This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of the bombing of Serbia by President Bill Clinton – and the beginning of Antiwar.com as a full-time full-coverage news site. It’s a double anniversary fraught, for me, with irony. Back then the Big Bad Bogeyman wasn’t al-Qaeda, which had barely crept into the American consciousness, although Osama bin Laden was a known quantity. No, the Enemy of the Moment was Russia, which was desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to block Washington’s eastward expansion – and it looks like that moment has returned with a vengeance.
With Russophobia all the rage – they’re even warning us Putin, not content with Crimea, is about to invade the North Pole! – we’ve come full circle, back to where we started. But we aren’t exactly in the same place.
In 1998 the anti-interventionist movement was tiny, and our readership reflected that. With the cold war over, and many conservatives deciding it was time to "Come Home, America," as Pat Buchanan put it, our audience and base of support came increasingly from the right side of the political spectrum. Liberals were deserting the antiwar movement in droves, cowed – or won over – by the "humanitarian" interventionists and the 24/7 cycle of war propaganda beamed at them by CNN, back then the one and only cable news station. We called it the "Clinton News Network" because there was Christiane Amanpour, married to State Department spokesman James Rubin, lying nonstop for hours on end.
And while the idiotic Slobodan Milosevic was the official Enemy, standing behind him were the Russians, who were furiously resisting the eastward advance of the NATO-crats. Putin soon dumped Milosevic, however, and reconciled himself to the subjugation of Serbia – but the West was hardly finished. Russia was still standing, and, worse, Boris Yeltsin, the West’s favorite drunkard, was gone. In his place stood Vladimir Putin, former KGB official and hater-of-oligarchs, who went after Yeltsin’s crowd of parasites and drove them out of the country. If the former Warsaw Pact countries were going to be plundered by Commies-turned-"capitalists" and then looted by the IMF, Putin was determined that Russia would avoid their fate.
The West, led by the United States, had other plans, but Putin managed to sidestep them and get on with his task of rebuilding a country wrecked by Bolshevism, decimated by alcoholism, and threatened with outright hooliganism. In the process, he created a system that was neither free nor particularly efficient – but it was far better than what had gone before.
On the international front Putin reverted back to the defensive foreign policy of his Tsarist forebears, the first principle of which was to preserve the Slavic core of the Russian nation against foreign incursions. He continued and escalated the Chechen war started by Yeltsin as the Central Asian former Soviet republics fell into chaos, and Islamist radicals led by Chechens and the first stirring of al-Qaeda wreaked havoc in Russian cities. Yet there was no expansionist agenda: in spite of Western propaganda premised on the ridiculous assumption that Putin seeks to restore the old Soviet empire, what the Russian leader was and is trying to do was simply keep Russia in one piece. With the economy imploding, the death rate from alcoholism, AIDS, and suicide rising dramatically, and the birthrate falling below replacement levels, Russia was standing at the edge of the abyss. Putin saved the country from falling in.
Say what you like about him – he’s no friend of freedom, but neither is he another Stalin – Putin has long sought accommodation and even friendship with the West. A common enemy – Islamist terrorism – and common economic interests with Europe should have drawn Russia closer to Europe and America. In a 1999 op-ed for the New York Times, he wrote:
"I ask you to put aside for a moment the dramatic news reports from the Caucasus and imagine something more placid: ordinary New Yorkers or Washingtonians, asleep in their homes. Then, in a flash, hundreds perish in explosions at the Watergate, or at an apartment complex on Manhattan’s West Side. Thousands are injured, some horribly disfigured. Panic engulfs a neighborhood, then a nation.”
A few years later, we didn’t have to imagine it, because we were living it.
Yet the warlords of Washington and London would have none of it; they missed Yeltsin, who rolled over for them without being told to. This guy Putin, on the other hand, rolled over for no one: he would have to learn. But he refused to be taught.
Putin has been one of the most eloquent critics of US hegemonism and the "international order" enforced by Washington and its allies since the end of the first cold war, and this is one big reason why our wise rulers hate him. The elaborate propaganda campaign designed to demonize him and the country he presides over is motivated in large part by this hatred, as well as by the usual – greed, power-lust, and all the rest of the vices that disfigure our political class.
The American agenda in Ukraine is the same as it was in the former Yugoslavia: the humbling of Russia, its encirclement and eventual absorption into the "international system" lorded over by the US and its allies. Against this campaign Putin can only play defense: and as we all know by now the West only knows how to play offense.
Critics of our Ukraine policy have been attacked as "Putin apologists" – as if this debate is about the political character of the Russian state. But the internal arrangements of the Russian polity – the state of the media, the relative freeness of the electoral process, the status of homosexuals – has zero to do with whether Russia represents a threat and is similarly unrelated to the question of who is the aggressor in Ukraine. The neoconservative myth that democracies are inherently less aggressive than other forms of government is disproved by the example of the Western democracies, which have rampaged over a good part of the earth and in recent years have taken a toll in lives that easily reaches the millions.
When we started this web site we did so not only as peace activists but also as explicitly libertarian activists, and we did it in part because we wanted to educate libertarians as well as the general public in a field where confusion reigned. This confusion has always been particularly acute among libertarians because people the world over yearn for liberty – and the US government poses as their champion. And while history is indeed full of little ironies, this is a huge one – because it is Washington, and no other actor on the world stage, that poses the main danger to the peace and freedom of the world.
Inside the imperial metropolis, of course, we are afforded the protections of the Constitution – at least on the surface – as well as enjoying the fruits of an economic system that has produced unprecedented wealth. The irony factor comes into play when we note that our foreign policy of unrelenting aggression has produced only misery and endless bloodshed for the world’s peoples. This is the great American paradox, made all the more acute when we further realize that this policy has undermined our liberty and prosperity at home – perhaps fatally. The bigger and more bloated our empire gets, the less free and poorer we become.
The dual character of the American state – at once the inheritor of the glorious American Revolution and a deadly threat to its gains – presents American libertarians with a conundrum. On the one hand, the US is still the freest nation on earth, and people the world over look to it as a ray of hope in an otherwise dark universe. On the other hand, our rulers take advantage of this hope at every opportunity, manipulating their dreams of freedom and inciting them in order to satisfy their own lust for power – global power.
So when people rise up against a government that has been targeted for regime change by Washington – be it Ukraine, Serbia, Egypt, or wherever – the US and its paid operatives are there with money, encouragement, and their own agenda. And there’s always the prospect of using military force to implement this exercise in "democracy promotion."
Libertarians face a double conundrum over what stance to take on all this because, for once reason, libertarianism is now an international movement. When I went on Tom Woods’ radio show recently, one of the first questions he asked me was what to say to East European libertarians who say I and Ron Paul have the Ukrainian crisis all wrong. Somewhat taken aback, I simply reiterated my analysis of the Ukrainian opposition as dangerously nationalistic and infused with strains of outright neo-Nazism.
But I knew at the time this was an evasion, and that the real underlying question had to be addressed: what about libertarians in, say, Ukraine, or Russia? Don’t we have a moral and political obligation, as libertarians, to look out for their interests, as well as our own? And what are those interests, anyway?
To characterize the prospects for liberty in Eastern Union and the states of the former Soviet Union as dim would be an understatement: it is fair to say that libertarianism, however loosely we define it, is not on the agenda for these countries. Nor, for that matter, is liberal democracy. This is the reality – for the foreseeable future – no matter who is in power.
Freed at last from the long nightmare of Bolshevism, and without any cultural or historical basis on which a liberal order might rest, the best the citizens of the former Soviet bloc can hope for is to avert a reversion to pre-Soviet forms of tyranny. Given the alternatives – some form of neo-communism or even the "national bolshevism" of outright neo-Nazis – Putinism is probably the most benign result we can hope for.
And it isn’t just the former Soviet states: liberty is on the agenda exactly nowhere outside these United States, and even here it is on the defensive. We woke up the other day to the revelation that our wise rulers have secretly constructed an all-seeing Panopticon, scooping up our emails and other online communications in the name of fighting the "war on terrorism." A secret court gave them permission – and now they’re spying on Congress!
With al-Qaeda out of the headlines, and the alleged "threat" from a band of bedraggled wannabe terrorists rapidly receding in the public mind, a new bogeyman had to be conjured out of whole cloth – and Putin fit the bill. This alongside the desire to plunder what’s left of Russia’s rapidly diminishing resources – and revenge for Putin kicking out our favored oligarchs and thumbing our noses in other ways – was enough motivation for Washington and its compliant media megaphones to gin up Cold War II.
The Ukrainian "crisis" is chapter one of this narrative, and the story goes something like this: the heroic freedom-loving Ukrainian people rose up against a Russian-backed tyrant while the evil Putin plotted and schemed to stop them. When they wouldn’t be stopped he resorted to an invasion.
This storyline works for casual readers of newspapers, but those who choose to look a little deeper – and not that much deeper – know the reality is a bit different. Yes, there are freedom-loving Ukrainians who desperately want a better life and rose up against the government out of sheer desperation; but these are not the people in charge of the coup, and their interests are not the same as those who stand behind the coup leaders. Ukraine is being handed back to the same voracious oligarchs who wrecked the country to begin with, with one new element added: a growing faction of ultra-nationalists who trace their heritage back to the pro-Nazi "insurgent army" that fought the Russians in World War II and actively participated in the Holocaust.
Ron Paul’s response to the Crimean "crisis" and the Russian annexation – "Who cares?" – was quintessentially libertarian. After all, why would libertarians defend the legitimacy of a deal made by Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, who in 1953 decided to hand Crimea over to Ukraine? Some say he was drunk at the time. Is this something libertarians want to go to the barricades for? Crimea had been Russian since the days of Catherine the Great, and if the Crimeans wanted to hold a referendum to decide whether to reenter the Russian Federation, well then, who were we to stop them?
Some libertarians, however, didn’t see it that way – in particular a small student group that had praised and actively participated in programs sponsored and funded by a US government agency, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). They raised a stink, attacking Paul and going to the neoconservative Free Beacon and other interventionist outlets with their "Ron Paul is applauding Putin the autocrat" story. In their view, we’re all Ukrainians now.
While the credibility among libertarians of a group that is openly cooperating with the US government – with some of its members receiving cash "awards" for their service to the State – is minimal, at best, the controversy around Ukraine serves to highlight a larger issue: the question of "libertarian internationalism."
In the run up to the Iraq war there were a few libertarians who supported the effort to "liberate" that country from the yoke of the dictator Saddam Hussein. One notable war supporter was Ron Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent, who posited a theory that I dubbed "libertarian Trotskyism." He built his argument around the notion that libertarianism in one country is doomed to fail, and that because the US is the living embodiment of the free society, it’s our moral obligation to spread liberty around the world – at gunpoint if necessary. He has since repudiated this position, and certainly the disaster that flowed from his idea – an idea shared by the Bush administration and the neocons – taught him and those who agreed with him a valuable lesson.
Unfortunately, this is a lesson that must be relearned whenever the War Party gins up another overseas "crisis." But the really necessary lesson that needs to be understood by libertarians and fellow-travelers goes way beyond the folly of foreign intervention and the absurdity of remaking whole societies at gunpoint.
The context in which this issue has to be framed is the marginal position of libertarianism – or anything even approaching it – in the world of the twenty-first century. The concept of human freedom – that is, freedom from coercive government – is in retreat all over the globe. Forget Ukraine, which has never had anything close to a classical liberal or even recognizably democratic heritage: here in the United States, site of the only successful libertarian revolution in history, the counterrevolution of authoritarianism has launched an assault on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that threatens the very foundations of American society as it has existed since 1776.
The progress of the counterrevolution has been greatly speeded up by the relentless wars of aggression waged by Washington post-9/11. In a mutually reinforcing dynamic of war and internal repression, the new authoritarianism is rapidly cementing its "legitimacy" and wiping out the last remnants of our old republic. As we make the transition from republic to empire, militarism and messianism replace the old republican virtues and our corrupt political class glories in dreams of an American-dominated "world order."
In the midst of all this, it is inevitable that some ostensible "libertarians" will become infected with the interventionist bacillus: it pervades the political culture. Libertarians overseas are even more susceptible, given their impossible situation. And while only a few will start working with the National Endowment for Democracy and other less overt government agents, there will be those who cite Tom Paine’s phrase, "My country is the world," to justify their ambivalence.
Only two things can save them from falling into the trap of "libertarian Trotskyism," and that is:
1) Rejecting Paine’s Jacobin/Napoleonic slogan, and realizing that, no, my country isn’t the world – it’s the United States of America, homeland of the one libertarian revolution that has managed to survive, and, for a time, even thrive. A revolution, I remind you, that is in mortal danger of being reversed, and which it is our primary obligation to defend. I would go even further than that and venture to say that mounting such a defense is our sole task, given the crisis of liberty in this country. In short; if we are to have libertarianism, it is going to be libertarianism in one country – or not anywhere at all.
2) We must never forget that the political character of a state, whether it is democratic, theocratic, fascist, or communist, says nothing about the foreign policy it will pursue. A democracy can be and often is relentlessly aggressive, while a fascist dictatorship could just as readily be pacific and isolationist. Indeed, a democratic nation with a Messiah complex is far more dangerous to the world and to its own people than a relatively authoritarian state that just wants to reign over its little corner of the globe. A danger to the world because the special arrogance that infuses would-be messiahs allows them to commit the greatest crimes for the noblest of reasons. A danger to their own people because the very act of aggression and empire-building destroys the liberal character of democratic states, eating away their substance from within.
The libertarian position on the foreign policy issue of the day can be summed up in three short words: Ukraine – who cares? Looking at the polls, we’re in the majority for once. Back in 1998, when last the Russian bogeyman loomed large in the hive mind of our elites, the Clinton administration had some success in ginning up a war in Kosovo. Today the Obama administration couldn’t get the country behind a new cold war – never mind a hot one – even if it wanted to, which is why the President was quick to disdain Russia as a "regional power" acting out of weakness.
That’s real progress: opposition to US intervention is on the rise, as is support for libertarian politics in this country: Let’s not blow it by adopting the discredited ideas of our neoconservative enemies and jumping into bed with the National Endowment for Democracy.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.