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Lessons from the Middle East, Part 1

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The widespread revolts against dictatorships in the Middle East hold valuable lessons for the American people. Time will tell whether Americans focus on those lessons and heed them or simply turn away and ignore them. The lessons involve principles of liberty, democracy, and the role of government in a free society. More specifically, they involve such things as U.S. foreign policy, empire, militarism, terrorism, standing armies, torture, gun control, civil liberties, and free markets. The lessons for Americans coming out of the Middle East hold a key to restoring a free, prosperous, and normally functioning society to our land.

Thomas Jefferson remarked in the Declaration of Independence that people will put up with a lot of tyranny before they finally revolt against their own government. Revolutions can be costly, especially in terms of loss of life among the citizenry. Most tyrannical governments spend much of their time and resources building up their police, intelligence, and military forces in order to have overwhelming force that can be employed against dissidents should citizens decide to revolt.

Thus, the citizens of a country suffering under brutal dictatorship will often choose to continue suffering under such dictatorship rather than incur the costs of revolution. We saw this phenomenon under the Soviet Union. While there were periodic outbursts of revolutionary activity, they were brutally suppressed by Soviet or Soviet-backed troops. The use of overwhelming force suppressed the revolutionary fervor. Finally, in 1989 with the impending bankruptcy of its empire, the Soviet Union disintegrated, which resulted in the peaceful liberation of Soviet “republics,” Eastern Europe, and East Germany from Soviet control.

Should the people of those countries instead have revolted violently against the Soviet Union during the 45 years of Soviet rule? That was their call to make. Between the widespread death and destruction that would very likely have come with revolution, and continuing to suffer under Soviet communist rule, they chose the latter.

For people in such countries as Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, the situation obviously reached a tipping point, the one to which Jefferson referred. Having suffered under brutal and impoverishing dictatorship for decades, people finally had had enough. They were willing to risk their lives in peaceful demonstrations, in the hope that the demonstrations would drive the dictators from power and possibly in the hope that a democratic regime could be established along with a prosperous economy.

Once the demonstrations broke out, most of the world immediately sided with the demonstrators. In Washington, D.C., however, there was deep ambivalence over the protests. Publicly siding with the demonstrators and against the dictators, U.S. officials, in both the executive and legislative branches, were simultaneously unhappy over the threatened ouster of the dictators.

Why?

Because they were U.S. dictators — that is, foreign dictators who had played an important and integral part of the U.S. empire for decades. Billions of dollars of U.S. foreign aid, including cash and military armaments, had been used to prop up the dictatorships and to help them enforce their brutal rule over their citizenry for decades. For example, $2 billion a year went to Egypt, part of which ended up in the Swiss bank accounts of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and part into the police/military/intelligence machinery that brutalized and oppressed the citizenry for decades.

Middle Eastern dictators were often personal friends of American presidents, both Republican and Democrat. The dictators’ militaries were trained by the U.S. military, an arrangement that produced close personal ties between the Pentagon and military officials of the dictatorial regimes. The U.S. empire maintained part of its extensive worldwide empire of bases in some of the Middle Eastern countries. Its Fifth Fleet, for example, is based in Bahrain.

What the widespread protests in the Middle East were exposing was one of the dark secrets of U.S. foreign policy — the U.S. government’s longtime support of dictatorial regimes — financial support, military support, and psychological support. It is one of the government’s dark secrets that U.S. officials have always hoped that the American people wouldn’t pay much attention to. For decades the message to the American people has been, “Defer to the authority of your government in foreign affairs. We know what’s best for America. We are the experts. We have national interests to protect. Everything we do is for good. Sometimes we have to do unsavory things in order to advance what is good. Pay it no mind. Go about your business and look the other way. We’ll handle it.”

That’s been the situation for decades. Americans, by and large, defer to authority when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. And while they realize that sometimes the U.S. empire might need to go to the dark side, Americans would rather not know the details. Just do what is necessary, the mindset has been. Don’t tell us about it. We would rather not know.

What the widespread protests in the Middle East are doing, however, like it or not, is publicly exposing some of the U.S. empire’s forays to the dark side. What U.S. officials are hoping is that by publicly siding with the demonstrators with much fanfare, they can keep the American people from focusing too closely on the empire’s critically important role in having maintained and supported the very dictatorships that the people in the Middle East are now trying to oust from power.

First principles

Let’s return to first principles.

When the U.S. Constitution called the U.S. government into existence, the American people were very leery. They had been operating under the Articles of Confederation for some six years, a political structure in which the federal government had very weak powers. The people feared that the Constitution would bring into existence a federal government with very strong powers, ones that could be used to oppress them.

Why were our American ancestors concerned about such a government? Because their mindset was entirely different from the mindset that characterizes most Americans today. Our ancestors believed that the greatest threat to the freedom and well-being of a citizenry lies not in such things as terrorists, immigrants, foreigners, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, illegal aliens, or drug dealers. Instead, they believed that the greatest threat to people’s freedom and well-being lay with their own government.

Their mindset was not based merely on intellectual reasoning. It was formed as a result of centuries of resistance to tyranny at the hands of people’s own government, the English government. Keep in mind that throughout their history the English people had suffered at the hands of tyrants, some of whom would make the Middle East tyrants look like pikers, especially when it came to torturing dissidents.

Thus, Americans in 1787 were not excited about bringing into existence the federal government. They believed that it would inevitably attract people to power who would have an insatiable thirst to expand the powers of government in such a way that the federal government would end up being the master of the American people and the American people the servants.

Proponents of the new government responded that there was no need for Americans to be concerned. Why? Because the U.S. Constitution, which was the instrument by which the federal government was being called into existence, expressly limited the powers of this new government. There was minimal danger that the federal government would become tyrannical because it would be constrained within the straitjacket of the Constitution, it was argued.

It is notable that the Constitution never uses the word “democracy.” That’s because the Framers understood that democracy was not synonymous with liberty. In fact, early Americans understood that democracy could be a gigantic threat to freedom, one as great as an unelected totalitarian dictatorship.

For example, suppose that under the new federal government 95 percent of the American people favored a law that required every family to attend church on Sunday. The rationale would be that since religious principles were important to a free society, it was also important that families maintain strong religious convictions and education.

Proponents of democracy would say, “What’s wrong with that? The majority rules. If you don’t like the law, write articles, give speeches, and try to get your people into public office to change the law. In the meantime, comply with it because the law is the law.”

But if we go back to the Declaration of Independence, we can see the fallacy of such reasoning. Recall that Jefferson observed that all men are endowed with certain fundamental, inherent, natural, God-given rights, ones that no government, not even a democratically elected one, can legitimately take away or infringe.

Thus, whether a person goes to church or not is subject neither to the orders of a totalitarian dictator nor to democratic vote. Natural or God-given rights are not legitimately subject to government infringement.

The Bill of Rights

The proponents of the federal government argued that there was minimal risk that the federal government would take away people’s fundamental rights because the enumerated powers delegated to the federal government in the Constitution were very few and did not include the power to infringe the people’s natural, God-given rights.

The American people were still skeptical, but they finally agreed to ratify the Constitution on one condition — that after the federal government was called into existence, the Constitution would immediately be amended by a Bill of Rights.

What was the purpose of the Bill of Rights? To make certain that there was no misunderstanding with respect to the federal government’s powers over the people. The First and Second Amendments set forth the notion that people have fundamental rights that preexist the federal government. The amendments expressly prohibit the federal government from infringing those fundamental rights. The Third Amendment expressed the deep antipathy toward militarism and standing armies that characterized our ancestors. The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments outlined critically important procedural guarantees against arbitrary arrest, indefinite incarceration, and torture that had been carved out in centuries of resistance to tyranny. The Seventh Amendment guaranteed jury trials in civil cases. The Ninth Amendment reminded everyone that the list of rights in the Bill of Rights wasn’t all-inclusive. The Tenth Amendment reserved the balance of powers to the states and to the people.

So the American people were convinced that there was a good possibility that the new federal government that was being called into existence by the Constitution would attract people to public office who would use the power of government to suppress freedom of speech, especially speech critical of government, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, and other fundamental rights. They also believed that it would attract Americans to public office who would use federal power to round up people, incarcerate them, torture them, and even execute them.

That was the purpose of the Bill of Rights — to say to Americans who became public officials, either by election or appointment, You don’t have the authority to do those things, no matter how much you would like to do them and no matter how important you feel it is to wield such power.

It’s important to keep in mind that contrary to popular opinion among Americans of today, the Bill of Rights does not give people any rights, any more than the Constitution does. Our American ancestors clearly understood that people’s rights preexist the federal government, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. The Bill of Rights expressly prohibits the federal government from infringing the natural, God-given, inherent, preexisting rights of the people.

Let’s keep these points about democracy, freedom, and fundamental rights in mind as we now focus on the role of standing armies in the Middle East and the reason our American ancestors had such a deep antipathy toward them.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article originally appeared in the May 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.