Standing Armies, Political Mischief

Since Labor Day, the Wall Street Journal has been running an online poll asking readers for their predictions of a Clinton-Gore "October Surprise," that is, a trumped-up event requiring executive intervention to make the president and his party look good, and thus boost Gore’s election chances. What trick will Clinton pull this month? Readers speculated about smears of opponents, ethnic pandering, brokered peace deals, a resignation, intervention in the oil markets, a Gore-style kiss between Bill and Hillary, and many other public-relations gimmicks.

But the top guess, with 156 entries, was war. Of course. No president ever went to war believing it would be bad politics. Journal readers further guessed that the targeted country will be Iraq, which readers rightly see as the president’s handy whipping boy during two terms in office. Between relentless bombings and a mass starvation campaign that Madeline Albright has deemed "worth it," Clinton the humanitarian has presided over a man-made disaster in Iraq. He would gladly continue this in order to boost the election prospects of Clintonians.

But the origins of Iraq campaign prop are actually pre-Clinton. When Iraq first annexed its ancient province of Kuwait during a dispute about oil prices, it was shown that Saddam believed he had secured agreement from US ambassador April Glaspie and a group of visiting US senators including Bob Dole. Then George Bush turned a border oil dispute into a world-historic crime. Bush dropped bombs and his popularity soared to 90 percent, but, alas, his timing was off and the war bump dwindled by election time.

These were the last days of the Cold War, when Republicans and conservatives could be counted on to applaud any military intervention. Politics, it was said, should stop at the water’s edge, which is why politicians always preferred foreign meddling to shore up their personal power. From the early 1950s until the late 1980s, only Murray N. Rothbard and his circle on the Right, and principled elements on the Left, carried on the Old Right tradition. Born in opposition to World War I and carried over to opposing FDR’s drive to war, this tradition raised fundamental questions about the power motives behind international military campaigns.

In the late 1980s, as the East Bloc crumbled, the libertarian Right saw that there was potential for fundamentally shifting the political/ideological configuration. We began to work with dissidents within the old conservative movement who saw that the best "peace dividend" at the end of the Cold War would be a restoration of the freedoms that Americans had lost during the many decades when government built up weapons of mass destruction at taxpayers’ expense.

Hence, the libertarian and "paleo" Right worked with principled members of the Old Left to forge a new approach to understanding the role of the warfare state, which was not to protect Americans against foreign governments, but to protect our own government from having its power challenged by American citizens. It was long past time that American citizens stood up and defied the military-industrial complex, which had become as much an instrument of domestic collectivism as the welfare and regulatory state.

We had barely put together the coalition when the US bombings of Iraq began. We swung into action, trying to get the word out about the lies of US war propaganda and attempting to shore up the opposition. We were regarded as a politically eccentric bunch back then — isn’t the Right supposed to love war? — but this turned out to be a foretaste of things to come. Today you are more likely to encounter opposition to foreign military meddling on the Right than the Left (which has warmed up to the warfare state as an instrument of international social reconstruction).

The 1990s have shown the political Right how a corrupt Washington leadership uses military intervention to bolster its credibility. Clinton carried on with Bush’s war on Iraq, with an entire decade of sanctions and bombings. He attempted "humanitarian" interventions in Somalia that accomplished nothing but social destabilization. He inspired international waves of anti-US feeling, as resentment against occupying federal troops grew in every corner of the world.

And then came Kosovo. From Clinton’s point of view, the timing was perfect to distract from the meltdown of this administration after the Lewinsky fiasco. But civilians in Serbia paid a heavy price for his peccadilloes. April and May 1999 were months of horrible bloodshed for both Serbs and Albanians, as Nato missiles struck civilian infrastructure, a passenger train, residential areas, villages, a marketplace, the grounds of a hospital, a jail, the Chinese embassy, private cars, and lots of tank and truck decoys set up by Milosevic.

More then 1,300 cluster bombs ended up killing between 500 and 2,000 innocent people and doing untold billions in property damage. "This is a fight for justice over genocide, for humanity over inhumanity, for democracy over despotism," said Clinton’s delusional secretary of defense. Even in the face of such outrageous claims, which implicitly demonized the war’s opponents as partisans of genocide, this war was not supported by an overwhelming majority of public opinion. On the Republican Right, an amazing and wonderful thing happened: it became solidly antiwar. The House leadership, under pressure from outraged constituents, led an effort to get a Congressional vote on the war.

No longer could the antiwar faction of American popular opinion be neatly divided between liberal peaceniks and conservative warhawks. Left-liberals stood by their man through adultery and war crimes, while the conservative Right worked its ways back to its its old post-World War I position that war is nothing but a government racket to steal our freedoms. For the first time in the postwar period, a solidly middle-class antiwar party went into full-scale opposition to the military designs of the central state.

American history is strewn with politicians who used foreign adventures to bolster their domestic political standing. But the idea of an "October Surprise" in particular is of recent vintage. It began with the charge by the political Left, backed by no shortage of evidence, that in 1980, the Reagan campaign arranged for Iran to hold the American hostages until after the election and release them at Reagan’s inauguration. Conservatives at the time dismissed such charges as the ravings of former Stalinists trying to discredit the savior of the free world.

Two decades later, it is the Right that has come to understand how the military can be manipulated for political reasons. Not only that: we fully expect it. Hence, the Journal’s editorial page saw that the Clinton regime would bring about an "October Surprise" if it could get away with it. And the Journal’s readers — not members of the Stalinist left — are inclined to think that it will be one or another military trick. They are right now, just as the Left was right before, and the Right was correct before World War II.

America was born in love of liberty and opposition to a standing army. The two go together. Moreover, "of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other" (James Madison). And this is a truth that neither the Left nor the Right has fully understood for a very long time. But if Clinton does pull a military stunt to put Gore in office, the remnants of militant internationalism within the Republican party won’t survive.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site,

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