Our motives have often been questioned, but there’s really no mystery why we anti-interventionists continue to make our case under President Obama as we did during the Bush years. As libertarians, we oppose the expansion and expression of State power in all its manifestations, but particularly when it comes to war. This is the ultimate expression of statism – that is, State worship – and one’s attitude toward it is decisive. The question is not just "are you for the war, or against it?" Because what the questioner is really asking is: Which side are you on – do you side with the people, or with the people in power?
In wartime, the State rears up in all its malevolent magnificence, like a great dragon snarling fire, and those who fall down and worship – out of instinct – are natural servitors of power, thrilling in its visible execution, and vicariously enjoying every enemy death as if it were his personal handiwork.
The great dragon sprouts all sorts of extra tentacles in wartime, wrapping itself like some institutional anaconda around the private sector, and – given enough time – choking it to death. And I don’t just mean private enterprise, although that’s the economic aspect of it, but also the variants of what we now call "civil society," the non-governmental organizations that make up the fabric of human civilization, from the pulpit to the Ladies Home Garden Club and all points in between.
In wartime, the spirit of militarism pervades society like a poisonous fog, eating away at the bonds that normally bind humans one to the other, and substituting new bonds: voluntarism gives way to commandism, and choices give way to chains in every aspect of life.
In wartime, the arguments for expanding the power of government to tax, regulate, and impose "emergency" measures that would normally be considered intolerable go largely unquestioned. How many members of Congress voted against the so-called PATRIOT Act? And if, during wartime, a single member of the Ladies Home Garden Club disapproves when the club decides to raffle off War Bonds, she dares not raise her voice.
A stultifying intellectual and political conformity is a necessity, because the entire nation essentially becomes an appendage of the armed forces, i.e., organized along military lines, and this is the real purpose of war propaganda: to soften up the population enough to make them tolerate it.
Competing narratives as to why we’re fighting, and who benefits, are frowned on during wartime, and often outlawed. The "democratic" spaces allowed by the regime shrink, and the opportunities for protest are severely limited if not completely banned. The tree of liberty inevitably wilts when war-clouds block the sun, and the long conflict we are now fighting will kill it off for good – unless we take our foreign policy back from the War Party.
That’s why we persist, through Democratic and Republican administrations, with the same message and the same warning against the sort of arrogance that tempts all who hold great power, and lures them into the sin of hubris.
In reading the New York Times‘ account of the great American armada as it descends on Helmand province, in Afghanistan, the latest "surge" of American military might through Central Asia, I am struck by the repetitiveness of the whole operation: it recalls all the large-scale military disasters of the past, from the Spanish Armada to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, to the counterinsurgency strategy we tried in Vietnam, right up to the supposedly concluded invasion of Iraq, the alleged success of which the Obama administration is now bizarrely taking "credit" for. I hear the same grandiosity, expressed with the same eerie confidence: "We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in," avers Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan and the architect of the new counterinsurgency strategy, which is "clear, hold, and build."
What they’re building is a new Afghan state, and they’ve got it in the box, as the General says, and they’re ready to roll it out. Just like you would assemble a children’s toy and put it under the Christmas tree.
What world are these people living in? The Times reporter gives us some indication:
"The gamble here is that once Afghans see the semblance of a state taking hold in Marja, rank-and-file Taliban will begin to take more seriously the offers that Mr. Karzai and the West are dangling to buy them off. Enticed by the offer of some political role in Afghan society – and a regular paycheck – they will think twice about trying to recapture the town. ‘We think many of the foot soldiers are in it for the money, not the ideology,’ one British official said recently. ‘We need to test the proposition that it’s cheaper to enrich them a little than to fight them every spring and summer.’"
The world these people are living in is the same one we live in: the West in the twenty-first century, where the promise of a regular paycheck is enough to talk anybody out of anything. Ideology? What’s that? Everyone can be bought: it’s just a matter of negotiating the price.
Here is a case where moral corruption is its own worst enemy: by assuming that everyone is as amoral and devoid of idealism as we are, the American strategists may be in for a bit of a shock. As "developmentally challenged" as Afghanistan may be, the Afghan people may just be "backward" enough to reject an appeal to sell out with the contempt it deserves.
More likely they’ll take the money, and reject the Afghan "government" anyway. Karzai will continue to maintain – quite reasonably – that he can’t stand on his own and needs the US troop presence, and we’ll be in Afghanistan for the next ten to twenty years or so, or until the American people have elected a President who will finally extricate them from this utterly futile crusade.
The great Helmand armada will no doubt be deemed victorious, and Obama’s legions will be hailed as the bearers of light in the Afghan darkness: soon we’ll hear inspirational stories of how our GIs are building schools and roads and dams, as well as a brand spanking-new Afghan state – and isn’t it wonderful?!
The clear answer is: no. It’s not wonderful: it’s horrible. We’re pouring millions of dollars and thousands of lives down into a bottomless hole, one that will never be filled and will instead drain us until we put a stop to it. The Afghan "government" will never achieve anything remotely approaching legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, no matter how much you try to bribe them. They’ll take your money and laugh at you.
And then they’ll shoot at you.
Imagine if a foreign country invaded and conquered the United States. The occupation forces set up a "government" run by the American equivalent of Hamid Karzai – say, Rod Blagojevich. And the generals and politicians of the occupying country get together for a strategic powwow and decide that the best way to pacify those obstreperous Americans is to buy them off. "Just give them a regular paycheck," says one General, "and they’ll think twice about resisting."
Would that be a reasonable assumption on his part? I doubt it. I know it’s very far from reasonable when it comes to the Afghans, as a cursory look at their history will tell you.
The Soviets, too, had a "government in a box," or thought they did. But when push came to shove, their sock-puppets weren’t much help on the battlefield, or off: there was plenty of intramural fighting among the Afghan Communists, who, if they had killed the mujahideen as efficiently and energetically as they killed each other, their defeat might not have been as swift and merciless. As it was, they were swept away within months of the Soviet withdrawal, just as Karzai, or whomever else we decide to install in Kabul as "President," will never survive without a substantial US military presence.
This war is but the beginning of a series of wars, which started in Iraq and are now proceeding across the face of Central Asia, heading for Pakistan – and Iran. The War Party isn’t through with us quite yet – not by a long shot.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
We’re in the second week of our fundraising drive, and we just don’t have the kind of momentum that’s going to take us to our goal – at least, we don’t have it yet. Now, look: I don’t mean to hector you. Or, rather, I do mean to hector you, but not quite so noticeably.
Because what’s at stake is the very existence of Antiwar.com as an institution, as the go-to place for news of America’s wars and international affairs in general. For fifteen years, we’ve been in the forefront of the movement to change American foreign policy: every day we’ve been in operation we’ve been making the argument that being the world’s policeman is not in our interests, and it’s time for America to come home and start solving some of the outstanding economic and social problems that plague us.
Today, that argument needs to be made more than ever, and it would be a damned shame if we went out of existence at this crucial point in the history of this country – when war is on the agenda as far as the eye can see.
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