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Stop Playing Games

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It’s time for President Clinton to stop playing Saddam Hussein’s tiresome game. How many times will the president prime the American people for military strikes on Iraq, only to go on television and call them off after Saddam has agreed to readmit the UN weapons inspectors? It’s like a summer re-run!

There is a simple and sensible way off this treadmill: the United States should withdraw from the region, bring all its personnel home, cancel the foreign aid, and follow the founding fathers’ wise course on foreign policy: nonintervention in the affairs of other nations, trade with all, entangling alliances with none.

That policy makes sense at any number of levels. In a free society, the people should not have their liberty and treasure perpetually at the mercy of every development around the globe that a president pronounces as relevant to our “vital interests.” To appropriate a line from “Fiddler on the Roof,” it may be no shame to be the “world’s only superpower,” but it’s no great honor either. That status calls for a big military and diplomatic establishment that robs us of our sustenance and periodically requires the people to be agitated by some foreign intrigue lest the tacit public consensus erode. Being the world’s cop inevitably dilutes the constitutional protections that are supposed to be America’s signature. Since the Korean War, presidents have been free to take us into war without even a vote of the Congress. That would have appalled the founders. Even Franklin Roosevelt, who knew something about taking liberties with the Constitution, felt he had to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Japan in 1941. Today that seems quaint.

To put this succinctly, as others have done before, the activist foreign policy pursued by Clinton and his predecessors can’t help but convert the republic into an empire. In domestic terms, the mark of an empire is an executive with the unfettered power to make war. To the extent that the government pursues an agenda of reforming other nations, we will have a less open and free society, because much of the “public’s business” will be off-limits to the people. They will be conned and inveigled into supporting the troops and being good citizens, but if they ask too many questions, they will be put in their place. Skeptics will be dismissed as wishing to stick their heads in the sand.

But that is a baseless smear. A noninterventionist policy is based both on hard-headed realism and on the morality of a free society. It recognizes that if we go looking for enemies, there will be a ready and growing supply. The policy will produce them. No tin-pot dictator with ambitions of grandeur would threaten a prosperous America that minded her own business.

I hasten to add that nonintervention refers to military and political matters only. The counterpart to that policy is complete and unconditional free trade in labor services, goods, and capital. It is an utterly cosmopolitan program, well suited to the 21st century.

And what should be done about Saddam Hussein? The wisest thing to do is to remove his excuses. End the sanctions and other threats to Iraq; they only encourage the Iraqis to rally round Saddam for protection. Getting rid of him might bring someone even worse. Let us not delude ourselves that the fragmented and contentious Iraqi “opposition” is a way out. It is not.

If Saddam actually threatens neighboring people, let them handle it. There is no sense in turning a neighborhood street fight, of which there are countless around the world, into a global conflagration, in which the deaths of innocent civilians will be the certain outcome.

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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.