Not so many years ago I really wanted to like Steve Forbes and to tell the truth, I still can’t help liking him personally; I find his clumsy, crooked grin endearing and I think he’s one of the more substantive candidates American politics has coughed up in recent years. Before he started running for president he would come out to Orange County every so often to deliver speeches and I managed to talk policy with him at some length and thought I got to know him a bit understanding full well that almost nobody outside his immediate family and close friends really seems to know him; but then I also find the fact that he isn’t eager to "share” every detail of his private life with every podunk journalist in the country more attractive than off-putting.
When he ran for president in 1996 he was generous with his time, coming to the Orange County Register for several editorial board meetings that were wide-ranging and genuinely thoughtful. I think he enjoyed being challenged from a libertarian perspective and for a long time I believed that he shared a lot of our assumptions about the importance of liberating Americans from the death grip of government regulations and taxation.
His embrace of the "flat tax” was for all the right reasons the conviction that it would not only lighten the monetary burden on Americans but free up more of their time for productive or leisure activities rather than fretting over tax forms. He seemed to take a certain delight in the idea that technology, especially the computer-communications revolution, was one of the more heartening developments in recent American history, largely because the government hadn’t figured out a way to regulate it before it had moved a couple of generations beyond the bureaucrats’ ken.
THE KOSOVO MISTAKE
Then came the war in Kosovo.
I had wondered a bit about Steve Forbes’ all-out campaign to ingratiate himself with the religious right, but being one of the few Americans with little emotional investment in the abortion issue, I chalked it up to pragmatic and possibly shrewd politics. I figured his religious protestations were at least not too hypocritical the evidence is that he was a steady churchgoer for years and years before he got into politics.
The Kosovo war, however, put him too far over the imperialist edge for me. I could understand a calculated reluctance to venture too far beyond the establishment foreign policy consensus considering the kind of abuse Pat Buchanan takes for his heresy. But Kosovo really was an aggressive venture into new territory for NATO, which had for decades touted itself as a defensive alliance, and before the war began establishment figures like Henry Kissinger expressed doubts and reluctance.
I permitted myself to hope that Steve Forbes, whom I still liked, might at least express reluctance and some concern about a step that essentially shattered the century-old consensus about civilized nations not initiating aggression against internationally recognized sovereign nations. And who knows, as an intelligent person who has shown some evidence of actually thinking for himself, running a campaign that depended more on his family fortune than on bending to polls, he might show an inclination to question whether the United States really ought to continue in its role as policeman of the world.
STEVE THE SUPER-HAWK
But he went the other way. He was critical of the Clinton administration, but not for initiating aggression. Instead, the burden of his criticism was that the administration and NATO hadn’t hit Yugoslavia hard enough, with enough heavy bombs to do real damage, in the first few days of the war.
There might be a bit of consistency in such a position if you’re going to get into a conflict hit the country designated as enemy hard and win the thing as quickly and decisively as possible. What was really troubling about Steve Forbes’ attitude was the virtually uncritical acceptance of the notion that as a powerful nation with interests around the world, the United States had to at least consider fixing every perceived problem everywhere.
To give him grudging credit, when he came by the Register for another editorial board in April, he stuck to his guns even as he listened politely while we raked him over the coals. We tried to persuade. We allowed that he was undoubtedly sincere when he said he wanted the United States to be a freer, more prosperous, more vibrant and innovative country. Then we pointed out that spending time and treasure on every perceived problem in other countries, especially using bombs as instruments of reform, would virtually preclude such a transition. Empires have never cut taxes or worked to make their people more free and it was unlikely the United States could be an exception.
A week ago Friday Steve Forbes came to the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda to deliver what was billed as a major foreign policy address on the U.S. relationship with China. I attended and had a brief grip-and-grin with the candidate afterward.
To give him whatever credit is due, it was a thoughtful, nuanced address, not one of those in-search-of-the-new-enemy now that the Cold War is over demonizations so common in certain sectors of the American so-called right. But the policies he advocated still envision a larger role for the United States in promoting democracy overseas than is consistent with his stated desire as he had said the previous day at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley "tear down the walls of big government so America may truly experience a new birth of freedom and opportunity.”
Mr. Forbes summed up his China policy as "no more business as usual.” In essence it is to "begin using the economic and diplomatic tools at our disposal to effect real change in China: tough sanctions on Chinese military-owned companies … tough sanctions on Chinese companies using slave labor … tough sanctions on Chinese companies trafficking in weapons of mass destruction … and continuous, high-profile condemnations of Chinese human rights abuses in every international forum possible.”
He would promise to defend Taiwan from an attack by the mainland regime, deploy missile defense systems, make sure the US remains the dominant military power in the Pacific and try to prevent a Chinese company from running the Panama Canal. He would admit Taiwan into the World Trade Organization and keep Beijing out for now. He would demand that China stop selling weapons to "rogue nations” and end its domestic religious persecutions.
THE WORLD POLICEMAN
Some of those goals are commendable. The question is whether the United States should use its military, diplomatic and economic power to force other nations to become more democratic, more respectful of human rights, more open to market transactions or set an example of freedom, prosperity and cultural enrichment without trying to micro-manage the progress of other countries. It’s not simply a theoretical problem. When other countries make changes due to force or pressure from outside rather than in response to demands and pressures from within, the changes are often superficial and temporary rather than lasting and genuine. And if the United States is busy trying to tell other countries how to manage their domestic affairs, it is less likely to be able to sustain a status as anything resembling a free republic or move in the direction of more freedom at home.
Bossing other countries around requires taxpayer resources and establishes a habit of bossiness likely to be replicated against one’s own citizens. It’s one thing to attempt to influence others by persuasion and example, by pointing out shortcomings and lamenting the suffering of citizens under repressive regimes. Moving in the direction of trying to force them to be nice can lead to actions like the utterly unjustified and destructive bombing campaign against Kosovo.
I still like Steve Forbes maybe it’s that goofy grin or the obvious desire to be liked. And I still think he is a thoughtful and serious candidate. But if he really desires, as he titled his new book, A Rebirth of Freedom,’ he would do well to ponder the wisdom of former President John Quincy Adams, who urged that America be the friend of freedom everywhere but the guarantor only of its own. That’s not isolationism but solid, down-to-earth practical advice about how the world really works.