Editor’s Note: A reader brings to our attention that Roberts is also a self-described “9/11 skeptic”, espousing views that call his judgment into question. See update below.
When Paul Craig Roberts watches the U.S. reaction to what's been happening in the Middle East, he is haunted by America's own recent history in the region.
"Here we are, we're all concerned about humanitarian concerns in Libya, after we've wrecked two countries ourselves?" Roberts asked in a telephone interview.
Roberts, 70, is one of the original Reagan Republicans. From his perch at the Treasury Department, he was a chief architect of Reaganomics. He edited and wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and was a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Now a syndicated columnist living in the Florida Panhandle, he's still a devoted supply-sider.
But Roberts is profoundly alienated from the modern GOP, particularly when it comes to civil liberties -- and wars.
"In Iraq, there were huge numbers of people dead and dispossessed, with no place to go," he said. "But none of that bothered us. When we're doing it, it's quite all right."
Indeed, our interventions have been massive humanitarian disasters. Somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis died on account of the war, and some 4 million lost their homes. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces admitted just last week to accidentally shooting and killing nine Afghan boys in a helicopter attack, only the most recent in a litany of civilian deaths directly or indirectly attributable to the U.S. military presence there.
And Roberts can't forget how the George W. Bush administration used deception to take the country into those wars in the first place -- in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban had not attacked the United States, and then in Iraq, on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
"Lies," said Roberts, "and the bastards knew it."
Roberts explained in an email what he's seen change since the Reagan era:
The GOP has changed. Under the influence of the neoconservatives, the GOP is becoming a Brownshirt party.
I am a constitutionalist, a civil libertarian who believes that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the FIRST things to be defended, not the last to be defended or that can be pushed aside in the name of "national security." Without the Constitution and the civil liberties that it guarantees, there can be no security.
When it comes to the market economy, I am a realist. I understand that, compared to a nation of farmers and artisans, a market economy--especially under free trade, jobs offshoring globalism--subjects people to massive economic insecurity and requires a strong social safety net. The idea that Republicans are espousing that the social safety net can be sacrificed in the name of deficit reduction in order to pay for wars of hegemony is insane, inhumane, and evil.
Such Republicans have nothing in common with President Reagan.
A particular sore point now is Afghanistan.
Roberts was against the war there from almost the beginning. "I fairly quickly saw that there wasn't any basis for it, other than the neocons' world-hegemony bit and the military-security complex's money. That was the only reason for it," he said.
"I suspect what made me see it that way was that the Taliban weren't al Qaeda, and yet I was watching the Taliban be conflated with al Qaeda. It looked to me like something was going on that the public wasn't being told,” he said. “They were demonizing somebody so they could have an excuse to send troops in there."
As for the current mission in Afghanistan, Roberts had this to say: "It's absurd. Look, we're getting our ass kicked over there." President Barack Obama's nation-building campaign is hopeless, he said, "But what business is it of ours? We could take care of our own people. We can't nation-build here."
Hearing this kind of talk from a former Reaganite does raise an interesting question: What would Ronald Reagan himself make of the war in Afghanistan?
There’s a pretty compelling argument to be made that the man modern Republicans claim such allegiance to would, in fact, be against it.
When prominent conservative thinker Grover Norquist recently called on Republicans to begin a serious debate about the war, he explicitly aimed his plea to "the people who voted for Ronald Reagan, or would have." And he pointed out that Reagan's response to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, which cost 241 American lives, was not to occupy Lebanon, but to leave.
"Ronald Reagan didn't decide to fix Lebanon," Norquist said. "I think that's helpful in getting the conversation going on the right." Norquist also claimed that many prominent conservatives privately support a quick end to the war, even if they won't say so out loud.
Roberts pointed out that two of the most prominent former Reagan officials still around have also spoken out against the war.
Reagan's White House communications director, Pat Buchanan, has argued that President George W. Bush made a terrible mistake after the initial invasion. “Had we gone into Afghanistan in 2001, knocked over the Taliban, driven out al-Qaeda and departed, we would not be facing what we do today,” Buchanan wrote in 2009. “Now, whatever Obama decides, we shall pay a hellish price for the hubris of the nation-builders.”
Of Obama, Buchanan asked “if he doesn`t believe this is a winnable war, is he a big enough man to say, 'We are going to turn around and walk out, the way Reagan did, on a much smaller level, after he put those Marines into Beirut and they got all killed?'”
Bruce Fein, a Reagan-era Justice Department official who was one of the foremost Republicans to speak out against George W. Bush's abuse of executive power, has taken to calling the ongoing war an "objectless, trillion-dollar, 10-year-old war in Afghanistan that is making the United States less safe and less free."
And Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration but now works for progressive causes, recently wrote: “I am proud of my service in the Pentagon under Reagan and equally proud to be associated with the Center for American Progress. Were Reagan alive today, I believe he would find himself right at home in our organization, as we battle to convince the Obama administration to strategically redeploy troops from Afghanistan, cut defense spending to reduce the deficit, and reduce strategic nuclear weapons.”
And yet the war, as started by Bush and restarted by Obama, continues to enjoy broad support from Republican leaders. There are a few exceptions -- here's a Huffington Post tally of 20 Republicans against the war -- but we had to hunt pretty hard for some of them.
Why, then, have so few other prominent Republicans broken away from the party heterodoxy to publicly oppose the war, like Roberts has?
"They're all on the tit somewhere, aren't they?" Roberts said. "They all need to be accepted. They're getting grants or they're getting employment. They're getting something and they have to support the line. They're just not independent. I don't know why they can't see the whole thing is a ruse."
Roberts said he still considers himself a conservative. Asked which politicians he admires, he says it's a short list, comprising of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on the libertarian left, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) on the libertarian right, and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) a staunch conservative who turned against the war in Afghanistan after visiting one too many wounded soldiers.
There would be more Republicans on that list, Roberts said, but too many are "bought and paid for" by party leaders and the "powerful interest groups, such as the military/security complex, AIPAC, Wall Street."
"The private oligarchs own the 'party leaders' too," Roberts said. "I don't want anything from them, so I can say what I think."
UPDATE: A reader notes that Roberts has also written several times that he does not believe the official explanations surrounding the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Roberts wrote an essay in 2006 espousing many of the so-called “Truther” beliefs, casting doubt on how the World Trade Center towers actually collapsed and raising the possibility of a military cover-up. Roberts defended those views in an email: “No real investigation has been done, and experts who raise points have simply been brushed aside or called ‘conspiracy theorists.’” He added that "until the ‘truthers’ are professionally answered, I will remain a 9/11 skeptic.” Roberts' beliefs clearly raise questions about the soundness of his foreign policy views. He either should not have been cited in the piece or the article should have clearly noted his perspectives.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.