Reporters routinely describe Ron Paul's foreign policy views as "isolationist" because he opposes the promiscuous use of military force. This is like calling him a recluse because he tries to avoid fistfights.

The implicit assumption that violence is the only way to interact with the world reflects the oddly circumscribed nature of foreign policy debates in mainstream American politics. It shows why Paul's perspective is desperately needed in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

As the Texas congressman has patiently explained many times, he supports international trade, travel, migration, diplomacy, and cultural exchange. Furthermore, he supports military action when it is necessary for national defense—in response to the 9/11 attacks, for example.

The inaccurate "isolationist" label marks Paul as a fringe character whose views can be safely ignored. Given the dire consequences of reckless interventionism, that clearly is not the case.

This week the U.S. officially ended its war in Iraq, nearly nine years after launching it based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to us because he had weapons of mass destruction. The war, which replaced a brutal dictator with a corrupt, wobbly elected government that may not be able to defend Iraq's borders or maintain peace in a country riven by sectarian violence, cost the U.S. $800 billion and nearly 4,500 American lives. More than 100,000 civilians were killed during the invasion and its aftermath.

The regime installed by the U.S. in Afghanistan to replace Al Qaeda's Taliban allies is even weaker and more corrupt than the one in Iraq. Ten years after the invasion, we still have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, and so far the war has cost about $500 billion, 1,800 American lives, and thousands of civilian casualties.

The United States would have avoided both of these costly nation-building projects if Congress had listened to Ron Paul—or even to George W. Bush circa 2000, who (as Paul frequently notes) ran on a promise of a "humble" foreign policy that would not aim to solve all the world's problems. Now that the same people who supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are portraying Iran as an intolerable threat to national security, some Paulian skepticism surely is appropriate.

That is especially true at a time when the federal government borrows 36 cents of every dollar it spends, racking up a debt as big as the entire U.S. economy. At the November 22 debate, Paul corrected Mitt Romney, who complained that the Obama administration is "cutting a trillion dollars out of the defense budget." Actually, Paul said, "they're not cutting anything"; rather, "they're nibbling away at baseline budgeting and its automatic increases," and "people on the Hill are nearly hysterical because…the budget isn't going up as rapidly as they want it to."

Rick Santorum illustrated that attitude at the October 18 debate by proudly declaring, "I would absolutely not cut one penny out of military spending." The U.S. has military personnel in about 150 countries, has nearly doubled its so-called defense budget in the last decade, and accounts for more than two-fifths of the world's military spending. But somehow there's not a penny to spare.

Alone among the GOP presidential contenders, Paul challenges this sort of mindless militarism. "We have an empire," he bluntly noted at the same debate. "We can't afford it."

For 35 years Ron Paul has been speaking truths that the foreign policy mavens of both parties prefer to ignore: that the Constitution gives Congress alone the power to declare war, that unjustified interventions breed resentment that undermines our security, that there is a difference between military spending and defense spending, that foreign aid rewards autocrats and their cronies, and that economic sanctions  are an "an act of war" that hurts people in the name of punishing  the governments that oppress them. If there really is no room for these arguments in the Republican Party, that is the party's fault, not Paul's.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

© Copyright 2011 by Creators Syndicate Inc.