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Ron Paul's Libertarian Message Attracts Supporters

Republican congressman and presidential hopeful Ron Paul has distinguished himself from the pack with his libertarian message, and his campaign's momentum has been accelerating with impressive speed.

Although his overall poll numbers remain in the single digits, Paul has attracted ardent supporters, largely through the Internet. And while the money he has raised does not compete with the campaign funds of candidates like Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani, Paul nonetheless has about the same amount of cash in the bank as one-time Republican front-runner John McCain.

Paul is a doctor — an obstetrician and gynecologist who was an Air Force flight surgeon in the 1960s. He is also a former Libertarian Party candidate for president.

In Congress, he is a steadfast opponent of big government, voting against many tax increases, against the USA Patriot Act, and against two wars with Iraq.

Paul, the only Republican presidential candidate to vote against the current war in Iraq, talks to Robert Siegel about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, congressional pensions and other issues he is highlighting on the campaign trail.

If you were president, how fast and how far would you withdraw from Iraq?

As quickly as possible and as far away as possible. I think the military people have to tell you how fast you can do it safely, but it wouldn't be one of these things [where I would] wait six months to start. I would do it immediately; I would certainly move the Navy away from the shores of Iran — and from intimidating Iran and trying to provoke them and [to] spread the war.... Of course, in the overall foreign policy, I'd like to bring the troops home from most other places around the world, too.

Get the troops back on American soil? That's what you propose?

That is correct.

Withdraw the Navy from the Persian Gulf?

Yes, definitely, because that [having U.S. ships there] is very provoking and that sends a signal that we're there for the oil, and a lot of people do admit that. We don't care about some of the problems in Africa like we care about the problems in the Middle East, and oil is one of the big factors.

You would also, if you had your druthers, withdraw from NATO?

Yes, certainly. That is sort of an old right, conservative Republican position, and certainly after the Cold War ended, there was a lot less need for NATO. I think NATO is embarking in the wrong direction right now by moving right up to the borders of Russia and almost trying to renew the Cold War unnecessarily.

Out of the United Nations?

Yes, I certainly think so, because it's part of the draining of our resources. It's not like you have to close it down in one day.... If you could immediately limit it to the participation in war, it wouldn't bother me quite so much. But I don't think our interests are well served by giving some of our sovereignty up.

What you've described as an old, conservative Republican view of foreign affairs is called, in many quarters, isolationism.

Some people who would like to diminish its value call it that. I don't call it that, because to me, it's the opposite. It conforms with what the founders advised, and that is, yes, we don't get involved in the entangling alliances and the internal affairs of other nations, but they strongly advocated trade and talking and travel. And now that we follow that policy with Vietnam ... [the country] has Westernized; we trade with them; their president comes here, we invest in Vietnam. So we achieved in peace what we couldn't achieve with war. But it's a far cry from isolationism.

Do I have it right that in your years in Congress, you have not taken advantage of the congressional pension system?

That is correct. Of course, you only take advantage [of the pension] when you leave. No, I don't participate. My wife sometimes asks me about it — the wisdom of all this.

Why don't you take part in it?

On principle... [i]t's probably not quite as biased an advantage as it used to be. But when I first went into Congress, it was such a biased system, and so I saw this as an abuse of power, and a privilege that members of Congress should not have.

You have not taken congressional trips overseas.

No.... I don't because too many times they're junkets. Sometimes they're done with great sincerity, but since I'm a noninterventionist, I already know what our dealings should be with other countries. I don't need to go and check on how our money's being spent. I don't want to spend the money.

Have you traveled on your own nickel overseas as a congressman?

Not very often. I did... a lot of traveling as a flight surgeon. But since that time, I've only made one major trip, and it was a major economic event: a translation of a major economic textbook... into Czech, and so I went to Prague to help celebrate this translation, and that was done with personal finances, as well as help from the University of Prague.

I want to ask you a couple of quick things. I want to ask you first about your exchange with [New York] Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani in the recent debate when you said, look at why al-Qaida struck at New York — the U.S. had been bombing Iraq, the U.S. presence in the Middle East was what they were objecting to — and Mayor Giuliani turned on you as if to say, you've just said it was as if the U.S. deserved the attacks of Sept. 11.

It was a political deal for him to try to jump on that, but it was absurd. It's sort of like, we find a murderer and we look for the motive — then you're blaming the victim. No, I'm not blaming the victim, I'm not blaming the American people, but I am blaming American policy for contributing to the problem. I defended that with quotes from the 9/11 Report, quotes from [Paul] Wolfowitz... and then the most preposterous thing he said was that he had never heard of such a thing. Well, where has he been? That's why I presented him a list of books — if you just read this, you would know where these ideas come from, because it's a condition that has been described clearly by the CIA, that there is blowback. These things come back to hit us..... If you look at the Iranian problems today, that started in 1953 when we first threw over a democratically elected leader, and we've been suffering ever since.

Realistically, what chance do you give yourself of winning the Republican nomination?

A lot more than it was six months ago, I tell you that. We're in the top tier now; we're third and fourth in money and money in the bank, and our numbers are growing. But I know what the odds are. But I also know how many young people and others are very receptive to this, and said, you know, it's about time we talked about freedom rather than how the government is going to take care of us from cradle to grave, invade our privacy, fight these war[s], and run the economy.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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