Why We Fight

by , November 20, 2004

In the day-to-day business of tracking the War Party’s machinations, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees: Powell out, Condi in, AIPAC spies, Chalabi’s lies, Bush and Kerry, Fallujah and Allawi. But what, exactly is the bottom line?

It is this: American imperialism is bad for America. It undermines our republican (small-‘r’) institutions, it renders the effort to roll back Big Government futile, and it corrupts our character as a people. It also kills those it is supposed to be “liberating” – a moral conundrum that none of the advocates of America’s “benevolent hegemony” acknowledge, let alone have an answer to.

War has a degenerative effect on republican institutions, and fatally undermines the rule of law and constitutional government, for the simple reason that war is lawlessness. While we all pretend that there are “rules of war,” and every nation swears to abide by the Geneva Conventions, everybody knows that this is balderdash pure and simple. If you want to see the “rules of war” in operation, take a look at that video of a U.S. Marine blasting the head off a wounded insurgent in a Fallujah mosque. That is the true face of war, which is why no American television station has dared show the full unedited footage.

War centralizes political authority and economic power, investing all power in the state – and assigning obedience, rather than freedom, to the top rank in the social hierarchy of values. This, for libertarians, is the crux of the matter.

All States are necessarily aggressive, first and foremost against their own citizen-subjects. They exist by plundering producers and redistributing the loot to their precinct captains and supporters. The State is perpetually at war with those it robs and regulates. An apparatus especially designed to maintain a monopoly of violence in a given geographical area, it is the perfect war-fighting machine.

Aside from the question of whether such an institution is a necessary evil, or should be altogether abolished, all libertarians must agree that the power of the State should be severely limited – and not only within its own borders but also beyond. As Murray N. Rothbard put it in “War, Peace, and the State“:

“Many libertarians object as follows: ‘While we too deplore the use of taxation for warfare, and the State’s monopoly of defense service, we have to recognize that these conditions exist, and while they do, we must support the State in just wars of defense.’ The reply to this would go as follows: ‘Yes, as you say, unfortunately States exist, each having a monopoly of violence over its territorial area.’ What then should be the attitude of the libertarian toward conflicts between these States? The libertarian should say, in effect, to the State: ‘All right, you exist, but as long as you exist at least confine your activities to the area which you monopolize.’

“In short, the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals. The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes and not to aggress against other State-monopolists. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure ‘their’ respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.”

However, Rothbard recognized that libertarianism is not pacifism: individuals have the right to defend themselves against coercion. That’s what a revolution is: the American Revolution being the prime example. And this complicates matters considerably for libertarians, because we defend that Revolution and the nation (if not the government) it created. The first successful libertarian revolution established a State that was severely limited in its powers: bound by the chains of the Constitution, the bestial heart that beats in the breast of all States everywhere was reined in, if not permanently calmed, by the sedative administered by the Founders.

This was unprecedented. Prior to 1776, the rapacity of States and their rulers was universally unchecked. If the king decided he wanted to own that pristine swatch of forest and make of it a hunting preserve for his own exclusive use, then no sooner was it thought of but it was done – with no right of appeal to a higher court or the rule of law. The king was the law.

The patriots of 1776 ended all that: in fighting and winning their war for national independence, they also overthrew the absolutist idea that the individual must be subordinated to the State. Man has rights that are inherent in his nature as a human being: they are not gifts dispensed by the king, but by nature (or God). The seed of classical liberalism blew across the ocean and sprouted in the fertile soil of a virgin continent, flourishing in the freedom afforded by distance.

But the tree of liberty is young, as compared to others in the forest of humanity. Young, fragile, and susceptible to disease – an inner rot that hollows out the core even as the branches continue to grow and swell.

The American republic has been surrounded by enemies on all sides since the day of its birth, and that condition has changed but never improved: it has only gotten worse. The danger from without – the kings of Europe, who dreamed (in vain) of recolonizing North America – was dire, in the beginning, but as time wore on another, greater danger presented itself: the danger from within.

Many Americans wanted a king, and thought of the president as a royal personage: the Hamiltonians were royalists who acted as a fifth column on behalf of the British. Today, the Republican neo-royalists invest the president with all sorts of kingly prerogatives in his capacity as commander-in-chief, including the right to immunize himself and his minions from the laws of God and man. Between the originals and their epigones there is a long and tumultuous history – far too long to be other than roughly sketched out here in the broadest, crudest brushstrokes.

When the Founders overthrew the ancien regime, it did not die. Its adherents regrouped, reorganized, and immediately launched an open assault on the Constitution, especially aiming their fire at the Bill of Rights – the one concession to the Anti-Federalists that had made all the difference between victory and defeat. The Founders, in their wisdom, created a tripartite division of power in which the components tended to cancel each other out, making the centralization of power in one person or party improbable if not impossible. It was a monumental achievement, a system of government structurally biased against tyranny – and neo-royalists of one sort or another have been chipping away at it ever since.

All the wars fought by the United States since the Revolution have been diversions from the main danger to American liberty, which is to be found right here on our own shores. Every war has been utilized to expand the powers of the State to tax, regulate, and even claim the bodies of its citizens as its rightful property, commanding slave armies to do its bloody bidding. What Rothbard called the Welfare-Warfare State rose in the wake of two world wars, and this was no accident: each conflict signaled a giant leap forward for the State. Its ravenous appetite for power, normally kept in check in peacetime, was fully unleashed in wartime: the result, by the end of World War II, was a case of governmental gigantism.

The cold war with the Soviet bloc was another occasion for the expansion of Washington’s power at the expense of the people and the separate states. One consequence of this was that the political right, under the rubric of an alleged “national emergency,” abandoned its traditional distrust of big government. In the name of a militant anti-Communism, conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., climbed aboard the liberal corporatist bandwagon, endorsing the federalized, centralized, obsessively secretive and inherently intrusive national security state – complete with high tax rates, loyalty oaths, and an unnatural (and unconstitutional) exaggeration of presidential power.

During the cold war, an American president pulled off what even Franklin Delano Roosevelt – whose hubris egged him into trying to pack the Supreme Court – had never dared to try: Truman ordered U.S. troops into Korea without bothering to consult Congress. Hardly anyone protested.

The precedent, once permitted, became a tradition. Since then, this untrammeled power to make war has served as the main lever uprooting the foundations of our old republic, preparing the way for its final overthrow.

The end of the cold war, however, brought the “emergency” rationale into disrepute: the cold war conservatives – many of them ex-liberals and ex-leftists provoked, by Stalin and his successors, into anti-communist hysteria – could no longer make the argument that governmental gigantism was the price to be paid for national survival. They needed another pretext, and that arose soon enough: on September 11, 2001.

But the Islamist threat they point to – and we are talking about pretty much the same crowd that ginned up the cold war – is hardly engaged in a worldwide ideological competition with the West. Osama bin Laden, who wants to bring back the 12th century, appeals only to the world’s Muslims. Furthermore, world conquest, while it is the self-proclaimed goal of some radical neoconservatives in the U.S., has nothing to do with bin Laden’s agenda. As Michael Scheuer points out in Imperial Hubris: Why the West in Losing the War on Terror, his goal is to reclaim lands lost to Muslim rule. It is a war about policy – American policy in the Middle East – not ideology. They don’t hate us for what we believe, but for what we do on what they view as their turf.

This is not a war against states, but against a symbol: bin Laden personifies, in the Muslim mind, resistance against the encroachments of infidels. It is, first and foremost, being sold as a war of self-defense, and a necessary one for those Muslims who take their religion seriously. It is very much in bin Laden’s interest to make this into a war of the U.S. and Israel against the entire Muslim world – and, in this, the War Party in the U.S. is his indispensable ally.

The paradox of American power abroad is that we may very well succeed in creating some semblance of democracy and the rule of law in, say, Afghanistan – although I, like Scheuer, am highly skeptical. In doing so, however, we accelerate the degeneration of constitutional, strictly limited government in America, hastening its transformation into an empire in all but name.

It may be possible, on account of American military power, for the Iraqis to hold the first free and fair election in their history – even as our own elections become less democratic, with fewer choices and less room for insurgents (if you’ll pardon the expression) to arise and challenge incumbents at the polls.

Next to Abu Ghraib and the killing of wounded prisoners, the bombing runs (largely unreported in the American media), the huge toll in civilian lives, and the monstrous Iyad Allawi, we see genuine expressions of democratic and even liberal sentiment: the growth of political parties, and a raucous and diverse Iraqi media.

But to acknowledge these positive developments alongside the tragic is not to rationalize the war or justify the occupation: it is to underscore the self-undermining mechanism of the effort to “export democracy,” as one neoconservative publicist puts it. The process of spreading a “global democratic revolution” – in the president’s words – not only subverts democracy at home, but also discredits and defeats it throughout the Middle East. If “democracy” and even “free markets” are represented by foreign invaders and their local quislings, then sheer pride and instinctual nationalism will give rise to a rebellion of illiberalism.

The outright barbarism of the defenders of Fallujah – the beheadings, the kidnappings, the suicide bombings – is the work of a “resistance” that is in no way admirable. The various groups that have arisen in opposition to the American occupation – the Islamists, the neo-Ba’athists, the radical Shi’ites, etc. – are all of them totalitarians of either a religious or secular cast, with the former rapidly gaining the upper hand. No American peace movement worthy of the name can give them any kind of support: they are not the “minutemen” of Michael Moore’s imagination, unless one views Patrick Henry as some sort of improbable early American ayatollah – which he was most certainly not.

Moore is right, however, in the narrow sense that the Iraqi resistance has all the advantages of an indigenous guerrilla movement: they know the country, they aren’t going anywhere, and they are fighting on their own turf. It is a war we cannot win, and it was never in our interests to start it. Iraq never threatened us militarily, and had no ties to the 9/11 hijackers: that, too, was a lie, along with the fabled “weapons of mass destruction.”

We opposed the invasion of Iraq – without giving any support to Saddam Hussein – just as we opposed the war against the former Yugoslavia, while refusing to defend either the politics or the actions of Slobodan Milosevic and his followers. Today, we oppose the occupation of Iraq, without granting the Islamist-Ba’athist resistance a single iota of moral or political legitimacy.

Yes, it is understandable that an occupied people will fight back: but totalitarians feed on legitimate grievances, and often come to power because they seem to address them. The tragedy and irony of our war of “liberation” in Iraq is that it is empowering the very forces – and, make no mistake about it, they are dark forces – we seek to defeat.

It’s strange that the pro-war conservatives are trying to smear their opponents by claiming that to be antiwar is to be anti-American. The “hate America crowd,” they call us. This is one of those Bizarro World phrases that stands reality on its head. The truth is, we oppose this war precisely because we love America – far more than Iraq, or Iran, or Israel, or any other foreign country.

Will we “liberate” the Middle East – and lose our own souls?

The quest for empire is, in itself, a form of corruption: it is the rot that eats away at the tree of liberty, invisibly hollowing it out and depriving it of its essence. Let us tend our own garden, and leave others in peace to tend theirs.

Our stance is that which is described as "Jeffersonian" by Walter Russell Meade is his groundbreaking 2001 study, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World:

"The unique circumstances of the American Revolution … offered Americans a rare, perhaps unique, opportunity to try to start over: to build a system of liberty on the purest revolutionary principles. To capitalize on that rare and precious opportunity to build a free country was the highest aim of Jeffersonian domestic policy; to preserve that sanctuary and that Revolution has been and remains the highest aim of Jeffersonian statecraft in international relations."

This defensive spirit is very far from the international revolutionary fervor of the Wilsonian current in American life. Wilsonians could be called the Trotskyites of the American Revolution; they believe that the security and success of the Revolution at home demands its universal extension throughout the world. Jeffersonians take the Stalinist point of view: Building democracy in one country is enough challenge for them, and they are both skeptical about the prospects for revolutionary victories abroad and concerned about the dangers to the domestic Revolution that might result from entanglements in foreign quarrels."

Yes, we are at war with radical Islam. However, that struggle does not require the democratic "transformation" of the Middle East, but rather a recognition of the reality that we are fighting an asymmetric war against a worldwide guerrilla insurgency, not a traditional-style battle to conquer and occupy nation-states – a battle that must be won politically, primarily, and conducted militarily only in a precise and strictly limited sense. Our strategy must be to isolate the Islamists, and that requires the renunciation, not the escalation, of the foreign policy that gave birth to the jihadists in the first place.

Read more by Justin Raimondo