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If Liberty Mattered — Once More, a Presidential Candidate’s Press Conference, Part 8

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The Washington Times: In your previous press conference, you argued for the reversal of America’s military commitments around the world. You said that you would notify our global allies that the United States intended to withdraw from our mutual-defense treaties, bring the troops home, and leave the rest of the world to take care of its own problems. But isn’t America’s own political and economic well-being closely connected with the stability of other parts of the globe? Can we just turn our back on the world, considering that there are many enemies of America, especially ones like the terrorists who exploded that massive bomb in Saudi Arabia in late June 1996, killing nineteen American servicemen and wounding hundreds of other people?

The Candidate: The loss of those nineteen lives must be considered a great tragedy. And the actions of the terrorists must be considered nothing less than barbaric. Clearly, they had hoped to cause even more deaths than actually occurred; indeed, they probably had hoped the death toll would be in the hundreds. Yet, the fundamental question for American foreign policy is: Why were those U.S. servicemen made the target of this attack? The general consensus after the bombing was that the perpetrators were “domestic” terrorists, trying to weaken the authority and control of the Saudi government.

Then why attack Americans?

Because the United States government made Americans targets by politically aligning our country with the established political authority in Saudi Arabia. Let me be clear: What I’m saying is in no way meant to be a rationale or justification for the actions of these terrorists; murder is still murder, regardless of the excuse the killers use to justify their actions. But it does enable us to understand the motives behind their actions.

By entering into military and political alliances with other countries, like Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government necessarily injects America into the domestic politics of those countries. America is seen as the defender of “the powers-that-be” — the status quo. Many of the countries with which the U.S. government has formed alliances during the last half-century have been dictatorships in which the rulers have used American support to retain their power over people in their own societies. Saudi Arabia is no exception to this; it is a monarchy that severely limits political and civil liberties and monopolizes much of the wealth and many of the economic opportunities for the benefit of members of the royal family and those in favor with it. The situation in Saudi Arabia is intensified by the fact that many in active opposition to the royal government are Islamic fundamentalists who desire political power for themselves so they can impose their own version of theocratic authoritarianism. Both primary antagonists in this domestic conflict, in other words, are antifreedom in the general Western meaning of human liberty.

Attacking American forces came to be seen, by these terrorists, as an avenue to undermine their opponent. (“The friend of my enemy is my enemy.”) The danger from such attacks, therefore, is inseparable from American foreign intervention, since by the very act of intervening politically and militarily in various countries around the world, the U.S. government embroils our nation into other people’s domestic controversies.

What are America’s interests around the world? In the eyes of the present administration in Washington, the United States has interests that include potential military engagements practically anywhere in the world. On June 4, 1996, the (London) Financial Times quoted State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns as saying: “The U.S. will continue to be involved in all the crises NATO will face in the future. The U.S. considers itself to be a European power.” The same day, The Washington Post quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official as stating: “It’s very difficult for us to look around the landscape and see any situation where the United States would not be involved. In the real world, when real threats develop, the United States will be there.” And after the bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Newsweek quoted another senior U.S. official as saying “Interests remain interests. We have some very basic interests there.”

Rarely do American policymakers or policy analysts specify what defines the “national interest.” It seems to be one of those things that is usually not articulated but “you know when you see it.”

The national interest would be threatened, in the eyes of “bipartisan” Washington policymakers, if:

1. Another nation should gain exclusionary control over a resource considered vital to the U.S. economy.

2. Another nation should gain exclusionary control over a geographical area of the world considered essential to American trade, commerce, and investment.

3. Another nation excludes American trade and investment from its own territory, when that nation is considered important to American economic prosperity.

4. Another nation espouses or spreads an ideology considered dangerous or threatening to the political stability of the U.S. or to a country considered “of interest” to the U.S.

5. Another nation undertakes or threatens military action against a third country viewed as important or essential to American “interests.”

6. Another country’s government politically or militarily oppresses its own people when that nation and its internal politics are considered important or essential to America’s “interests.”

7. Another nation has exclusionary control over geographical areas — or denies American armed forces access to such areas — considered to be militarily significant for the defense of America or for American projection of its own military power to secure against any of the above points.

It should be clear that if these are among the factors that define a threat to America’s “national interest,” then such a list represents a recipe for what historian Charles A. Beard once called “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” Nothing any other nation does, anywhere in the world, is then considered outside of the potential national interest of the United States.

What does defending America’s national interest mean under these circumstances? It means interventionism — political, military, and economic intervention.

But the United States has no capacity to intervene in any of these ways, or combination of ways, other than by restricting the freedom of the American people.

First, the income and wealth of the American people must be taxed to finance the expenses of projecting American “power” around the world. Second, resources in the United States must be diverted from private, productive uses to government control and use — men must be either hired or drafted to serve in the military; resources and raw materials must be allocated for the production of military equipment and supplies; goods and services must be diverted from private-sector use for political and economic subsidization or destabilization of other governments. Third, to threaten, punish, or reward other nations, the United States government may have to regulate the international trading decisions of the American people or restrict the countries to which Americans may travel.

The liberty of Americans at home — to keep the fruits of their labor, to utilize their labor and resources in the private marketplace, and to trade and travel wherever inclination and opportunity may lead them — must be abridged if the American government is to project its power abroad in the name of the national interest.

But who shall define the national interest, and who shall determine when and to what extent the American people will be required to make these personal and financial sacrifices? Clearly this will be determined in foreign policy no differently than in domestic policy — through the interactions of what economist Milton Friedman has called the “iron triangle” of politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests. The wealth, freedom, and lives of some Americans will be sacrificed for the benefit of others who use the political arena for purposes of acquiring position, power, and profit for themselves and for those with whom they manipulate the democratic process.

The “national interest” is as empty a term as “social justice,” the “common good,” and the “general welfare.” It is a concept that can be filled with meaning by anyone who wishes to restrict the freedom of others for the attainment of goals he cannot achieve without the use of compulsion. If the national interest were to be defined in a way consistent with the free society, it would have to be confined in its meaning to the idea that the government is limited to performing its narrow, though essential, duties of protecting the life, liberty, and property of each American from either internal or external violence and aggression. When each individual’s interest in having his liberty secure is maintained, then the nation’s interest has been served.

Do the governments of other nations sometimes abridge the life, liberty, and property of their own citizens? Unfortunately, they do. Do other governments sometimes indulge in aggression and plunder against other nations? The history of the world is a sorry, unending record of such behavior. Can other governments do things that hinder or prevent American citizens from trading with whom they choose and traveling to where they would like? This, too, has often occurred. Might other governments attempt to monopolize and manipulate the resources and markets under their control to influence the international terms of trade for their own benefit? This, also, has often been tried. As long as forms of collectivist thinking dominate political and economic policy around the world, these things will be attempted and implemented.

The United States cannot make the world over. It cannot make the world over for two reasons. First, the world does not want to be made over. Many peoples and governments around the world, unfortunately, reject the ideas of personal freedom and real free enterprise. To try to remold the world in some American-preferred image will only generate greater resentment against the United States for trying to make people over in ways they wish not to be; and it will only reinforce the rejection of the ideas we say we are espousing precisely because the recipient peoples will often fight against those ideas being forced upon them.

Second, in attempting to remake or control the world in ways United States policymakers view as morally right or in the national interest, America is pushed further away from practicing the freedom and free enterprise we proclaim to represent. To intervene politically and militarily around the world, the United States government must practice many of the freedom-abridging policies that it claims it opposes when implemented and acted upon by other countries. As I suggested, to undertake an interventionist foreign policy requires restricting the American people’s liberty at home. We move more and more towards becoming the very things we say we oppose in other places around the world.

When I entered the race for the presidency of the United States, I explained that I believed the American people needed a real choice — a third alternative that would offer the option of freedom for America.

One of the greatest errors of the 20th century, I believe, has been the false notion that freedom can be compartmentalized — that it is possible to divide freedom into separable categories of political freedom, personal freedom, and economic freedom. Freedom is ultimately indivisible, both in domestic policy and foreign policy. In the long run, political freedom and personal freedom cannot stand permanently on their own unless supported and grounded in respect and protection of private property, the right of voluntary exchange, and unhampered market competition. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises once observed:

Government is a guarantor of liberty and is compatible with liberty only if its range is adequately restricted to the preservation of what is called economic freedom. Where there is no market economy, the best-intended provisions of constitutions and laws remain a dead letter.

Similarly, economic freedom is threatened and incomplete for as long as the right of individual choice and voluntary exchange is not respected in those areas of life usually covered under the heading of civil and personal liberty. And, finally, all aspects of human liberty are threatened at home if the government does not confine itself to only safeguarding the life and property of its citizens within its own territorial confines.

If elected, I will do all in my power within the limits of the presidential powers under the constitution to help restore the freedom for which our Founding Fathers fought a revolution of separation from Great Britain and instituted a constitutional order restricting the powers of the government.

And there is one other promise I will make: I assure the American people that I will hold no conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt nor will I take any advice she might want to offer me from the spirit world.

Ladies and gentlemen of the press, thank you very much. It is now up to the people of the United States.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).