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Snowden, Amash, and the Isolationist Peril

Rep. Justin Amash has risen from being a generally obscure conservative Republican member of Congress to being a leading voice of a rising tide of libertarianism that looks at times as if it is about to take control of his party. His ability to rally nearly half of the House of Representatives to vote for an amendment he proposed to end a controversial National Security Agency metadata mining program has catapulted him to the front rank of talking heads on the cable news networks. So it was no surprise to find Amash being interviewed yesterday on Fox News Sunday to comment about national security issues. But the juxtaposition of his defense of Edward Snowden, the man who illegally leaked information about the NSA, with the news that the United States had closed embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East as a result of concern over threats of a new wave of al-Qaeda terrorism, which were obviously obtained by U.S. intelligence activity, should have put Amash’s grandstanding about security policy in a less defensible context.

While Amash and his allies in the Senate, such as Rand Paul, like to talk about the threat to our rights from an untrammeled security state, the threat of terrorism should serve as a reminder of what happens when the September 10th caucus these libertarians are leading succeeds. Though many Americans have been acting as if President Obama’s boasts about having destroyed al-Qaeda were true, both the Benghazi attack and the threats that have sent U.S. diplomats scurrying for cover this week put Amash’s labeling of Snowden as a “whistleblower” rather than a traitor in a very different context than he intended.

The reaction to the NSA programs has been largely the function of complacency about terrorism borne of the successful American intelligence operations in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But the notion that we can treat the war against Islamist terrorism as having already been won is a myth that both Obama and his libertarian opponents have helped foster. Paul and Amash represent a worldview that sees American counter-terror efforts, whether in terms of drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets or intelligence gathering, as happening in a vacuum that ignores the reality of ongoing efforts to attack the West. That is why they have sought to whip up hysteria about hypothetical drone attacks on Americans sitting in Starbucks, as Paul has done, and to treat a legal program conducted under judicial review and congressional oversight as the arrival of Big Brother totalitarianism.

Conservatives are rightly suspicious of President Obama and his belief in untrammeled government power. But to the extent that he has continued many, if not most, of his predecessor’s efforts to defend Americans against terrorism, he deserves the support of conservatives who backed Bush for the same measures.

To refer to Snowden, who dealt a body blow to counter-terrorism intelligence, as a “whistle-blower” is to treat the war on Islamist terror as either fake or no longer being fought. In doing so, Amash has demonstrated how some on the right have, as Paul’s father often did, made common cause with left-wingers who think the world would be better off if America were booted off the global stage and retreated behind our borders. As I’ve noted previously, the left thinks America is always up to no good while their right-wing counterparts tend to act as if the country will only be safe if it seals itself off from the rest of the world. But as a practical matter, the two positions amount to the same thing.

This ought to have embarrassed Amash, but whether it did or not, it illustrates not only the problems that such an attitude creates for U.S. policy but the political implications of a Republican drift toward isolationism. If the GOP abandons its traditional posture as advocates for a strong defense and America maintaining its stature as a global power, then it renders itself vulnerable to the tides of war that may give the lie to both Obama’s boasts and Amash’s ostrich-like posture. This past weekend should give Republicans a glimpse of just how disastrous that would be.