Lieberman and McCain: Now to the Right of Glenn Beck on Detainee Treatment

One of the more welcome surprises following the arrest of alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad has been the reaction from some prominent members of the populist right. Glenn Beck, noting Shahzad’s status as a naturalized U.S citizen, argued that “of course” Shahzad should receive Miranda rights. When a Fox News colleague argued that Shahzad should be denied such rights because “he’s a threat to the country,” Beck countered that “so are a lot of citizens of the country.” He stated bluntly: “you don’t shred the Constitution — ever.” Andrew Napolitano, another right-wing Fox News personality, seemed to concur with Beck’s analysis, arguing that Shahzad was entitled to Miranda rights as a citizen. (Napolitano previously attacked the Obama administration for issuing an order to assassinate U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric now living in Yemen.) It would be premature to hail Beck’s stance as an exemplar of moral probity — in the same segment he expressed his clear support for torture so long as the suspects are not U.S. citizens — but his defense of Shahzad’s Miranda rights was clearly noteworthy nonetheless.

Now compare neoconservative Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain, who for years have sought to cast themselves as opponents of torture and responsible moderates on detainee issues. (Their actual record on these issues has always been more posturing than substance, but that’s another story.) McCain, who has rapidly been abandoning all of his former principles in an effort to fend off a right-wing primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth, claimed that it would be a “serious mistake” to give Shahzad his Miranda rights. Lieberman went farther, arguing that anyone charged with (not convicted of) terrorism should be stripped of their U.S. citizenship:

I think it’s time for us to look at whether we want to amend that law to apply it to American citizens who choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations, whether they should not also be deprived automatically of their citizenship, and therefore be deprived of rights that come with that citizenship when they are apprehended and charged with a terrorist act.

By suggesting that the government should have the ability to revoke U.S. citizenship and deny citizens the protections of the Bill of Rights merely by alleging (not proving) involvement with terrorism, Lieberman placed himself firmly in John Yoo territory.

The disagreement between Beck and Napolitano on the one hand and Lieberman and McCain on the other suggests the possibility of a clash over civil liberties between the populist libertarian right and the neoconservative right. As I wrote a few weeks ago, conservative criticism of the Bush (and now Obama) administrations’ infringements on civil liberties has been dampened by the apparent belief that Muslims (and those who look like Muslims) are the only ones who will be victimized. Indeed, Lieberman was playing to this blind spot by restricting his call to revoke citizenship to suspected affiliates of “foreign” (read: Muslim) terrorist groups, thus seeking to reassure worried right-wingers that only brown-skinned people will be targeted by such policies. Still, it seems quite possible that the neoconservative desire to wage the “war on terror” to its utmost regardless of the moral or legal costs will increasingly raise hackles among an increasingly populist conservative movement that claims to take its bearings from the Founders and is thus reluctant to, as Beck put it, “shred the Constitution.” And if there’s one upside to the apparent belief among many Tea Partiers that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Marxist Islamist double agent, it’s that it may convince them to be more skeptical about entrusting unlimited and arbitrary power to the presidency.

As noted, Beck’s statement is a small and ultimately not very significant step, and it may be naive to expect the Tea Party movement to start applying its libertarian rhetoric in earnest to the war on terror. Perhaps the right will continue to pay attention to infringements of civil liberties only when it’s “us” and not “them” who suffer from them. But regardless, anyone hoping for a better U.S. foreign policy should hope that the populists and libertarians can seize the Republican Party back from the neocons.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Andrew Napolitano is a frequent commenter on a doctrinaire Libertarian site. The Libertarians are like the peace movement and the hard left their idealism will get swallowed in early November every two years.

    It is astonishing how much aligned the liberals and libertarians are. Sadly, they are divided by different languages and confusion about the essentiality of gov’t.

    (I am arguing about the minimum wage with Jacob Hornberger who asserts it’s the most racist policy ever. I suggest that legal slavery, Jim Crow, anti-misogynist laws or even welfare before Clinton would be better candidates. Beyond that, there is no lobbying force for minimum wage workers. Illegal aliens won’t work for $7.25 and they are getting cash. Worrying about minimum wages being too high is like worrying that the elite rich won’t assert for their rights. Where will they ever find the time or the money? I argue that this is the most academic of all libertarian arguments, though they ARE fierce defenders of Civil liberties.)

  2. I think that the previous commenter is basically saying the same thing, but I would dispute your implicit characterization of Andrew Napolitano as a member of the “populist right” in the same vein as Glen Beck. Napolitano is a libertarian, not a right wing conservative like Glen Beck. Unfortunately I think we’ll have a long wait until there is a wider movement of the sort among most former Bush supporters

  3. Libertarians ARE doctrinaire; that’s why I always call myself a libertarian pragmatist. They waste time ranting about things like the minimum wage. But then there are full-mooners of every political stripe.

    I keep saying over and over to my very limited audience that libertarians, traditional conservatives, and “progressives” must work together to fight the neocon foreign policy and the social agenda of the Christian right. We should also be able to agree on some aspects of political economy — the need to regulate Wall Street’s excesses, for example. The main area of conflict between the three groups is the scope of government. We on the right would like to see big cuts in spending, even lower taxes, and the elimination of programs and departments. The Left, generally, favors the opposite. Between libertarians and traditional conservatives the main dispute is over foreign policy, with some in both camps favoring a robust world policy, while others (like me) believe the empire must be reigned in and defense spending cut. The question of Israel is, of course, particularly divisive.

    These differences make it difficult for us to work together. But we must try to do so whenever possible. Only united can we present a true counterweight to the established order in government, business, and the media.

  4. I should comment further for the benefit of Mr. Luban, who obviously is not an expert on the nuances of right wing ideology. The libertarian right, which encompasses people from Chuck Hagel (who might prefer to call himself a traditional conservative) to anarchists (yes, not all anarchists are leftists), has little in common with the Glen Beck-Sarah Palin type of “conservative.” While there are differences between libertarians over foreign policy, they are almost uniformly liberal or even radical on questions of political economy, civil liberties, and social policy. In this they are quite different from many Tea Partiers.

    Although Tea Party types talk alot about limiting government, it’s questionable how many of them are serious about it. That is to say, they are quite ready to cut the other fellow’s benefits, but when it comes to their own piece of the pie, they’re all talk and no action. Libertarians, on the other hand, who tend to be better educated and more well-off than populist conservatives, really mean it when they advocate the abolition of the Dept. of Education or the Fed, or privatizing Social Security. The populist conservatives who echo these sentiments generally have no idea what would follow from such policies.

    Civil liberties is another area where considerable division exists. Populist conservatives often talk the talk, but many of them favor the Patriot Act, the War on Drugs, bans on gay marriage, and other limitations on personal freedom. Libertarians, on the other hand, truly consider individual liberty to be more important than just about anything else. We would consider Lieberman’s attitude toward revoking the citizenship of individuals suspected of crimes as a bolshevik- or fascist-inspired idea.

    On social policy, libertarians are divided over abortion rights (which I think most populist conservatives oppose), but in other areas we overwhelmingly favor the right of the individual to decide for him- or hersef.

    The above generalizes about the Tea Partiers — inevitably, given the amount of time and space I’m willing to devote. But be advised, Daniel, all right-wingers are not alike. That should only be a surprise to young men who see the Right only through a leftist prism.

  5. Is Lew Rockwell a “doctrinaire” libertarian? I would say no, for the simple reason that there is no recognized libertarian “doctrine” beyond the belief in the maixmum freedom for the individual. Lew Rockwell favors things that I oppose. Yet we can both legitimately be called libertarians. It’s hard for some leftists to conceive of a political movement that lacks a dogmatic “program.” Such a concept is in fact counter to the thinking of most libertarians.

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