According to an e-mail message: "It is a sure fire cinch that you liberals will not allow the U.S. to take any action. What should we do, continue to back down to Russia, China, Iran and all the rest?"
The short answer is "No, the U.S. should not back down." I assure the reader that the former professor writing all these loony anti-war articles is not lily-livered. But my unhedged answer begs the critical question. Back down from what? What actions by the governments of these countries create threats to Americans that require our government to respond with military action?
There are those like my correspondent who want the U.S. to unleash its arsenal against any nation whose words and/or actions thwart the U.S., no matter what the circumstances are. Even if our leaders merely imagine the possibility of foreign actions that cross us or interfere with our plans, they would have us attack. Even if our own actions have induced the foreign response that we now view as a threat, these anti-appeasement advocates of strength would never have us back down, change our tune, or negotiate.
At least five assumptions lie behind this militaristic attitude. (1) The U.S. is always right and has not caused the other side to respond. Conversely, the other side is wrong and/or has no legitimate beef with us. (2) The threats are so malign and imminent that drastic action is required. (3) Drastic U.S. action will succeed in ending the threats and lead into a better situation. (4) There are no other ways to end the threats. (5) The U.S. has exclusive privileges overseas that no other nation has. It has an exclusive right to act pre-emptively in force. Put another way, the U.S. is surely good and has been given unambiguous authority from some source to spread this good and crush any resistance to it.
More briefly, the idea behind U.S. militarism is that the U.S. is strong and right. These other countries are inferior and wrong. We can’t let them gain strength and push us around, or else we’ll end up with the short end of the stick. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re not going to be the dog that’s eaten.
The problem with this theory is that it is all wrong. Applying it therefore produces negative results. The picture is supposed to be a Rembrandt, but really it’s a Rothko.
In reality, our government has a penchant for throwing its weight around. It involves us in unnecessary, highly costly, and lengthy struggles in areas of the world where we have no obvious national interests. Every such conflict leads to further unresolved problems and future conflicts. The results of these military ventures are further long-lasting risks and costs. We get a never-ending negative harvest, rather than the peace, security, and bounty we are promised.
In view of this, we the people should automatically assume that the five assumptions behind American militarism are false. We should not give our government the benefit of these doubts. It is entirely rational for us to be highly suspicious of what our leaders propose to do in foreign policy.
There are those militaristic Americans who do not think in these terms. They react viscerally to those furriners that they perceive are trying to knock our block off. They see the news, they listen to their favorite glib but ignorant commentators, and they join the cheering section for our guys.
These are people who identify with the U.S. government. I don’t. I view the government wholly as an antagonist. It’s not a well-trained steed that we ride that might act up once in a while. It’s more like a Brahma bull that’s always ready to toss and gore its rider, or like a tiger ready to tear us apart.
When there are foreign troubles, it’s often one government picking a fight with another government. It has nothing to do with me or you. Most people here and abroad know this. I (and I suspect most of you) have no beef with any Russians, any Chinese, and any Iranians, nor they with us. If any of them has a bone to pick with me, they haven’t let me know about it. Our mutual problem is controlling our governments in their rivalries.
If anyone in the Middle East has a problem with me, I assure them I am not part of the U.S. government and never have been. The U.S. government and I are on opposite sides of the fence. It takes as much of my wealth as it can and regulates me. I can live without it; it can’t live without the likes of me.
If any of my fellow citizens wish to include me under the umbrella of our government’s foreign policies, please count me out. I didn’t recognize Israel, send troops into Lebanon, and fight wars in Iraq. I didn’t overturn Mossadegh, station troops in Afghanistan, bomb Yugoslavia, and shower other nations with American agricultural products. I don’t control the U.S. government and neither does anyone else that I know personally. As far as I can tell, the U.S. state acts as if it owns me and my property. I certainly don’t own it.
In short, as far as what "we should do to Iran," the answer is you’re speaking to the wrong person. I’m not we. Mr. We doesn’t live at this address. Provide your opinion to the appropriate Washington address. I personally have nothing to back down from.
As a "liberal," or whatever else one may wish to label me, I have utterly failed to stop the U.S. government from doing anything that it wants to. The U.S. government has never paid the slightest attention to any opinion of mine or any other American that I know of. I am strictly a number and a tax return ready to be plumbed for penalties. I haven’t prevented it in the past from not backing down, and it’s still not backing down from whatever fights it chooses to pick.
Has anyone ever seen the U.S. back down from a fight? Our heads of state sometimes put on their best Gary Cooper manner and claim reluctance to make war. At other times, they act as belligerently as possible and promise to take us all to the grave before losing to "our" despicable enemies. Either way, we are constantly making war. Our leaders annoyingly ask us to smother our allies with love and affection for staunchly throwing in with us. I’m sorry, but I don’t know any of these allies any better than I know my supposed enemies.
Government is a means to mobilize hatred and brotherhood at great distances. I must be missing the gene for once-removed love and hate. With me they do not register. It is hard enough for me to feel properly toward the people I know at first hand much less total strangers whom I am supposed to love and hate. Unfortunately, government succeeds with enough people to get the support it needs.
The set of people known as "you liberals" requires some consideration. Liberals and even liberal parties abound throughout the world. Keeping up with what they stand for is a full-time job. In America, liberals are whipping boys for conservatives. Mona Charen criticizes a "standard issue, liberal human rights type." Rush Limbaugh has said "If there are people by definition who are soulless, it is liberals — by definition." Conservatives in America are media figures who make an excellent living beating up on those whom they call liberals.
It is strange to see liberals berated for being soft on war when Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton have all presided over wars.
The two labels, liberal and conservative, have long since been degraded. They don’t mean what they used to mean. And they also don’t mean what they used to mean even before that.
The heyday of Classical liberalism ended by some estimates around 1787. Liberalism was in decline during the nineteenth century. By 1915—1935, when it joined up with nationalism and imperialism, liberalism had become welfare-warfare statism. Why this happened is an interesting question. The gung-ho attitude of the public during World War I surely played a part, and the quote with which we began reflects the durability of that attitude. Both parties became welfare-warfare statists, alternating the emphasis as they switched in and out of power. They became secret allies, each being necessary to the other in the quest to keep the public off balance and enthusiastic over one or the other. Party partisanship conveniently supported the state’s growth of power.
Neo-conservatives are nothing more than welfare-warfare statist liberals. Their heroes are the two Roosevelts (according to their guiding light Irving Kristol). They prefer strong and big government. They pooh-pooh Hayek’s Road to Serfdom. They are more than ready to inflict Wilsonian idealism upon Americans via foreign ventures such as Iraq.
It is more than ironic to be chastised as an anti-war liberal by someone espousing pro-war neoconservative sentiments when the neoconservatives are in fact themselves the liberals! They have simply stolen the term conservative from the isolationist and anti-New Deal Old Right.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.