A well-known rule of government action is that it yields consequences that are unexpectedly bad for public well-being, while setting in motion a series of missteps that further compound the original problem.
US troops in Saudi Arabia are a case in point. The base was established during the first war on Iraq, after the US gave and then withdrew permission for Saddam to assume control of the former Iraqi province of Kuwait. The troops stayed to enforce sanctions and to symbolize the assertion of American power in the region.
Now, unexpectedly, the troops are leaving. Why? As usual, there is a reason given to the press at official briefings, and a real reason. The given line is that Saddam is gone and so the troops aren't needed to protect the region from his villainy. The real reason is simpler: the troops were stirring up too much resentment. They had become a real sore point for faithful Muslims, who regarded the troop presence as evidence of infidel invasion.
As Bin Laden's fatwa said: "For over seven years now 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."
And again: "I swear to God that America will not live in peace before all the army of infidels depart the land of the prophet Muhammad."
Americans read this and say, "hey, lighten up!" But the reality is that this was a serious matter. Americans soldiers were constantly under attack, the despotic Saudi regime was getting worried about perceptions of its own legitimacy, and now a Shiite revolution threatens in Iraq and other states. The longer the US stayed, the more recruits there were into the ranks of terrorists.
In short, it is a typical case of government intervention making the situation worse. And so, sensibly, US military authorities decided the costs and potential costs were higher than the benefits. Hence, the pullout. Makes sense, even if Bin Laden demanded it. In fact, with sanctions being lifted and the call for an end to Gaza and West Bank occupation, all three of his demands are being met. Are the bad guys smiling? Sure. Who cares!
As for public perceptions, hardly any Americans are taking notice. It does not represent some sort of national humiliation. It is not a compromise with terrorism. It is not a display of weakness. It is just good policy, exactly like the US pullout from Beirut in the 1980s. It reduces conflict, eliminates a huge source of resentment, and makes the world a more peaceful place.
Indeed, the US pullout from Saudi Arabia is the one genuinely anti-terrorism act the US government has taken since 9/11. Obviously it's not so hard to pull out. It's just a matter of deciding to do it, and doing it.
Next on the list ought to be Okinawa, where US troops have been the source of an unending crime wave and are thoroughly despised. Next ought to be Japan, then Korea, then the former Soviet states, then the Philippines, then Germany, then Italy, then Spain, then Britain, then all of Europe and Latin America and Asia and Africa — all the more than 100 countries where US troops are stationed.
Public opinion in all these countries opposes the US presence, even if the paid-off governments seem friendly. The fact is that these troops only put the world on edge, make terrorist recruiting easier, and fuel the arms race. The US should pull out of every foreign country. Use Saudi Arabia as a model. Come home, America.
We need to appreciate the extent to which the US pullout derives from a remarkable turnaround in attitude. Ever since 9-11, the impulse to assert power and push aggression has been unrelenting. The theory has been that US firepower can do it all. US military planners have dreamed of world domination through bombs and tanks. The idea of a pullback or a pullout from anywhere has been ruled out as a sign of weakness.
Then, suddenly, the US has faced the limits of its own power, and the realization that the world cannot be treated as a huge prison with the US as sole warden. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone, and let people go about their own business. Not every citizen of the world needs to be staring down the barrel of a US gun in order to behave. It is possible to unload and lower the gun, even put it away. The world will not fall apart.
The new model of withdrawal applies not only to foreign policy. It ought to be used in domestic policy too. Throughout the recession, the government has tried every trick in its grab-bag of policy chicanery to bring about recovery, from huge spending increases to flooding markets with credit. Nothing has worked.
Why not try a pullout here too?
In its wars on smoking, poverty, drugs, illiteracy, discrimination, and crime, the federal government has had only one model: more force. What good has it done? It has meant vast spending increases, and that not only failed to achieve the aim, but made the situation vastly worse. Smoking is up. Illiteracy is increasing. Drugs are ubiquitous. Discrimination is rampant. And crime rises and falls independent of the feds' involvement. All these programs have merely destabilized society.
Why not try pulling out?
There are very few times in the history of the US that the government decided to reverse its use of force and instead just leave people alone. We can think of the end of Prohibition, the end of oil price controls, airline deregulation, the end of the 55 mph federal speed limit, and perhaps a few more. In each case, freedom yielded spectacular results as compared with the chaos created by the intervention.
There is a reason the founding fathers favored a tiny state that didn't intervene domestically or internationally. They knew that the results of intervention would be unfavorable for liberty, peace, security, and social orderliness. They had faith that society can work without government management. In fact, this insight is the greatest in the history of ideas.
Pull out! It is a simple idea that could save the world.
May 1, 2003
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