End the Wars

Last Saturday, the Peace Coalition of Monterey County held an antiwar rally on the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lawrence Samuels, co-chair of Libertarians for Peace, one of the member organizations, organized the rally with help from Phillip Butler of Veterans for Peace, another member organization. We began with four speeches, broken up by antiwar songs played by Steve Mortenson. Phil Butler, who introduced the speakers and the songs, is a Vietnam vet who was a prisoner for eight years in the "Hanoi Hilton." Phil did a graceful job of introducing the speakers. The speakers, besides me, were Joyce Vandevere, who started the Peace Coalition during the first Gulf war and revived it during the 1990s Balkans wars; Bill Monning, the local member of the California Legislative Assembly; and Tony Seton. About 60 to 70 people showed up.

After the speeches, about 40 of us carried a variety of signs and marched from the Windows on the Bay Park to downtown Monterey and back. The event attracted a number of young people, mainly students from California State University, Monterey Bay. What follows is the speech I gave. It was well received.

Last month, I attended a meeting in Washington, a Left-Right conference on the wars. Everyone who attended that meeting – from conservatives at The American Conservative magazine to Karen vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, to Ralph Nader, to libertarians like me – everyone there was against the wars that the U.S. government is now in.

I say "that the U.S. government is now in" rather than we are now in because we’re not in it. The U.S. government makes us pay for it by taxing us heavily for it and taxing high-income people especially heavily. But that doesn’t make it my war. Mohammed Ali said, when he was a conscientious objector against the Vietnam war, "I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong." Well, similarly, I have no quarrel with the people in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, or in Yemen. This is not my war. And I suspect that it’s not your war either. Moreover, in a certain sense, it isn’t even Congress’s war. Since the time of Harry Truman, Congress has abdicated its responsibility for declaring war and let the presidents of both parties get away with making war without a declaration.

The best way to deal with people around the world is not to make war on them, strangely enough, but to deal with them peacefully: to have borders that are open to movements of goods and people. Of course, if anyone attacks us, then we should defend ourselves. But I was stunned when President Bush said, just after 9/11, that he was going to focus on defense of the homeland. I wondered, "What have we been paying for?" I had thought we were already paying for defense of the homeland. But then I realized that the Department of Defense really isn’t that. It’s mainly the Department of Offense.

The U.S. government spends over $700 billion a year on what it calls defense. That’s over 40 percent of total military spending in the world. But a huge amount of the $700 billion is for attacking other countries whose governments have not attacked us or for preparing for such attacks. Whether we like it or not, the U.S. has become an empire.

We could be safe if the government pulled out of its bases around the world, downsized the military, and cut defense spending to about $200 billion a year. That’s a $500 billion saving every year.

We would even be safer than we are now. If the U.S. government quit meddling in the world, we would avoid what the CIA calls "blowback" or what economists call "unintended consequences." What motivated that evil man Osama bin Laden to attack the United States? In a May 1998 interview with ABC’s John Miller, bin Laden listed his three grievances against the U.S. government:

1. The U.S. government was the main supporter and main enforcer of UN sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that made it hard for the Iraqis to get equipment to repair their water purification facilities that had been damaged during the first Gulf war. It didn’t help that President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when interviewed by 60 Minutes, said that even if the sanctions killed half a million Iraqis, they were, in her words, "worth it."

2. The U.S. government had stationed troops on Saudi soil. Interestingly, even neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, who was a deputy secretary of defense in the Bush administration, admitted that the troops’ presence had been a recruiting tool for Osama bin Laden.

3. The U.S. government had taken Israel’s side in its conflict with the Palestinians.

None of these three interventions would have occurred if the U.S. government had simply minded its own business.

Now, you could say that Osama bin Laden is a liar. He could be. But if those were his talking points, that means that is what he thought would persuade young men to do suicide bombing. Take away those grudges and you take away a lot of his ability to recruit. Have the U.S. government not meddle in other countries’ affairs and you take away those grudges.

I mentioned the huge cost of what I call the Department of Offense. But I haven’t mentioned the cost to our freedom. In prosecuting the wars, President Bush didn’t just go after foreigners. He went after us. We now have government officials called the TSA who make us take off our shoes before boarding airplanes, even though it was patriotic citizens, not a government agency, that caught the shoe bomber. We now have government officials who prevent us from taking liquids measuring more than three ounces onto an airplane, even though the government never established that the British plot to mix an explosive on board a plane was even plausible. Soon, the government will take pictures of us naked before we are allowed to board. And one of the underreported stories about the USA PATRIOT Act is that it destroyed much of our financial freedom by making banks report anything their customers do that is unusual.

And consider the following loss of liberty. On Jan. 27, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest wrote:

"After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose ‘a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests,’ said one former intelligence official.

"The Obama administration has adopted the same stance."

But my question is, "How do you know a U.S. citizen has joined al-Qaeda?" Under the power that Bush claimed and Obama now claims, the president doesn’t have to give any evidence. And we all know that the government never makes mistakes, right?

The best way to keep us safe is for the U.S. government to stop interfering in other countries’ affairs. Sometimes their intentions are good. But I don’t judge people’s actions by their intentions. I judge them by results. And the results of U.S. government intervention have been awful. Let’s push our government to end the wars, bring the troops home, and stay out of other countries’ affairs.

Copyright © 2010 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