With election season upon us – indeed, when did it ever end? – anti-interventionists are faced with a dilemma: since the leadership of both major parties, including their respective candidates for the presidency, support our foreign policy of global meddling, is there any place in the political system for us?
The answer is an emphatic yes. Ron Paul is a good example of how one anti-interventionist politician found his place in our pro-interventionist two-party system. Dennis Kucinich was another good example, at least until recently. Yet there is no doubt this is a difficult row to hoe.
First, the context: Since the end of World War II, US foreign policy has been directed and managed by a bipartisan interventionist "consensus," summed up succinctly by the former "isolationist"-turned-warmonger Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who opined – in answer to his former co-thinkers dismayed at his betrayal – "Politics stops at the water’s edge." This idiotic aphorism gave voice to the emerging Establishment consensus in the postwar era that the US was fated to be the world’s policeman: as the anti-Communist hysteria reached new heights in the US, opportunists like Vandenberg, who had opposed US entry into World War II, took the opportunity to reverse course, get with the program, and join with others in both parties who were climbing on board the "war on communism" bandwagon. (He also got a little push from his British mistress, who worked for her country’s intelligence service – but that’s another story.)
In reality, the Vandenberg aphorism needs to be stood on its head: politics, for the anti-interventionist, starts at the water’s edge.
This is not universally true: in, say, Spain, for example, which hasn’t been a world power since the 17th century, a candidate’s views on whether or not Syria ought to be subjugated to Hillary Clinton’s will are marginal, at best. After all, the Spanish electorate, including the political class, has little to no influence over Hillary’s subjugation agenda.
However, an American voter living in 21st America inhabits a very different context. His or her government is currently on a rampage that started on September 11, 2001, and shows no signs of ending – indeed, the violence and ambition of Washington’s worldwide "war on terrorism" is escalating at an alarming rate. Furthermore, the US has enjoyed this hegemonic advantage ever since the end of the cold war: with the demise of the Soviet Union, a military build-up that had been accelerating for decades culminated in Washington’s elevation to the status of a "hyperpower" – that is, a world power whose military capacity is unrivaled. This is neatly illustrated in the oft-cited statistic that the US military budget is more than the next twenty largest military spenders combined.
What this means is that Americans are electing a government that not only rules their own country, but also regularly imposes its will on much of the rest of the globe: they are citizens of an empire. It is, naturally, a modern empire, defined not by a formal border but by a worldwide web of multilateral arrangements, treaties, and tacit understandings in which American policymakers are inextricably entangled. They, of course, don’t think of it that way: they see themselves as running an empire, instead of the empire running them.
The American empire is a global network of outright possessions, US-supported puppet regimes (e.g. Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan), protectorates (e.g., Kuwait, which just welcomed the presence of our Iraqi occupation forces), first-tier allies (e.g. the NATO powers, and Israel), and a number of second- and-third tier allies (South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia – newly important given the Obama administration’s recently inaugurated Pacific orientation, aimed at Beijing – come immediately to mind).
In managing this vast realm, US policymakers must necessarily subordinate domestic to foreign policy. Indeed, the line between the two becomes indistinguishable, as the frontiers of empire are pushed outward, until it is completely erased. A decision to raise taxes, to take one example, must take into consideration the numerous foreign commitments and ambitions that direct our actions abroad. Empires are expensive luxury items, and paying for them is the chief concern of every empire-builder: the answer, invariably, is to raise taxes on the home front, either by formally hiking tax rates or else by printing more money and thus imposing a hidden or "invisible" tax, devaluing the dollars we have in our pockets and creating fresh funds out of thin air courtesy of the Federal Reserve.
A decision to impose regulations on certain business, for example – or to refrain from doing so – is often dependent on the appeasement of overseas interests. The late Chalmers Johnson pointed to the Eastasian example of US protectorates shielded by our military in return for one-way "free trade" as an example of how imperialism functions as an economic system: another name for it is mercantilism, whereby the interests of certain powerful economic actors (e.g. banks invested in the bonds of allied governments, oil companies, etc.) utilize the US Army as their private police force. It’s cheaper than hiring security guards. (The Marxist analysis that imperialism is an inherent and inevitable feature of the market ignores the fact that the State favors certain economic actors over others and therefore creates a market that is in no sense "free.")
Interventionist foreign policy distorts the politics of the nation that practices it, and eventually crowds out all other concerns. The result is that ostensibly "conservative" politicians, who claim to want to reduce the power and size of government on the home front, invariably subordinate these views to the exigencies of "national security." Today we are faced with the spectacle of "limited government" conservatives advocating unlimited government power to intern American citizens, spy on them, invade their homes and investigate and harass them to no end – in the name of our endless "war on terrorism." All through the Bush years, as the US military conquered Iraq and Afghanistan, and set its sights on Iran, these alleged fiscal conservatives agreed to shell out over $1 trillion in support of a foreign policy of "advancing freedom." They created a "national security" leviathan that is so big and out of control that no one really knows its scope, its true cost, or what it is up to. They printed money galore. It all ended in a brutal bust.
If this is "fiscal conservatism," then what is profligacy?
There is a principle at work here. Garet Garrett, editor of the Saturday Evening Post in its heyday and a leading conservative voice in the New Deal era, observed that, as a nation enters the imperial phase,
"Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy. That happened to Rome. It has happened to every Empire….
"It needs hardly be argued that as we convert the nation into a garrison state to build the most terrible war machine that has ever been imagined on earth, every domestic policy is bound to be conditioned by our foreign policy.
"The voice of government is saying that if our foreign policy fails we are ruined. It is all or nothing. Our survival as a free nation is at hazard.
"That makes it simple, for in that case there is no domestic policy that may not have to be sacrificed to the necessities of foreign policy – even freedom."
I love quoting Garrett: he is so modern. His words cited above, although they could have been written yesterday, were set down in 1952, at the height of the cold war. Nothing changes much, as far as US foreign policy is concerned: in Garrett’s day, it was the commies who were the Big Threat. Today it is those awful Terrorists – except, of course, when they’re our terrorists.
The NDAA, the "Patriot" Act, the exponential growth of the huge domestic spying apparatus that has grown up post-9/11, and the out-of-control federal budget are all examples of how Garrett’s principle of subordination plays out in practice.
Anti-interventionist political candidates are routinely pushed to the margins, both by the party leadership and the media: the classic example is the treatment accorded Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich. The former was deemed an impossible creature, an antiwar Republican, and therefore rendered invisible by "mainstream" media outlets until it became even more impossible to ignore him. Kucinich was simply characterized as a kook, and was finally expunged from Congress by the party leadership after getting redistricted out of his seat and losing a primary.
Of course, no politician wants to be thought of as a warmonger – unless you’re, say, Lindsay Graham, or Joe Lieberman. For all the rest, though, it’s important to be seen as being willing to exhaust all measure short of war before pulling the trigger. For while the elites in the political class and the media all adhere to the bipartisan interventionist consensus, which makes no bones about Washington’s willingness to go to war at the drop of a hat, the American people require a bit of convincing under normal circumstances.
So the canny politician must walk a fine line between the interventionist party line and the popular desire for peace – the latter being particularly acute at the moment, after more than a decade of constant warfare. He must find a way to include himself in the bipartisan "consensus" while still paying at least lip service to the anti-interventionist prejudices of his constituents. The way to finesse this is by endorsing economic sanctions – always the prelude to war, as Bastiat noted, but not involving shooting quite yet.
It’s easy to justify this, at least superficially, even from an ostensibly "anti-interventionist" perspective: simply characterize the sanctions as a behavior-modification program, one that will deter the target from pursuing policies deemed detrimental to US interests. As to what happens when the target country continues to defy US diktats, our canny politician will cross that bridge when he comes to it, and not a moment sooner. For by that time, the war fever will be at such a high pitch that his own capitulation will be unsurprising. His own constituents may be swept up in it, as the War Party’s propaganda campaign goes into high gear, and the political price he’ll pay for going along with the tide will be negligible.
Aside from that, however, sanctions are in themselves acts of war: economic warfare can be just as deadly as the shoot-to-kill variety, as the hundreds of thousands of victims of Iraqi sanctions testify from beyond the grave.
Another way for a smart politician to finesse the anti-interventionist sentiments of his supporters is to insist, whenever we start (or contemplate) bombing or subverting some country targeted for regime-change, on a formal declaration of war. Now I know Ron Paul has done this, but he has always given voice to this view with the clear intent of wanting the opportunity to vote no. Yet one prominent "anti-interventionist" politician has taken to criticizing Mitt Romney for averring he won’t need congressional approval for an attack on Iran – without, however, noting how he would vote on the war resolution.
Speaking of which, another way to judge a political candidate or sitting officeholder is to see what kinds of alliances and political endorsements he (or she) makes. A good example of how a principled anti-interventionist handles this question is to observe the behavior of Rep. Ron Paul, who has never endorsed an interventionist for any office. He refused to endorse John McCain, last time around, and neither will he endorse Romney this time.
The office of the presidency has become so powerful, especially in the foreign policy realm, that America’s chief executive can indeed take the country to war without a vote of Congress, and without the consent of the people. To endorse a candidate for this office who, in advance, advertises his interventionist views, is to take moral responsibility for those policies once they are implemented: it is, in short, to give a green light to mass murder.
And not only that: Since "war is the health of the state," as Randolph Bourne put it, and every war involves a "great leap forward" in the State’s power and potency, endorsing such a candidate is to objectively endorse domestic policies – high taxation, inflation, increased government power on every level – that are part of the package. This is how an entire generation of "conservative" lawmakers, ostensibly devoted to "limiting government," turned into the biggest spenders in American history, repealed the Bill of Rights, and drove us into bankruptcy.
We get little or no relief if we turn to the "liberal" side of the political spectrum. For there are only a limited number of "stimulus" projects and other boondoggles that can be initiated and funded by the government. Road-building, child-care centers, free cheese, etc., these programs have a limited constituency, and when the government runs out of projects it turns, in the end, to the ultimate boondoggle – the military. In the end, what passes for the "left," these days, is happy to trade domestic civilian boondoggles for the overseas military boondoggles favored by conservatives.
In an imperial State, such as we live in today, the political system is biased in favor of more and bigger government, simply because a global empire is not the same creature as a republic of free men and women. The former requires constant infusions of large amounts of tax dollars just in order to maintain its intricate architecture, which needs constant support and re-buttressing so that it doesn’t topple of its own weight. Faced with the constant threat of bankruptcy, as well as the permanent threat of rebellion, an empire is always in a state of crisis, one generated by its very nature as an unnatural phenomenon which owes its very existence to violence or the threat of it.
This built-in pro-war bias is why compromise, in the political arena, is the biggest danger to the anti-interventionist movement. With the system already stacked against us, any concessions to the War Party tend to push ostensibly anti-interventionist political figures down the slippery slope to complete capitulation. Having voted for economic sanctions against, say, Iran, one is hard-pressed to come up with a reason to oppose going to war – or else what threat were the sanctions addressing?
Furthermore, any politician who claims to be for limiting the power of government and yet who nonetheless votes for any measure that puts us on the road to war – e.g. sanctions – is objectively pushing us in the other direction. This is why Ron Paul, for example, has never voted in favor of economic sanctions, and has never compromised one iota when it comes to foreign policy issues.
In judging which political candidates to support, and (more importantly) the question of whom to oppose, the rule should be: judge harshly. That may sound unreasonable, and even a bit dogmatic, but the reality is that the only way to get the kind of behavior we want in politicians, when it comes to the vital issue of war and peace, is to punish them for warmongering and support them when they work for peace. Otherwise, they can and will literally get away with murder.