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In Whose Interest Is This War?

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It has been fascinating to watch the Clinton administration defend its war against Yugoslavia. Those folks really can’t make up their minds, can they? The confusion and ambivalence reveals much about their own ethical philosophy.

The need to go to war against Yugoslavia was at first presented as a selfless matter. President Clinton told the American people that the sole reason for bombing a country that had threatened neither the United States nor any other sovereign country was to stop “ethnic cleansing” and even “genocide.” As a civilized country, we simply had to go to war against a ruler who would treat a portion of his population so brutally. There was nothing material in it for us, he assured the nation.

But that line didn’t last too long. As if sensing that a selfless war would be hard to sell, he followed up by invoking more material interests. Our trade with Europe might be affected if the war spills over into neighboring countries, perhaps eventually destabilizing the rest of Europe. And if trade is affected, our economy might cease its seemingly invulnerable growth. For our own good we must go to war.

Since then, we’ve heard both rationalizations, sometimes from different officials, sometimes from the same official on different occasions. Could both justifications apply? Maybe. But when someone gives you a smorgasbord of reasons for a war, you become suspicious that the speaker lacks confidence in any one of them.

Well, which is it? The ambivalence is interesting. Mr. Clinton is the type of politician who sees nothing wrong in using the coercive power of the state if he thinks it’s for a good cause. This type never first asks, Does the Constitution permit the use of federal power for such an objective? Rather he asks, Is the cause worthy? If he decides yes, he implicitly concludes that all uses of power to achieve worthy causes are permitted by the Constitution. This is nonsense, but that doesn’t bar politicians such as Mr. Clinton from employing that method of “analysis.”

So it is not surprising that he would defend the initiation of war first on the grounds that it’s in a worthy, selfless cause: the helping of others. He wishes that were enough. But he, or someone near him, must suspect that it isn’t enough. That’s why he then invokes our direct material interests.

What is so interesting is that the invocation of interest was so lacking in conviction. You could tell the administration’s people didn’t believe it. They were going through the motions. It was expected, so they said the right words.

There’s been trouble in Yugoslavia and its former republics for a decade, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt the American economy. We have maintained trade with Europe without apparent difficulty, as though a firewall had been erected between the strife-torn parts and the rest of the continent. It just didn’t ring true that we had to start a war in the Balkans for our own economic self-interest.

The relationship between war and interest has preoccupied people for a long time. War, to begin with the obvious, is the most drastic course that a state can embark on, since it can result in the death and maiming of one’s own, as well as foreign, soldiers and civilians. This is why civilized people have regarded war only as a last resort in defense of the integrity and independence of their society. We traditionally use such words as “militaristic” and “war-mongering” to describe governments that approach war more casually.

The American heritage has gone further, embodying the conviction that war causes government to grow and liberty to shrink. That’s why the framers of the Constitution distributed the power to make war, rather than concentrating it in the presidency.

Self-interest in the context of war-making, then, has been a demanding criterion: the liberty of the people and their property had to be in jeopardy. Nothing less could justify war.

But there is another sense of interest, the narrow interest of political leaders. That has long been confused with the rational self-interest of the citizens. It is being confused again in the United States with regard to Yugoslavia.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.