Why Oppose Interventionism?

I often hear a variant of the following from conservatives (and some liberals) when confronted with the foreign policy views of libertarians: “Sure, I’m all for a more peaceful foreign policy, but you guys take it too far – isolationism won’t work in our increasingly interconnected world. Besides, we have real enemies we have to deal with.”

There are several problems with this response. First, there is no such thing as “isolationism” and no such creature as an “isolationist.” Sure, there are some who oppose international trade – labor unions, for one, and other “fair traders” – but libertarians are not included in their ranks. The “isolationist” label was cooked up by interventionists as a scare word to define the terms of the foreign policy debate and smear their opponents as unrealistic troglodytes.

The War Party is the one really consistent advocate of what might be called isolationism: by forcefully intervening in the internal affairs of other nations, by occupying countries and effecting “regime change,” we isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and retreat into an imperialist cocoon, cutting off all normal – i.e. economic and social – relations, and laying the groundwork for the kind of “blowback” that results in terrorism directed against the US and its allies.

Secondly, it would be impossible to take the principle of non-intervention “too far.” Properly applied, that principle means US foreign policy is to be formulated and applied in accordance with the concept of non-aggression: that is, US policy would be consistent with the libertarian axiom that the initiation of force is always wrong, and always lead to bad results. Nothing bad can ever come of abjuring aggression. On the other hand, an inconsistent or erroneous interpretation of the non-interventionist principle could have equally disastrous results: e.g. the failure to repel an attack on the US in the mistaken belief that such an action would be “interventionist.”

Yes, but – our imaginary interlocutor might reply – weren’t we attacked on 9/11, and aren’t our actions since then fully justified?

This brings us to an essential corollary of the non-aggression axiom: that retaliatory force is justified only against those who initiate its use. Which means: invading Iraq – and occupying Afghanistan for over a decade – is out of the question as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, as dramatic and earth-shaking as these actions were, did not bring us a single step closer to taking out Osama bin Laden and his cronies: that happened only when we engaged in the kind of old-fashioned and decidedly un-dramatic police work which enabled us to track the terrorist leader to his lair – and then we were in and out of there in a matter of hours.

All of which proves that we know how to go after terrorists and terrorism in the right way – but we’d rather not, unless it’s preceded by a long series of wars, because there’s a whole other agenda behind our endless “war on terrorism.” And with the extension of America’s wars of aggression into Africa, and a “regime change” campaign underway against Iran, Libya, and god-knows-who-else, that agenda is not hard to fathom.

The United States has been lording it over the rest of the world since the end of World War II: the United Nations, an embryonic world government, was established at the behest of American elites. They saw it as the instrument of an emerging “world order” in which Washington, along with its junior partners in London, Paris, and – for a while – Moscow, would extend a controlling influence over the entire globe.

During the cold war era, as ramshackle Russia cowered under the pretext of “socialism in one country,” while the US used anticommunist ideology as a rationale to build an empire of bases – and US-supported dictatorships – in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The interventionist impulse drove us to support the Afghan mujahideen in their war of “liberation” against the Soviets – and led to the peculiar concatenation of circumstances that made the creation of al-Qaeda possible.

Funny how, at every turn, America’s great “allies,” who owed their continued existence to US generosity, wound up becoming our worst enemies. From Lend-Lease to Stalin to US aid to Afghan “freedom-fighters,” the lesson of history is clear: blowback from one era wafts easily into another. We are still paying for the sins of our 20th century politicians.

Not that our 21st century “leaders” are doing a better job: far from it. The post-9/11 era has seen us replicate every mistake we ever made, times ten. In its ferocity and scope, America’s post-9/11 rampage has no precedent in history: the Mongol invasions, which depopulated large portions of Asia, and extended into parts of Europe, were sporadic by comparison with the relentless American march through the Middle East and Central Asia. It took Genghis Khan and his descendants a hundred years to build an empire on the scale US policymakers have constructed in just the last decade.

The sheer velocity of intervention has picked up, as if our rulers are in an awful hurry to create that “world order” Washington policy wonks are constantly telling us is necessary for their our own “security.”

This escalation, you’ll note, coincides with the escalating economic crisis that has gripped the international banking system based on fiat money and government debt – the biggest financial weapons in the War Party’s arsenal. Without the ability to “monetize” the debt – that is, “pay” the debt in devalued dollars issued by the Federal Reserve – America’s matchless military machine and the empire it defends would not exist.

The real estate “bubble,” the hi-tech “bubble,” and all the many instances of malinvestment created by the Federal Reserve – the “private” gang of banksters who really run the US economy – have their reflection in the foreign policy realm. Sure, we’re going bankrupt, yet you can be sure the bubble of American imperialism is going to be the very last to pop. Our wise and benevolent rulers would sooner see 90 percent of homeowners foreclosed than give up a single one of their cherished colonial possessions. In the decadent and rapidly failing political culture of what was once a great country, hubris is the defining characteristic of our elites.

Libertarians oppose our foreign policy of global intervention because the history of America’s wars is the story of how Big Government came to dominate the life of the nation. The outcome of every military conflict with the exception of the American Revolution has been a series of unprecedented extensions of government control into new areas. Wartime “temporary emergencies” inevitably hardened into routine regulations, and measures that were formerly unthinkable – e.g. Lincoln’s shutting down of opposition newspapers, Truman’s seizure of the steel mills during the Korean War, the “PATRIOT” Act, etc. – entered the realm of possibility. In wartime, when expressions of dissent are met with “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”, the collectivist mentality is dominant: the whole nation is militarized, and failure to march in lockstep is considered evidence of “treason.” Liberty tends to perish in such an atmosphere, as it nearly did in the war hysteria following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Libertarianism seeks to limit the power of government as much as possible. This means opposing the extension of governmental power in every instance, including its extension abroad. That’s why conservatives, who agree with the libertarian program of cutting government to a bare minimum on the home front, are caught in an unsupportable contradiction. They are faced with the conundrum of opposing, say, aid to the elderly and sick in this country, while supporting “foreign aid” that supposedly advances our “national interest.”

In reality, the flow of American tax dollars abroad only advances the economic interests of our thieving sock-puppets, and certain US exporters, who vacuum up those aid dollars as quickly as they are appropriated. In economic terms, the game of empire is a bust, a net loss by any measure. Conservatives used to know this. It was that old right-wing reactionary Garet Garrett – prolific writer, noted editor, and prominent enemy of the New Deal – who said of the American Imperium that it is an empire without precedent in the history of the world because “everything goes out and nothing comes in.”

It was the conservatives of Garrett’s time who were first accused of being the dreaded “isolationists,” and now their lineal descendants hurl the same charge at us. That’s due to a lapse of historical memory, the saddest case of political amnesia ever recorded. In their more reflective moments, conservatives may wonder why Big Government has only gotten bigger over the years, and never any smaller. The best they’ve managed to do is to decrease the rate of increase – albeit only incrementally, and temporarily.

Conservatives won elections, yet still the “march of progress” was always in the direction of bigger and more aggressive government. This happened, and continues to happen, due to their blind spot on the question of war and peace: the reflexive belligerence of the cold war years, and the perseverance of neoconservatism in spite of its catastrophic failures in the realm of policy and politics, has created an inner contradiction at the core of the modern conservative credo. Conservatives must choose between the moral and political strictures of the Constitution and the perverse joys of militarism. We can have a republic, or we can have an empire: we cannot have both. It’s as simple as that.

Our message to American liberals varies very little from this essential axiom. The problem is that modern American liberals trace their ideological lineage back to the left wing of the New Deal, and are constantly invoking their hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as an example for President Obama – their current hero – to follow. I’ll bet the Japanese-Americans among their number are a little shocked to hear this, but being so very polite, they no doubt fail to remind their progressive friends of such inconvenient details as the internment camps.

In terms of sheer deceptiveness and demagogic power, no American president has ever been such an effective warmonger as FDR. He not only lied us into war, as Clare Booth Luce so trenchantly put it, but he executed his war plan in such a manner as to make the next war – the “cold” war that sometimes got very hot – practically inevitable. Liberals who complain – rightly – about the erosion of civil liberties in Obama’s (and George W. Bush’s) America will find nearly all the legal precedents were set during FDR’s long and repressive reign.

Yet the liberal-left of that time didn’t make so much as a peep of protest as Japanese-Americans were hauled off to concentration camps, “subversive” newspapers were banned from the mails, and various dissidents on the right and the left were prosecuted for “sedition.” Indeed, the left-wing media gloried in the persecution of the Japanese, with commie cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. “Dr. Seuss,” giving full vent to the most vicious bigotry – from a “progressive” and impeccably “anti-fascist” perspective, of course. When Lawrence Dennis, a widely-read author and former US diplomat, was tried for sedition on the grounds that the pro-Hitler German American Bund had cited his writings, the American Civil Liberties Union was nowhere to be found.

The neoconized conservatives and the Obama-ized liberals are immune to the anti-interventionist argument, and are quite naturally hostile to libertarianism. The only hope, if hope there be, is in the new movements that are emerging on both sides of the political spectrum: the so-called Tea Party, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which are both in rebellion – in their different ways – against the ideological status quo. While both are also misguided in their separate ways, it is only in the context of a serious rethinking of what it means to be on the “left” or the “right” that a real challenge to the War Party will emerge.

There are many signs that this is happening, but it is too early to tell if these forces will ever jell into a unified movement with a coherent critique of the modern Warfare State. All we can do at the moment is to push both sides, ever so gently, in the right direction, provide the space for a new realignment – and hope for the best.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].