paul writes:

Without fear and hate directed toward an enemy there would be no war. Fear and hate comes from the propaganda of the war proponents that is always couched in terms of “defense” and protecting national security. Almost all the major media accommodate the propagandists in these efforts. People naturally desire to love their country and believe it can do no harm. The problem arises when there’s confusion between one’s country and a government that professes to speak for the people and its entire culture but in reality serves the special interests.

       To accept the warmongers’ demands, the people must reject their natural desire for peace and prosperity over war and impoverishment. For war proponents to achieve this change in thought—something governments have been able to do since ancient times—the people must be convinced they are indeed threatened if war is not pursued. Fear of an enemy is required whether the threat is real or not. And the danger has to be thought to be imminent.”

Use this argument in a debate with average American on the need for war, and you’ll eventually hear something like this: “No one likes war, but it’s been around since the dawn of civilization, so we have to take it to the bad guys before they take it to us.” This argument makes the point that support for war comes from insecurity. But history, from the ancients to our own direct experience in the present day, tells us that people try very hard to get along peacefully. The vast majority of people live their lives by trying to provide for themselves while avoiding conflict, resorting to violence only when they feel threatened. And if you want to scare someone who can’t perceive for himself that he is in danger, it’s time to tell him that you have special knowledge of a previously remote threat.

Here is where blowback comes in handy for the people who caused it in the first place—each instance of it is spun as evidence that the remote threat is actually imminent.

Paul attacks this Hobbesian reasoning that manufactures acceptance of the warfare state with compelling arguments: that war and war spending destroy economic prosperity, the harm that war does to the minds, bodies, and families of soldiers, and—most notably for our purposes—that it is immoral and contrary to the ethics of Christianity.

“Though the Old Testament is filled with violence, there is no evidence Christianity in any way promotes war and violence as a solution to any of our problems. There is also no biblical instruction that we should ignore the goal of peace. Christ never taught us to kill or hate our enemies. Rather he taught us to love them. We should not assume that it is impossible to achieve this. Jesus was the Prince of Peace, not the champion of war,” Paul writes.

That’s a revolutionary argument in a country where Republican politicians use their support for war as a selling point—along with empty rhetoric on social issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc.—to conservative Christian voters, who have bought the lie that they are allowed to hate peace and love war as long as American national security and support for the State of Israel are at stake.

On the contrary, Paul insists, realpolitik does not trump the Gospel—issues of war and foreign policy must be judged according to the same standard as every other action, namely the Golden Rule.

Without exception, Christians should speak for peace when violence is offered—whether by a single person or by a government—as a solution for any problem—to do otherwise is to oppose the teachings of Jesus and show a lack of confidence in God’s sovereignty. Just as Jesus’ love is universal, so are his commands; when we support any government, politician, or party that violates those commands, no matter what reason is given, then we are disobeying Him.

How sickeningly hypocritical are Christians who call out Muslims for not loudly denouncing terrorism done in the name of Islam (something that could get them killed, depending on where they are), yet enthusiastically support and offer prayers for a secular empire that effects immeasurably more killing and destruction?

“Our Constituion has failed in its effort to restrain power,” Paul writes. “A new approach is needed.” That approach includes “reject{ing} the notion of war’s inevitability” and convincing people to withdraw their support for war, to give up on “the ancient tradition of trusting the the god-kings for protection and sustenance.”

What better way for Christians to tesify to our faith in God’s protection than by rejecting the fear that says our only hope comes from drones and spy satellites, from tanks and troops? What better way to show the love of Christ than to defy the hateful rhetoric of politicians and preachers by speaking up for peace and even working to provide refuge to those feeling the war zones our greedy and power-hungry leaders helped create?

Christians should follow Ron Paul’s example and begin to question even the most respected institutions of society whenever we see something that might violate the Gospel.