Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes:
No presidential election for a long time has excited so much interest as this year's, outside and inside America. In personal terms, a black man, a woman and a septuagenarian war hero make most elections in most countries seem thin stuff. And yet the truth is that, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama slug it out in a popularity contest (or a competition in gaffes that may yet be disastrous for the Democrats), there's little to choose between them politically.
John McCain's startling success in routing his opponents means, however, that Republican debate has been ended, certainly on the great questions of war and peace. This includes the quixotic presidential bid of Dr Ron Paul, a Republican congressman from southern Texas and one of America's most fascinating political figures - who this month has again demonstrated his independence and courage in the House of Representatives, on a subject where all other Washington politicians speak with one voice.
Unlike some of our own "Dr" MPs, Paul is a real physician, serving as a US air force doctor before delivering more than 5,000 babies as an obstetrician. He is an intransigent libertarian, who believes that "rights belong to individuals, not groups; that property should be owned by people, not government; that government exists to protect liberty, not to redistribute wealth; and that the lives and actions of people are their own responsibility, not the government's".
All of that would make David Cameron shudder: Paul advocates low taxes, the gold standard, and "the return of government to its proper constitutional levels". Quite apart from his abhorrence of the welfare state, many of his views will seem eccentric here, not least his belief that Tony Blair is a rabid socialist. A loopy reactionary from the boondocks, then? Not for the first time the concept of "left and right" proves most unhelpful. Paul is called a conservative, but in British terms he is an extreme liberal-individualist in the tradition of FW Hirst and Sir Ernest Benn.
Anyone dismissing him as rightwing should look at his unflinching opposition to the Iraq war, and more generally to the foreign policy of George Bush and previous presidents. Ten years ago Paul called "the fateful" Iraq Liberation Act "a declaration of virtual war", as it proved. In 2002 he voted against the coming Iraq war, or more accurately the pre-emptive abdication by Congress of its constitutional right to declare war. He opposed the equally shameful Patriot Act and, to his credit (and my delight), the granting of a Congressional gold medal to Blair - on the thrifty ground that "forcing the American people to pay tens of thousands of dollars to give a gold medal to a foreign leader is immoral and unconstitutional", and because he thought Blair a mountebank.
If that weren't enough, when the House of Representatives was recently passing another denunciation of Palestinian violence, Paul refused to support it. He abhorred all attacks on civilians, he said - but on Palestinians by Israelis as much as on Israelis by Palestinians.
"It is our continued involvement and intervention - particularly when it appears to be one-sided - that reduces the incentive for opposing sides to reach a lasting peace agreement," he said. "We must cease making proclamations involving conflicts that have nothing to do with the United States. We incur the wrath of those who feel slighted while doing very little to slow or stop the violence." It says something about US politics today that words as sane and humane as those come from an "extremist".
No doubt this excellent man's bid for the Republican nomination was by way of being a romantic gesture. But what about Ron Paul for secretary of state?