Well, when the president does it that means it is not illegal. — Richard Nixon in the David Frost interview of May 19, 1977
“The president is always right,” said deputy attorney general Steven Bradbury, July 11, 2006, before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he was joking.
For America to end its permanent warfare state it could begin by closing all foreign bases. End all military treaties. End the disgrace of extraterritoriality in places such as Okinawa. Bring the troops home.
By closing all of the bases around the world — and many bases at home are also not needed, especially those that were established to protect against Indian attacks! — and by ending military alliances, several good things would result. The United States would be saving many lives as well as saving the overburdened American taxpayer hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars over the next generation. And those could be precious dollars that might avert bankruptcy. Fiscal sanity combined with a pacific foreign policy of trade inevitably leads the United States to return to a noninterventionist foreign policy.
To say that that constitutes “isolationism” and that “we can’t go back” to it is foolish. It is tantamount to saying people can’t learn from history, whose study can save them from repeating mistakes.
If people can’t do that, then we are saying that we will ignore the deceptions of the 1960s Vietnam policy documented in the Pentagon Papers. We are also saying that people can’t even learn from the nonexistence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, notwithstanding the false assurances of George W. Bush and so many other U.S. officials.
Defenders of the U.S. empire had a second line of defense. They claimed that the war in Iraq was justified anyway because a dictator was toppled. Still, the mentality that America must save the world from dictatorship and give it democracy, no matter how high the death toll, is wrong and always has been wrong.
Constitutional liberty, warned British parliamentarian Sir Robert Peel in the Don Pacifico debate of 1850, a debate over whether the British government was right to use force against a powerless Greece over a debt dispute, “will be best worked out by those who aspire to freedom by their own efforts.”
And certainly there is a danger of ceaseless wars, especially given that so many Americans lack historical knowledge about their nation and about how liberty developed. That historical illiteracy, or what novelist Gore Vidal calls “the United States of Amnesia,” unfortunately facilitates empire, interventionism, aggression, tra-gic deaths, and broken bodies. It also leads foreigners to hate Americans, even as U.S. officials insist that they are bringing democracy to their country. I am thinking here of an Iraqi man who lost both arms in an American bombing and who questions the U.S. decision to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
“To be honest, I don’t think it has gotten better than before Saddam,” Ali Abbas told Time magazine in the September 19, 2011, issue. “As Iraqis, nobody, not many people liked him. But if you were away from him and don’t say anything, he will not come and attack you. Now people sitting at home have bombs falling on their houses without any reason.”
Regime change in Iraq was a bipartisan policy. It was affirmed by two presidents, by most of both ruling parties, and by several Congresses.
For example, living in a Democratic state, New York, I heard little criticism of the Republican government’s Iraq War from my Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. (In a recent book of about 300 pages written by Schumer, Positively American, the senator spends only one page on the Iraq War. Maybe it was because he voted for the war. That contrasts with Sen. Charles Hagel’s book, which I mentioned in the previous segment, in which he concedes his mistake in voting for the war.)
There was much to criticize in the war.
How can Americans change this pro-empire, pro-interventionist mindset?
The United States must return to its classical liberal roots. It must relearn the lessons of Thomas Gordon, John Trenchard, George Washington, and Lord Acton, opponents of leviathan.
Americans must rediscover their anti-militarist traditions. It will be disturbing to rehash the mistakes of the past generations. But, as we are reminded in The Analects of Confucius, “The Master said: No vexation, no enlightenment; no anxiety, no illumination.”
The rediscovery of the anti-militarist tradition requires illumination and enlightenment. Americans should remember the time in their history when demobilizing most of the armed forces once a war was over was the accepted practice and when many Americans were suspicious of large standing-military establishments. That is a policy that goes back to the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, wars in which large militaries were judged dangerous for British liberties.
And most of all, Americans must stop the endless war-making and executive-agreement mischief-making of presidents. Indeed, the Founding Fathers correctly predicted that the executive would eventually become the greatest threat to liberty.
How can Americans end or at least reduce imperial government?
First, it means no more NATO, or no U.S. participation in NATO. That’s not such a radical idea when one considers that NATO, in military terms, is basically the United States and little else. Most European partners hardly contribute anything. Their armed forces have atrophied over the past generation.
Second, it means ending all military alliances. Begin with the countries in the most dangerous places around the world. Israel has nuclear weapons and efficient conventional forces. It can effectively defend itself. Many Americans should stop acting as though it is a 51st state the U.S. government must defend.
Third, the United States should immediately pull all troops out of Afghanistan and close all bases there. The Iraqi pullout announcement is good, but only a first step.
All other military alliances should be ended. U.S. armed forces should be designed to protect only the nation.
The legislative supports of the warfare state should be dismantled. The National Security Act as well as the USA PATRIOT Act should be revoked.
Presidents must have a declaration of war from Congress to wage war, on pain of impeachment for violating that provision of the Constitution.
Presidents and Congresses should be prohibited from entering into any permanent military alliances.
There are no guarantees that such stronger protections would stop reckless presidents and lethargic Congresses from preventing a repeat of useless wars. After all, wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Korea initially had popular support.
But additional legal speed bumps would give Americans more time to stop and think quietly, possibly allowing passions to cool. The passions of war, the noxious nationalism so successfully stoked by mainstream media and populist politicians and accepted by gullible Americans, must be ended.
Too many Americans think patriotism requires them to accept any excuse the government provides for going to war or threatening war, even when such excuses destroy the liberty of the American people. But our only hope is that Americans will realize that it is not leviathan but liberty that is our precious heritage.
As the philosopher Blaise Pascal tells us in Pensees, the problems of the world stem from the inability of people to sit quietly in a room and think. Let us quietly think of liberty. Let us remember its countless blessings. Let us remember that America was born with a disdain of militarism.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).