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Topsy Turvy Foreign Policy

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U.S. foreign policy can be confusing. Jiang Zemin heads the brutal communist government in the most populous nation in the world. He gets a state dinner at the White House and trade deals. Fidel Castro heads the communist government on the small island of Cuba. He can’t get within a hundred miles of the White House, and the United States maintains a trade embargo against his country.

Does any of this make sense? Not really. Nor do many other ects of U.S. foreign policy. It seems to be guided not by principle but purely by political expediency. That’s no big surprise. Still, it is worth asking whether that kind of policy is appropriate to a society that is theoretically based on a set of noble principles, first among them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The policymakers have never liked public scrutiny of foreign affairs. It is the part of government that is least open to the people’s examination. Lots of information is kept secret — until recently we were not even allowed to know how much the CIA spends each year . Even partisanship, which might occasionally force debate if only for political reasons, is discouraged. “Politics stops at the water’s edge” is the slogan that has been used to stifle criticism of presidential policy in foreign matters. It sounds like an invocation of patriotism. But translated, it means: “Shut up.”

The late Felix Morley, who once edited the Washington Post and who wrote extensively on the Constitution, had a suitable answer to the slogan: “Politics stops at the water’s edge when policies stop there. But policies don’t stop there.” Morley meant that foreign policy should be as much subject to debate as any other government activity — more so, considering how lethal foreign policy can be. More Americans have been killed as a result of foreign policy than of, say, agricultural policy. Yet the latter gets much more public scrutiny. That’s ridiculous.

It is all the more absurd when you consider that some fairly intelligent gentlemen set out a sound foreign policy for a free society some years ago. Among the founders of the republic, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had some sensible things to say on the matter. Both men warned about alliances. Alliances have a way of subordinating the freedom of the American people to special interests here and in the allied nation. Today, Americans are forced through taxation to help secure not only nations in Western Europe but also some of the nations formerly a part of the Soviet empire. We of course should wish Poland and the Czech Republic much success in their post-communist journey to freedom. But should we be obligated to go to war to defend them? Even if they should start fighting with each other? Who would volunteer?

As things now stand, America’s young men and women are subject to hazardous duty whenever and wherever a mission catches the president’s fancy. He can send them to a civil war in the remotest part of the world if he finds an American interest there. And “American interest” is defined so broadly that a perceived failure to show resolve to some dictator, even where there is no real interest, can be construed as contrary to American interests.

The Founders tried to build in safeguards against this sort of thing. They gave the power to declare war to the Congress. But that rule fell by the wayside with Harry Truman and the Korean War. Remember the war in Iraq and the praise for the congressional debate that took place before open warfare began? In fact, the debate did not begin until the troops were all in place and the deadline for hostilities had been set by the United States acting under the mantle of the United Nations. The debate was a sham.

The appropriate foreign policy for a free society is one based on free trade with all nations and alliances with none, just as Washington and Jefferson said. The military should serve only to protect the physical integrity of the country. Let other nations go their own way. America should be a beacon of liberty and leave its citizens alone to pursue their happiness.

The president should neither fete Jiang nor ostracize Fidel. To do so is to make America less free.

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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.