Thinking About Homeland Security

Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge is not likely to want my advice in his new job, but I think the Office of Homeland Security that he has been asked to lead sounds too much like the old Soviet Committee for State Security. I also think that liberty can be defended but never secured. Apart from my affection for semantic arguments and my conviction that understanding and embracing the Second Amendment would do more for national peace of mind than increased surveillance of email, I am encouraged by the fact that some members of the commentariat have reservations about where we are headed.

Even the pixel commandos at National Review Online noticed something wrong with the Office of Homeland Security when president Bush midwifed the birth of that bureaucracy in his September 20th call to arms against terrorism. This is significant because NRO is home to the "end Iraq" school of foreign policy. Eager to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, NRO columnists John J. Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru stopped looking for kennel keys long enough to ask two questions of the president's well-received speech: "Isn't the Department of Defense supposed to be concerned with the security of our homeland?" and "if not, what exactly is [the DoD] defending?"

Sometimes neoconservatives can read my mind. Unfortunately, Miller and Ponnuru scampered back to the choir loft before finding answers to their questions. With NRO staffers humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic while they exhort the rest of us to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, it became obvious that no one there planned any followup. Wanting answers to the same questions myself, I went to the source, which in this case was the Department of Defense.

I've read my share of government jargon and did not expect DoD press releases to go down the hatch like twelve-year-old scotch. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for thought crimes on the web page that explains what the armed forces do.

Consider this description of the army, whose mission is "to defend the land mass of the United States and its territories, commonwealths and possessions and overcome any aggressor that imperils our nation's peace and security." That sounds reasonable until the next sentence, where readers are reassured that "Your Army is currently operating in more than 50 countries."

Before you can resolve the logic problem or ask what in the name of force projection the United States does with troops in so many countries, anonymous scribes provide telling examples: American troops are "performing duties such as securing the South Korea border and keeping the peace in Kosovo." Our troops, in other words, are as far from home as they can get. Don't even bother trying to square that strength-in-numbers bias with the advertising campaign that earlier this year tried to meet recruiting goals in a self-centered age by talking about an Army of One; it can't be done.

The description of the Marine Corps on that DoD web page is even more unnerving because it inadvertently characterizes the most famous American fighting force as a collection of human tripwires:

"The call u2018Send in the Marines!' has been sounded more than 200 times since the end of World War II, an average of once every 90 days. In 1999 alone, Marines provided humanitarian assistance to earthquake victims in Turkey, were among the first U.S. ground troops to enter Kosovo and formed the core of U.S. peacekeeping efforts in East Timor."

By the time the Air Force and Navy are described, the point has been made. If the Defense Department lived up to its name, an Office of Homeland Security would be redundant. But because National Guard and reserve units are routinely used to supplement active duty units, the only military service actually defending the United States 24/7 is the Coast Guard, a part-time member of the Defense Department that in peacetime answers to the Department of Transportation. Other military services defend American ideals to the apparent exclusion of Americans themselves.

Now we face a CIA-trained Saudi Arabian millionaire who has made common cause with murderous zealots to expose America's vulnerability. There is more than enough blame to go around for the tragic events of September 11, but as LRC's own Bob Murphy has explained, our vulnerability is not the inevitable consequence of unfettered freedom.

With all due respect to several writers I admire, ascribing American vulnerability to America's interventionism also seems too easy, given that our cultural influence is as galling to some people as our military influence. Bringing the troops home would not purge the airwaves, take women out of high-profile jobs, or quiet the engines of commerce. In any event, it goes without saying that frustration over cultural and political differences does not and cannot justify mass murder. To that I would add that the only people in a position to forgive terrorism if they are so inclined are those whose relatives were killed by terrorists. But while we ponder what and who to take care of next, my guess is that conventional federal wisdom puts too much stock in the idea that the best defense is a good offense.

Recall that between 1789 and 1947 the United States had a Secretary of War rather than a Secretary of Defense. In 1947 the position changed titles but not duties. People in that job think more about who the armed forces work on than who they work for.

In some ways this is as it should be. Wise warriors have always made a point of knowing their enemies. In America's decades-long standoff with what was then the Soviet Union, even offensive weapons served a defensive purpose. Is it any wonder that truth-telling generals who describe war as a racket wrestle in my head with P.J. O'Rourke's argument that the U.S. Marines have done more for world peace than most peace activists? (Mark Steyn made a similar point while writing about u2018The World Conference Against Whitey,' on September 6. His observation was that "if one had to single out one institution that did more to end the trade in human beings than any other, it would be the Royal Navy," which beginning in 1833 used its ships to enforce a ban on slavery throughout the British Empire).

Nevertheless, a shift in emphasis may be in order here. As Lawrence Kaplan wrote recently for The New Republic, "being a superpower means being able to walk and chew gum at the same time." It seems to this layman that the U.S. Defense Department has trouble doing that because it defends what is ambiguous and abroad (American interests) rather than what is clear and here (American territory). Chain-of-command thinking then compounds that problem by equating the federal government with the American people.

It is impossible to discuss Defense Department failure without also speculating about what motivates American foreign policy, which one hopes has more going for it than Uncle Sam's overweening desire to play Big Man on Campus. Philosophical essayists sometimes observe that the United States is unique among the countries of the world in being founded not on land with a long history and a homogenous people but on a set of ideas about the rights and responsibilities of free men. As a patriotic American and a fan of western civilization, I frustrate the memory of several history and philosophy teachers by thinking of representative government, rule of law, and inalienable rights as Platonic forms that are as valid in Seoul and Jerusalem as they are in Louisville and Denver.

To think in terms of universal validity is to concede the need for universal defense, but then I remember that – like the relationship between free will and virtue in Catholic theology – freedom to follow any way of life depends on freedom to reject it. Furthermore, a country that stations troops around the world inevitably pays short shrift to its own citizens. In that light it seems wise to reject globalist platitudes, as president Bush has done several times. It also seems wise to argue that misguided interventionism is as big a threat to liberty as people who hate what the rest of us hold dear, and I thank Lew Rockwell for making the argument possible.