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An Unkeepable Promise

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President Bush should be wary of making promises he may not be able to keep. He’s vowed to prosecute a long and victorious war against “terrorism,” an amorphous “entity” if there ever was one. But before he extends his campaign beyond Afghanistan, which will have as its inevitable casualties a long list of civil liberties, he might want to consult with some others who have attempted similar feats, although on a far smaller scale.

For example, the Israelis, have been at war with “terrorism” for over 50 years, with no end in sight. In 1982, led by current prime minister Ariel Sharon and with an American okay, Israel invaded Lebanon and waged a brutal and bloody war against guerilla organizations, only to leave years later with mission unaccomplished — but not before Israel’s Christian allies slaughtered 1,800 Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. I imagine that no one would reply that Israel lacked resolve.

The Russians, our welcome ally in this allegedly new war, have had something of a difficult time in Chechnya, despite a good deal of resolve and ordnance. The resemblance of the Chechens, in religion and determination, to those the U.S. government is about to engage is hard to miss. Let us also not forget that the Russians spent years trying to subdue the recalcitrant Afghans, only to withdraw in utter humiliation. Oh yes, the U.S. government had a hand in that conflict, arming and financing the Afghans and their compatriot, one Osama bin Laden, who’s been much in the news of late. Crushing the Taliban is one thing; eradicating all terrorism is quite something else.

Let’s recall, too, the years of turmoil in Britain at the hands of the Irish Republican Army. Even the Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unable to subdue that dedicated group of militants.

Then there was an episode out of the America’s own history: the U.S. military worked very hard to rid South Vietnam of the Vietcong, to little avail. Some will say that war was fought half-heartedly. But that’s not the way the Vietnamese on the ground saw things. Between the carpet bombing and the special operations designed to decapitate the guerilla resistance, the U.S. government can be said to have given it the old college try. But that war didn’t end well for the Robert McNamaras and Henry Kissingers of the American establishment.

More than one commentator has offered that whoever is responsible for the spectacularly barbarian acts of mass murder and destruction on September 11 is probably hoping that the president of the United States responds by commencing hostilities throughout the Middle East. Robert Fisk of the British newspaper The Independent, who has interviewed bin Laden, points out that he “wishes to overthrow the pro-American regime [sic] of the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia and moving on to Egypt, Jordan and other Gulf states. In an Arab world sunk in corruption and dictatorships — most of them supported by the West — the only act that might bring Muslims to strike at their own leaders would be a brutal, indiscriminate assault by the United States.”

Should Mr. Bush really be so hasty in giving bin Laden what he apparently wants? Isn’t it more likely that, rather than “defeat terrorism” the contemplated prolonged American campaign will only kill more innocents and provoke more terrorism? Perhaps the focus instead should be on the U.S. policy that inflames such hatred against the United States in the first place.

In 1917, when virtually everyone in the United States was lustily calling for the kaiser’s head, a lonely voice of reason, Randolph Bourne, counseled that going to war is like riding a wild elephant. You may have a direction in mind, but the chances are slim that’s where you’ll end up. This was a vivid way of invoking the Law of Unintended Consequences. Nowhere does that law operate with such ironic justice than in war.

Bourne also coined the memorable phrase, “War is the health of the state.” It would be good for all Americans to meditate on those words. In our context they mean that however justified it would be for the perpetrators of September 11 to be violently punished, the cost of war in liberty and innocent lives, could well be too high.

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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.