Jonah Goldberg of the National Review has written a decent piece about Ron Paul's non-interventionism, which he says was "rightly defeated" during the Cold War, but concedes that, "Now that the Cold War is over, it seems not only fair but wise to give it another hearing." While I remain unconvinced that aggressive foreign policy was necessary to protect Americans from the Soviet threat, I am not here to give elaborate alternate-universe theories of history. Instead, I'm going to take Mr. Goldberg at his word: let's re-examine non-interventionism in the context of the post-Cold War world.
First, a note about style and semantics: Mr. Goldberg laments the use of the word "empire" to describe America's dominant global position, saying that "it is slanderous to lump us in with Huns, Nazis, and Communists." This may be true; however, terms such as Mr. Goldberg's preferred "liberal hegemony" whitewash the nature of American global dominance at best, and at worst provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to the ultimate Big Government program. I will use the word "empire" because I think it is the most accurate description of post-WWII American foreign policy. It is worth noting that Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall both used the term "empire" to describe their vision for America. (Though Hamilton and Marshall used the term to support a vigorous federal government presiding over the various states; a "national empire" rather than international.) If my use of the word offends you, feel free to substitute "liberal hegemony" or whatever sterilized, politically-correct, inoffensive description you prefer for the word "empire" when you see it.
The American empire is the product of World War II, and was our primary means of fighting the Cold War. Given that our bases in Europe, Asia and the Middle East were established primarily as a means of "containment" of the Soviet Union, the most obvious question is: Why do we still need these trappings of empire when the USSR is dead and gone? Undoubtedly, many would contend that the threat of radical Islamic terrorism requires the capability for American military might to be projected both rapidly and world-wide. This argument seems compelling at first glance, but it has at least two major flaws: the "fight the last war" syndrome, and the phenomenon of unintended consequences.
"Fighting the last war" is a fairly common problem of some generals and military strategists who seek to apply lessons and consequences of previous wars to modern conflicts. While there are certainly some lessons of war which are basic and fundamental (there is a reason why Sun Tzu is on the Commandant's Reading List for Marines), all of these lessons must be put into proper context; furthermore, the changing nature of warfare--given considerations such as technology, culture, climate and terrain--renders other lessons obsolete altogether.
There is no reason to suppose that a large, worldwide standing army is necessary and proper to curtail the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. In the first place, our overseas military installations, as well as NATO and similar agreements, were intended to counter an invasion by a Soviet Union armed with huge infantry divisions, tanks and aircraft--none of which applies to our current enemies. In the second place, the combined global might of America and our allies was itself a deterrent to Soviet aggression. The policy of Mutually Assured Destruction assumed that the Soviets were basically rational actors and would not pursue a course of action that would lead to national suicide, whether by launching nuclear weapons or invading West Germany. It is all too obvious that the radical Islamic terrorists against whom we are now fighting will not be deterred in such a manner, and in fact there is a good case to be made that opposition to the American empire is the driving force behind the "bin-Ladenism" in the Middle East.
The phenomenon of unintended consequences, in the context of foreign policy, is best summed up by the term "blowback," a word invented by the CIA precisely to describe the unintended consequences of covert operations. The CIA initially warned of this phenomenon when writing their internal history of Operation Ajax, the 1953 Iranian coup which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah of Iran. There was, of course, blowback which resulted from that coup: the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Operation Ajax is hardly the only example of American interventionism in the Middle East, nor is it the only one with negative consequences for Americans. According to former President Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter signed a presidential directive on July 3, 1979 to aid the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, Afghanistan. This provoked the USSR into what an unrepentant Brzezinski called the "Afghan trap," which was to be the USSR's version of Vietnam. Once the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, it was relatively easy for the American CIA, working with the Pakistani ISI, to recruit, arm and train mujahideen from around the Middle East to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union. One of these mujahideen was a young Saudi named Usama bin Laden.
After 9/11, President Bush gave his State of the Union address, in which he claimed that the terrorists "hate us for our freedoms; for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to vote." It is true that some radical Islamists (perhaps most notably Sayyid Qutb, mentor of Ayman al-Zawahri) do hate those things about America, yet it would be both overly-simplistic and just plain wrong to assume that radical Islamic terrorists, and specifically al Qaeda, are motivated to violence by Baywatch, the 19th Amendment and American secularism. Rather, it is our current foreign policy of worldwide intervention in the internal affairs of other countries, combined with our Middle-Eastern military bases--i.e. the American empire--that motivates young Arab men to kill themselves in order to kill Americans.
If the Cold War allowed the rise of Usama bin Laden, it was the Gulf War that turned him against America. According to Time magazine, "The initial target [of al-Qaeda after Afghanistan] was not the U.S. but the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which al-Qaeda claimed were corrupt and too beholden to the U.S. It was only after the Gulf War, by which time bin Laden had moved his operations to Sudan (he would later be forced to shift back to Afghanistan), that he started to target Americans."
In 1998, when Usama bin Laden declared his second fatwa against the United States, he said that, "[F]or over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."
The nature of al Qaeda's hatred for the United States was put into starkest terms by the federal government's own Defense Science Task Force: "U.S. policies and actions are increasingly seen by the overwhelming majority of Muslims as a threat to the survival of Islam itself [...] Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States."
If we are to weigh the costs of empire, we must realize that the threat of radical Islamic terrorism is the fall-out of the Cold War. Perhaps there are those, like Mr. Brzezinski, who can look at the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the Khobar towers, the U.S.S. Cole, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and say that the defeat of the Soviet Union was worth the cost. I cannot count myself among them. But whatever you think of the worthiness of Cold War foreign policy, let's not fool ourselves, and make no mistake about it: the terrorists do not hate us for our freedoms, they hate us for our foreign policy.
Jonah Goldberg echoes William F. Buckley in saying that hard thinking is required of conservatives. This hard thinking must not fall prey to "fighting the last war," and it absolutely must comprehend the unintended consequences of American empire. We must remember too, that unintended consequences are not the only cost of empire.
Mr. Goldberg argues that, despite numerous warnings to the contrary, empire overseas and civil liberties at home are not incompatible. While it is true that domestic freedoms have seen occasional steps forward despite an aggressive foreign policy, this is by no means the natural trend, and examples more contemporary than the repeal of the Corn Laws paint a different picture.
The Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act are but two examples of our domestic laws infringing on our liberties as a result of foreign policy. The case of Brandon Mayfield, who was erroneously imprisoned without criminal charges and allegedly without access to family or legal counsel, should be chilling to every American. The entirety of the Patriot Act, from the issuance of National Security Letters to provisions allowing the indefinite detention based on secret evidence of any alien believed by the Attorney General to be a national security threat, is a threat not only to our civil liberties, but also to our constitutional system of checks and balances; inordinate amounts of power are vested in the Executive branch with little provision for Judicial oversight. The Military Commissions Act further solidifies Executive power, allowing anyone, including U.S. Citizens, to be detained indefinitely, without habeus corpus rights, on the say-so of the Executive branch.
S.1959, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, has truly turned the war on terrorism's eye inward. While I'm not going to engage in the hysterics and hyperbole of some of my libertarian friends, there is no question that the vague definitions of this bill (what constitutes an "extremist" belief system, exactly? Didn't Goldwater have something to say about that?), the potential for McCarthyism by the bill's committee, and the potential legislative recommendations of the committee ought to at least give us pause, if they aren't quite cause for alarm and panic.
Finally, we must consider the economic costs of empire. Need I remind conservatives that the government has no money of it's own, that every dime spent by the government is a dime taken from the private individuals who produced it, either currently or in a future generation? Given this, how many billions of dollars of our money are spent each year maintaining an American empire?
According to a State department report, American taxpayers spent nearly $24 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq in 2004. In addition, we were taxed $6.2 billion for "bilateral development assistance," $5.4 billion for "economic aid supporting U.S. political and security objectives," $2.55 billion for "humanitarian assistance," $1.7 billion for "multilateral assistance," and $4.8 billion for "military assistance" to foreign governments. That's a total of $44.65 billion dollars spent on foreign aid from just one federal department for just one fiscal year. One would think that, for that kind of money, we'd bought the love and good-will of all people around the world, right? No; instead, we are accused of being "stingy."
More recently, we've proposed a $63 billion arms deal with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and five Gulf states. We also have a deal with Pakistan to provide $10 billion in military and other assistance to Musharraf's government. Note that support for these exact countries was noted by the Defense Science Task Force as a major grievance of the "overwhelming majority" of Muslim voices.
None of this even begins to touch on the profligate spending by the Department of Defense to maintain over 700 bases in 130 countries around the world. Nor does it account for the billions of dollars spent each day fighting the war in Iraq, much of which is borrowed from China. How much good could be done with our money if it were left in our pockets, rather than drained from us to be sent overseas?
The end of the Cold War has eliminated the conservative movement's rationale for supporting American empire. The fallout of the Cold War has shown us, in no uncertain terms, the enormous cost in lives, liberties and treasure of maintaining a global empire. Honest men may have been honestly mistaken in supporting empire to combat the Soviet Union. Now that the Soviet menace is gone and our imperial chickens have come home to roost, it is obvious that America must abandon her imperial ambitions if the American people are to remain safe, free and prosperous.