What To Do Now

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Last Friday, I had the good fortune to be a guest on a radio show on KMOX in St. Louis. As I revere Jack Buck, this was a rare treat. Due to the time constraints (by which I mean, it was 2 a.m. where I live), I did not carefully articulate my views on the Middle East to my own satisfaction. Also, more than a few readers have written to ask what it is that the United States ought to do right now, both in response to the attacks on American soil and in terms of long-term Middle East policy. Here with a few suggestions.

Punish those Responsible

First, the United States should see that justice is done to those who planned and perpetrated the attack (i.e, to those were not killed in the attacks).

This involves, however, an appreciation of the risks involved. For the sake of argument, assume that Osama bin Laden is responsible, and that the US can grab him as it did Manuel Noriega.

What then?

It may be that holding him will spawn attempts to release him, such as further terror attacks to “persuade” the US to let him go. On the other hand, if he is executed, this may make him a martyr and spawn more terror attacks.

If it was not bin Laden, but a foreign government which was responsible, then a ground war may be justified. As in the hypothetical case of bin Laden, this might also spawn further terror attacks.

If the just and deserved punishment draws further reprisals, fine. Such reprisals should be minimized so long as it is clear to all who observe that the United States observes the rules of justice by following due process of law. No show trials (not that such is likely to happen anyway).

Again, this is not to say that whoever is responsible should not be punished. This is merely to call attention to the risks involved. This is not likely to be a picnic.

Prepare for the Worst

But, of course, it may not be so easy to apprehend bin Laden as it was to apprehend Noriega.

Remember Somalia? The US Army was trying to capture a Somali warlord, Mohammad Farah Aidid. We didn’t get him, but we did suffer considerable casualties and humiliation, as detailed in the book (and upcoming film) Black Hawk Down.

The bodies of dead American servicemen were dragged in the streets of Mogadishu. Personally, I do not want to see such scenes ever again.

Whether the United States seeks to apprehend bin Laden, or prosecute a ground war against Afghanistan (again, speaking hypothetically at this point), Americans must take a hard look at what it will be like.

But, of course, this includes not only what it will be like “over there,” but what it might be like right here.

A friend of mine in the Army Reserves opined that things can’t get any worse than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon blowing up. In a symbolic sense, that’s correct. In terms of body counts, however, it is incorrect.

Further acts of terror on American soil will be worse simply because they occur, and because they kill people, even if they do not realize the apocalyptic, worst-case scenarios of biological or nuclear weapons. We must be prepared for the possibility that if we wage what looks like a successful ground war against Afghanistan (again, speaking hypothetically), or if we grab and execute bin Laden, we might end up with a major metropolitan water supply poisoned and thousands dead, or a nuclear device detonated in a big city, and, again, thousands dead.

Recall that our intelligence agencies failed to capture the 19 or so hijackers who lived in the US for several months. Our intelligence agencies failed to prevent the attack on the USS Cole, a sophisticated warship. Our intelligence agencies failed to prevent the attacks on our embassies in Africa. If we retaliate, we will need our intelligence agencies to protect us from reprisals.

Again, I am not saying that bin Laden (or whoever is responsible) should not be punished. I am merely trying to get people to think of the long-term consequences of succumbing to war fever in the short-term.

I mean what I write, and I have no hidden motives. Human life is sacred, and must be protected. To go to war is to risk millions of human lives. Human beings — our brothers and sisters in Christ — will certainly be killed. This is not to be done lightly, nor is it to be done like hunting game birds.

Foreign and Domestic Policy: A Return to Principles

What to do about foreign policy? I suggest principled neutrality, by which I mean what George Washington stated in his Farewell Address: peace and commerce with all nations, entangling alliances with none.

In Washington’s own words,

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.

Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.

Nobody says that better than George Washington. To repeat,

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

Why, indeed.

Of course, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises puts it equally well in his 1919 book Liberalism. As Mises writes in his chapter on liberal (as in, “classical liberal,” not as in the actually illiberal charlatans Charles Schumer, Bill and Hillary, and Al Gore) foreign policy,

One would think that after the experience of the World War [the first one, ended only a year prior to publication of Liberalism] the realization of the necessity of perpetual peace would have become increasingly common. However, it is still not appreciated that everlasting peace can be achieved only by putting the liberal program into effect generally and holding to it constantly and consistently and that the World War was nothing but the natural and necessary consequence of the antiliberal policies of the last decades…

If the peace is not to be disturbed, all incentive for aggression must be eliminated. A world order must be established in which nations and national groups are so satisfied with living conditions that they will not feel impelled to resort to the desperate expedient of war. The liberal does not expect to abolish war by preaching and moralizing. He seeks to create the social conditions that will eliminate the causes of war.

The first requirement in this regard is private property. When private property must be respected even in time of war, when the victor is not entitled to appropriate to himself the property of private persons, and the appropriation of public property has no great significance because private ownership of the means of production prevails everywhere, an important motive for waging war has already been excluded. However, this is far from being enough to guarantee peace. So that the exercise of the right of self-determination may not be reduced to a farce, political institutions must be such as to render the transference of sovereignty over a territory from one government to another a matter of the least possible significance, involving no advantage or disadvantage for anyone.

Notice that Mises does not suggest regulation, the elimination of individual liberty, or higher taxes and more government pork-barrel spending. He suggests private property

As Mises also writes,

Large areas of the world have been settled, not by the members of just one nationality, one race, or one religion, but by a motley mixture of many peoples. As a result of the migratory movements that necessarily follow shifts in the location of production, more new territories are continually being confronted with the problem of a mixed population. If one does not wish to aggravate artificially the friction that must arise from this living together of different groups, one must restrict the state to just those tasks that it alone can perform.

This is what Mises means by making “transfers of sovereignty” of little consequence. If the government keeps to its minimal task of enforcing the rules of just conduct, rather than telling people how to think, what language to speak, and so on, then people of different races, creeds, and colors will generally get along.

However, when one group uses government not to govern, but, as Hayek puts it in Law, Legislation and Liberty, to regulate, i.e., to pick winners and losers in particular cases, then a society is on the road to chaos.

Again, the liberal program is nothing more than Liberty and Property, Peace and Free Trade.

Where domestic policy is concerned, the same prescriptions apply. The government should not unduly burden our liberty or property at home, nor should it regulate our trade with our fellow Americans.

There are those who argue that principled neutrality would not protect the United States from attacks. I agree. Certainly, there are those who view the United States as the embodiment of secularized, Western evil. To some degree, they are right. Imagine Saudi Arabia allowing Roe v. Wade to stand, and you get the idea. Recall that the Arab nations stood with the Vatican against the United States at the UN Conference on Women, when the US delegation sought to promote abortion world wide.

A foreign policy of principled neutrality, however, would minimize the hatred of America. It would, of course, not eliminate such hatred. To eliminate that hatred, Americans can do their own part to return moral decency to the political realm, such that the US government will no longer attempt to export secularism and moral relativism overseas. There are too many sleazy people in positions of power and influence.

By the way

A few additional thoughts. First, cheering for war is not like cheering for football. Nobody dies when the Eagles thrash the Raiders. Cheering for war carries moral responsibility. By cheering for war, by the way, I do not mean flying the flag. I mean crying out for blood, actively encouraging war. There is a difference. By all means, fly the Stars and Stripes. I prefer the Besty Ross, or the striped Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”). The local Morgan Stanley Dean Witter office has been flying a yellow Gadsden flag (as seen in The Patriot, flying over revolutionary Charleston) from an upper balcony.

Second, with war fever sweeping the land, can we expect the Million Mom March to wither and die? After all, if it is so wonderful to fire guns at foreign enemies, who are human beings, what’s the case against hunting and target shooting? If anything, we need to hunt and shoot so that the Army doesn’t have to waste its time training us how to fight — which, by the way, is the reason that the National Rifle Association and the Civilian Marksmanship Program were started.

Third, a very few readers, roughly 1 in 100, in response to my call for caution and prudence, have written to call names, question my intelligence, patriotism, and sanity, and to generally demonstrate that they have little in the way of reading comprehension skills. To such readers, all that can be said is that your own irrational words are the best reasons for disagreeing with you.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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