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President’s Perilous Foreign Affairs

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When President Clinton ordered air strikes against alleged terrorist facilities in Sudan and Afghanistan last August, nearly everyone wondered if he had done it to take our attention off his sex scandal. But perhaps he’s using the scandal to distract us from his foreign adventurism. Many criticisms can be made about the president’s White House dalliances. But they don’t have the potential to take innocent lives.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said about President Clinton’s foreign policy. It is fraught with danger.

If the president is trying to divert attention, it certainly is working. The day after his grand jury testimony was shown on television, that story dominated the front page of the nation’s newspapers. Far less attention was given to Clinton’s speech at the United Nations, where he urged a worldwide war on terrorism. The killing and injuring of innocent people on behalf of political causes is, of course, monstrous, even when the United States and its allies engage in it. Individuals who are proved to be guilty of specific criminal acts should be dealt with severely.

But from this it hardly follows that the United States should spearhead an international crusade against terrorism. The proper constitutional responsibility of the U.S. government is to protect the lives and property of Americans at home. It is not justified in policing the world in the name of protecting Americans abroad, instilling democratic values, or carrying out any other lofty goal. That is beyond the scope of a properly limited government. Let’s not forget that America was founded on the idea that the biggest potential threat to our liberty comes from our own government. A muscular U.S. foreign policy is dangerous, not just to armed forces personnel, but to American civilians here and overseas.

In his UN speech, the president said that terrorists attack Americans because “we are blessed to be a wealthy nation with a powerful military and a worldwide presence active in promoting peace and security.” Stripped of euphemism, Clinton is partly right and partly wrong. Americans are not targets of terrorism because they are rich. It is especially unlikely that foreign citizens would attempt to commit terrorist acts in the United States simply because it is a wealthy society.

But the powerful military and worldwide presence Clinton referred to has a lot to do with the terrorism aimed at Americans. Most citizens of this country fail to appreciate how widely and deeply the U.S. government meddles around the world, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Clinton may believe that presence promotes peace and security. But many people living in those regions see it as promoting repressive regimes and injustice. To give one example, U.S. support of the corrupt monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which no one has ever accused of being a champion of individual liberty, is not universally embraced as benign. In fact, in many people’s eyes, U.S. support for that regime is outrageous and criminal. One need not excuse attacks on innocents in order to understand the hatred that U.S. alliances have inspired.

The way to reduce or eliminate attacks on Americans is not to redouble our global intervention. That will only make America the object of more intense hatred, as aggrieved parties conclude that violence is the only recourse they have against the sole superpower. It is precisely because of America’s power and status that it should avoid foreign conflicts and entangling alliances, as the Founding Fathers counseled. Widening violent disputes only makes the world more dangerous. People need to settle their differences without counting on intervention or largess from the United States.

If Clinton is really serious about protecting Americans from terrorism, he will stop creating enemies through foreign meddling.

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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.