This speech was part of a panel sponsored by the Future of Freedom Foundation, Campaign for Liberty and the Ladies of Liberty Alliance (LOLA) held on February 20th at the 2010 CPAC. The panel presentation was titled "Why Real Conservatives Are Against the War on Terror."
The phrase "war on terror" has been used to justify trillions of dollars in spending, hundreds of thousands of new government positions, and thousands of new government contracts. At the same time, the "war on terror" has produced very little in terms of new technology or enhanced security, has vastly increased the degree of national centralization, and has created many new permanent trees and branches in the gnarled world of federal and state institutions.
The Congressional Research Service reported in September 2009 the cost of the "War on Terror" since 9/11 at almost one trillion dollars. But they looked only at the cost of the three military operations launched in response to 9/11. They counted only the war in Afghanistan (9 years running), the war in Iraq (7 years running), and the overall effort to secure US military installations around the world — not our borders at home, but our forward deployed empire.
While it is very costly, in both dollars and in terms of rule of law, the war on terror is not a real war, in the sense that conservatives understand it. Yes, our nation was assaulted, and on 9/11, our nation was undefended and vulnerable. Our very expensive armed forces and our very expensive intelligence apparatus failed to prevent or to predict what happened on 9/11. A conservative reaction would have been to assess the situation from the perspective of what we had done or not done, as much as to seek to avenge the attack. A wise and thoughtful response would have been to unleash a criminal investigation, at home and internationally, and to pursue the perpetrators, as we examine the institutional failures and policies that made our country vulnerable.
Instead, even though we had a so-called conservative president, we did not proceed as conservatives. We did not hold accountable or fire anyone in our government, or our defense and intelligence institutions. We did not closely examine our own foreign policy or our extensive intelligence and military activities overseas, particularly the Middle East. We did not even devote sufficient time and energy to investigating the crimes committed and the people behind those crimes. Instead, our so-called conservative president, with the backing of so-called conservative people, reacted pretty much as that other party we have been rightfully criticizing here at this conference.
What we are talking about today is our reaction to 9/11 — because that is really what the war on terror has been — a reaction, not a strategy.
This reaction, like most poorly thought-out reactions, has been anything but conservative.
Furthermore, it has led to conditions and changes in this country that are anything but those a true conservative would desire or hope for: Massive growth in spending, new permanent and centralized government institutions, and worst of all, an incredibly stupid militarization of the pursuit of terror.
It is the stupidity in the strategy that I want to briefly review. And to do this, no one here needs to understand the least bit about military history, tactics and strategy. You do not need to know about the Chinese general Sun Tzu, because apparently no one leading the Pentagon is reading him.
Sun Tzu understood that understatement and deception is necessary in war.
He said, "Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate."
Instead, our approach has been to almost randomly identify countries and governments and very publicly, go after them. The only mystery of our military and foreign policy since 2001 is in the minds of the American people, who do not understand why the war isn’t won yet, and why the enemy seems to be expanding, getting smarter, and hating us more.
Sun Tzu said, "If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril." He was right about that — but in fact you wouldn’t know it from the obscene confidence and outright idiocy put out by the Pentagon, and eagerly embraced by two presidents, one a so-called conservative, the other, a left-wing socialist.
We — as conservatives — ought to care about getting back to an old kind of normal — not creating a new normal of unconstitutional government, unsupportable debt, and endless war. We should want victory in the "War on Terror" but understand that victory must include a return to small government republicanism. Sun Tzu wrote, "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious."
But as I said, those creating, pursuing, advertising and selling the so-called War on Terror have not read Sun Tzu, and cannot be bothered.
Von Clausewitz is another strategist we study in the military finishing schools. One thing Clausewitz knew, that conservatives also know — is that, "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking.” But instead, we are still debating the question of "What is this war on terror?" More and more we are asking, why isn’t it working, and when will it end.
Instead of Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz our strategy has been more theatrics than tactics, and running on a script written by those who stand to benefit from more government, and more government spending, than those Americans who are fundamentally conservative and who in their hearts, do value the Constitution — which is to say — the majority of Americans.
From a Pentagon standpoint, it was fortunate that the Pentagon was one of the 9/11 targets. Had the Pentagon not been targeted, and had it emerged unscathed on 9/11, it is likely that serious questions would have been asked about why the premier and best-funded military, with the best and most highly funded intelligence agencies in the world, was a blind paralyzed sitting duck on 9/11.
Instead, no serious or probing questions were asked about the appropriateness of our massive military-industrial complex. After 9/11 the so-called conservatives in charge — instead of taking wise counsel — did what any decent Democrat would do. They threw unlimited piles of money at a largely undefined and misunderstood problem.
Some in the GOP are still wondering why the Tea Party movement evolved. Didn’t people already have a conservative political party representing their interests? Well, the GOP promotion of the war on terror using big contracts and bigger government, trampling the constitution, all in the name of fear and empire — none of this approach was conservative.
Beyond being anything but conservative, the war on terror as we have conducted it since 2001 is simply not succeeding. In many of our overseas battlefields, we are creating and growing new terrorists, and smarter terrorists. We are increasingly exposing our own weaknesses in terms of occupation and counterinsurgency, and even as we institutionally learn from our mistakes, it is always too slow, always after the fact.
We — as conservatives, no less — seem to be supporting a vague and extremely Clintonesque policy of global nation building. We keep hoping that putting another one of our crooked guys in charge of a country will work, and we keep hoping that military and economic blackmail can keep the locals in line. That’s just idiotic.
It may be that our military policy is not designed to reduce terror at all, but is instead simply designed to evolve hand-in-hand with the so-called "war on terror," in order to maximize the opportunity for growth of American intelligence and security institutions. Permanent institutional growth.
Many predictions about the next decade have been made in the past weeks. One thing not predicted for 2010 is a reduction of American forces, or fewer American interferences and entanglements overseas. No one is predicting the ending of America’s illegal wars, or even the ending of a front in just one of the illegal wars.
Curiously, government spokesmen are aware that this is exactly what Americans want, and are beginning to pander. Case in point is JCS Chairman Admiral Mullen on The Daily Show last month discussing how we are coming out of Iraq in 18 months, and how the US military is 40% smaller than it was at the end of the Cold War.
Mullen represents his case well, but unfortunately he was lying. He is lying about leaving Iraq — even Obama has stated that a minimum of 50,000 American troops will permanently remain in that foreign country. He is also lying about the size of the military.
In 1988, about a year before the end of the Cold War, a Congressional Research Service chronology of military spending put the DoD take at $451 billion (in 2005 dollars). In 2009, DoD got $10 billion more, with a budget of $460.5 billion (in 2005 dollars). The real military budget in 2009 was larger, not smaller, than at the end of the Cold War. But there’s more, namely the modern habit of funding any actual wars the DoD may be fighting through separate supplemental Congressional appropriations and authorizations.
Admiral Mullen also mentioned on the Daily Show that our uniformed military was smaller today than at the end of the Cold War. It’s true, we do have about 750 thousand fewer troops than we did at the end of the Cold War. However, for the past 20 years, we have been outsourcing all kinds of formerly uniformed specialties and subspecialities. As one conservative economist correctly wonders,
“…was [the outsourcing] really about saving money? Or was it a way to ramp up the effective size of the fighting force without having to institute a draft or some other means of increase the size of the military (e.g. increasing pay substantially)? And perhaps sending a few, more than a few actually, bucks in certain directions?”
The future — especially the future for people who love and value American liberty — is in danger. It is in danger in part because we did not pursue, and are not today pursuing, a conservative approach to reducing anti-American terrorism and ensuring the guilty were indeed punished for their acts.
After 9/11 — a ruthless, tragic, terrible event, burned into our minds and our hearts — the United States had alternatives. We could have, as we had done in so many other cases of terrorism, pursued the criminals through the system of law enforcement. This would have meant a slower process, a process that would have been less emotional and less political, and would have required international police and intelligence cooperation. After 9/11, we had the sympathy of the world, and strong offers and guarantees of their support. It would have taken time — although in retrospect, this approach would have taken far less time, less money and destroyed fewer lives and livelihoods than what we really did. A conservative approach would have saved trillions of dollars. It would have educated Americans on the rule of law and the Constitution, rather than blinding them to it. And a conservative approach, because it cares about history and culture and community, would have ensured that Americans more deeply understood terrorism, and how to prevent it. Instead, we are repeatedly lied to by our government, on everything, but particularly on the real lack of success, the real cost and the extreme risk of our ongoing and endless "War on Terror."
Rahm Emmanuel has famously said, "you never want to let a crisis go to waste," and he is right, from a government’s standpoint. I hope that from a conservative’s perspective, Rahm’s words are an abomination. But in fact, looking at the policies of the Bush and Cheney administration regarding terrorism, with Obama continuing them enthusiastically, I am beginning to have doubts as to whether conservatives in this country really understand what it means to be conservative.
Had our government not seized the opportunity that the 9/11 crisis presented, and had the Bush Administration spent that political capital on a serious legal and criminal approach to catching and punishing the 9/11 terrorists — by now, almost nine years later — in the very worst case scenario, we would be in the same place we are today. Lots of bad guys picked up, some convicted in trials, others held with trials pending. Certainly, many people would have been released, as we have done with a good number of those who had been held without charge or evidence in Guantanamo. Best case, this whole episode would be behind us, and the money not spent on security might have gone to reduce the deficit or support tax cuts.
Had we taken the conservative fork in the road back in 2001, we would not have enraged other nations, insulted entire cultures, violated our own Constitution and sacrificed on a bloody altar what we like to put forth as American honor. We would be living in a world where our 1.4 trillion-dollar debt ceiling could be reduced, not raised. We would be living in a world without an overgrown defense and intelligence structure, with no blurring of lines between civilian law enforcement and the military. We would be living in a world where, having not killed women and children, not having interfered with the domestic politics and trade policies of third-world countries in far away places, and having not destroyed our onetime reputation as a free nation — we would be clearly safer from terror aimed against us.
But the United States is led by a media and power elite that is, in fact, not conservative. It is instead vested in doing exactly what it has been doing, growing in power and increasing its take from the national till. For these agencies, the war on terror is working just fine.
How might we, as conservatives today, really begin to fight terrorism? First, get a Secretary of State who speaks for the founding father’s preferred policy of free trade with all and entangling alliances with none.
Second, if a secretary of war is required, appoint one who will make his sole mission the security of the United States, rather than the security and continued expansion of the defense industrial establishment.
Third, conservatives, of all people, have the responsibility to understand both rule of law, and to understand our own American history, both the good and the bad — and keep the light of freedom burning at home. This means we have to be leading the charge at home to reduce our illegal empire abroad for reasons both financial and constitutional.
Instead, of course, the Republican Party has become identified with big government, empire, excess spending, and overpriced and counterproductive defense strategy. As the American people wake up to this reality, they will naturally reject the philosophy that is behind the modern GOP approach.
If the GOP intends to remain relevant, it must deliver. The nearly decade-long experiment in government growth called "the war on terror" has been a cruel joke that history will rightfully blame on the Republican Party. It’s not working, and conservatives — as well as libertarians and independents and democrats — can all see that. But only old-style conservatives and libertarians are truly in a position to offer a reasonable alternative. And that alternative is to energize real conservatism in our defensive strategy and foreign affairs, and to rediscover the sound advice of Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, and more than ever, our founding fathers.
LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosts the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here.