Why Cal Thomas Is Wrong

On March 23, columnist Cal Thomas published a column titled “Blair and Bush Get It.” What, in Thomas’ opinion, do they get? The idea that the U.S. and British governments should keep troops in Iraq until, in his words, "the task is done." Interestingly, nowhere in his article does Thomas state the task that he wants done. In context, however, the task seems to be the democratization and pacification of Iraq.

And what, according to Thomas, don’t critics of the war get? We don’t get that if the U.S. and British governments withdraw all the troops, Iraq will be a threat to people in Britain and Iraq. He states that the terrorists "intend to take their war inside Britain and the United States, as they did on Sept. 11 and in the train bombings in London and Madrid." Put aside the fact that no connection has been established between the Sept. 11 attack and Saddam Hussein’s government, a fact that even President Bush admits. (To see him admit this on film, check the movie, Why We Fight.) Let’s accept that Britain and the United States are the intended targets of future terrorist attacks. Why are they the targets? Why doesn’t Thomas mention Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, or any of the other countries in Europe in his list of targets? Why doesn’t he mention Canada? Presumably, he doesn’t think that people in these countries would also be victims of terrorists. But what distinguishes these countries from Britain and the United States? They all are strongly in the grip of Western civilization, and they all have economies with some measure of free markets along with some socialized industries and some heavy regulation.

There is one main difference: the U.S. and British governments have intervened in the affairs of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, while the governments of Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, and Canada have not. So the lesson seems to be not that the U.S. and British governments should continue intervening, but that it should imitate these other governments and refrain from intervening. If you complained to me that you had been stung by hornets, and I wanted to help you avoid such bad consequences in the future, the first thing I would ask is whether you had stuck your hand in a hornets’ nest. If you told me you had, I would suggest that you quit sticking your hand in hornets’ nests.

There is one weakness in my analogy between U.S./British intervention and the hand in the hornets’ nest: if you stick your hand in the hornets’ nest, the hornets are likely to come after you – you choose to commit the act and, thus, suffer the consequences. But if our government intervenes in other countries’ affairs, then the terrorists may not confine themselves to going after our government officials but, instead, may come after us, as they did on Sept. 11.

How can the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 be understood as a consequence of U.S. intervention? Easily. Osama bin Laden got very upset at the U.S. government when it positioned troops in Saudi Arabia to fight the 1991 Gulf War and kept them there after the war had ended. A major part of his agenda was to get the troops out, and he was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make that happen. And in his taped messages to Americans after Sept. 11 – which, to her discredit, Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice persuaded U.S. networks not to show on the grounds that bin Laden might be communicating secret messages to his allies (as if they wouldn’t have watched the messages on al-Jazeera) – bin Laden offered to back off if the U.S. government would do the same.

Cal Thomas would probably accuse me of being naïve because I think it’s possible to get the terrorists to back off simply by ceasing to do what upsets them. In his view, I expect, to be successful, you have to kill them. Thomas writes, "[T]he only way to end this war, in Iraq and everywhere else, is to destroy the will of the terrorists by neutralizing more of them." No doubt that explains why we had to nuke the Soviets to end the Cold War. What? You mean that’s not how it happened? The Cold War ended without a shot being fired? The next thing you’ll tell me is that the Berlin Wall fell because the East Germans decided not to shoot anyone crossing it.

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org