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I Need Provocation Now

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It’s shocking how the quality of America’s leaders has declined over the decades. Do you believe that the U.S. government is actually contemplating an unprovoked war against Iraq? Think about that: Iraq has staged no attack on the United States. You can’t count the firing on American military aircraft. That’s occurring over Iraqi territory. Besides, those planes have been bombing Iraqis, and killing civilians, for more than a decade. Iraq’s response is hardly unreasonable.

What President Bush is planning to do is highly unbecoming to a Great Power. It is virtually unprecedented. This is not what Great Powers do. On the contrary, when Great Powers want to go to war, they fabricate a provocation. Are Mr. Bush and his brilliantly talented advisors so unimaginative that they cannot come up with an incident? If that’s the case, then as I said, the quality of American leadership has deteriorated to an embarrassing degree. We really must do something about this. Where do these people learn their trade?

It is not as though this government has no role models to emulate. When President William McKinley and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst wanted war with Spain (and a little foreign real estate), they seized on a mundane event — probably a boiler explosion on the Maine — as a casus belli. Voilá! America was an empire. Piece of cake.

Woodrow Wilson was equally adroit at this sort of thing. After the German Kaiser unleashed his submarines in response to Britain’s cruel and illegal starvation blockade in 1917, Wilson armed and gave protection to American merchant ships carrying munitions to Germany’s enemy. When ships were torpedoed while in the announced submarine area, that was all the provocation Wilson needed to get into the war to end war, the war for democracy, the war that turned much of Europe and Asia into a slaughterhouse.

Nor was the ever-imaginative Franklin Delano Roosevelt any slouch at maneuvering the other guy into “firing the first shot,” as one of his people put it. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor may or may not have been a complete surprise to him. Maybe he expected the target to be the Philippines. But there is no question that he did his utmost to get the Japanese do to something. Attempts to goad the German U-boats to attack Americans ships had failed. But a couple years of economic warfare aimed at strangling the rival Japanese empire did the trick.

Lyndon Johnson learned well. Years of ghastly war and the deaths of 58,000 Americans and two million Vietnamese followed the Gulf of Tonkin “incident.” What was that? As far as we know, there were some blips on a radar screen aboard an American military ship that shouldn’t have been anywhere near Vietnam anyway. But, hey, it worked. President Johnson got his war, which we had to pursue for so long because, well, it’s bad for an empire to lose credibility. We had to cut off our nose to save our face. Politics is like that.

Since then, the wars have been smaller, almost routine. But some kind of provocation has been needed. Something about the American character still would not let us accept an unprovoked war. It didn’t have to be much. But we needed something. We went to Grenada because our medical students were threatened. We went to Panama because our old friend Noriega was really a drug kingpin. We fought Iraq the first time when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait after the American ambassador winked her eye while telling him that his border dispute with Kuwait was their affair alone. We went to Kosovo because Milosevic wanted to kick out the Albanian ethnics seeking a Greater Albania — which he did just as soon as the American bombing started. (When the bombing stopped, the Albanians themselves got into the ethnic laundry business.) When we bombed an aspirin factory in the Sudan it was because — what was the reason for that one again?

I’m sure I’ve missed some, but you get the point. We need provocation. And if we are going to war against Iraq, we need it now. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going until I get one.

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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.