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America is Not Rome

Mises Daily: Friday, July 07, 2000 by

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Republican interventionists, along with many would-be imperialists of the political left, have recently criticized "isolationists of the right" for opposing the American attempt to become a world empire.

What these critics don't understand is that America can never be what they want it to be. The United States is institutionally incapable of running an empire or even being an effective world policeman. Our military interventions will always be inconclusive, inconsistent and hypocritical.

In our constitutional government, foreign policy is not made by a few élites as it was in the British or Roman Empires. In England, the franchise was limited to property owners and a few percentage points of the population. Both Britain and Rome had a single, all-powerful legislature.

For America, the written Constitution, and even more so, the Bill of Rights (neither of which constrained the British nor Roman governments) are designed specifically for preserving freedom. This is done by dispersing the centralization of political power necessary for foreign military ventures.

The U.S. system works for self-defense, but is woeful for any sustained, non-vital foreign military interventions. Our democracy also is designed so that those who "care" control foreign policy. Because most Americans don't "care," those who do are usually promoting specific, sectarian, and short-term interests. Once upon a time it was corporations such as United Fruit or Standard Oil, or the New York banks, which dominated foreign policy. Today corporate interests come second to television focused atrocities and domestic pressure groups.

Media Wars

It is primarily television, often directed by skillful public relations, which selects the victims of the moment. American goodwill then creates a groundswell for intervention, which usually ends up causing more misery and chaos. Clinton's bombing of Serbia left an inconclusive, festering mess in the Balkans, as well as an economic disaster because of blockaded Danube River traffic. It frightened the Russians about NATO/U.S. intentions and stimulated other nations, including China to update their weaponry. The end was far more deaths and instability than if America had not intervened militarily in the first place. Generals aren't paid or trained to think about post-war consequences; they're only job is to "win."

An earlier example of TV terror was the story of 20 babies being thrown out of incubators in a Kuwait hospital by the Iraqi invaders. It was a lie, but it helped get us to attack Iraq. Now there are a half million dead children as a consequence of our bombing sanitation and electric generation facilities and following it with economic blockade which disallows imports for reconstruction or even chlorine to purify drinking water.

A smaller example is Haiti. First Washington decimated its peoples' livelihood with economic sanctions, and then invaded. Today Haitians are worse off than before the intervention and more dependent upon U.S. aid. Remember when Haiti was a prime supplier of baseball gloves and equipment before the embargo? It's fledgling industry never recovered from the embargo and now other countries' suppliers have replaced it. In Panama too America invaded and killed to pluck out a President and put him in a Florida jail, ostensibly because of drug smuggling, which now thrives there more even than before.

When television tires of a subject, America forgets about it, and walks away, either abandoning its mission (Haiti, Panama, Somalia) or locking up the losing nation in a blockade leaving its people in utmost misery (Iraq and Serbia). As former President Jimmy Carter put it:

The approach the United States has taken recently has been to devise a solution that best suits its own purposes--- recruit at least tacit support in which ever forum it can best influence, provide the dominant military force, present an ultimatum to recalcitrant parties and then take punitive action against the entire nation to force compliance. The often tragic result of this final decision is that already oppressed citizens suffer (even more)..." (NY Times, May 27, 1999)

Yet observes the New Republic, "this (American) Monster is more like an elephant --bumbling rather than bloodthirsty, oblivious rather than fierce." (TRB, January 17, 2000) Witness, for example, America's bombing of Serbia's Danube River bridges (done against French opposition). This has caused billions of dollars of losses to the struggling Balkan and Black Sea nations, which use barges for bulk transport. Eastern Europe's major river transport is paralyzed, yet it's barely reported in America's press and Washington even tried to prevent rebuilding of the bridges.

Empire and the Rule of Law

A policeman can be effective in two ways. One, as a fair arbiter who inspires trust and respect and follows a consistent rule of law, as did Rome and England in their heyday. Secondly, as a feared oppressor of the neighborhood ruling by terror, force and blackmail. This second way is very, very expensive and inefficient. America can't be a "fair" policeman because of the way our foreign policies are made, so more and more of the world sees us as the "Rogue Superpower," as a Chicago Tribune article put it.

Washington's foreign policy reeks with hypocrisy. We destroyed Serbia for refusing to grant de facto independence to Kosovo and because of its suppression of Albanian insurrection (the mass expulsion of Albanians is now proven to have begun only after American bombing started). But we subsidize Turkey while it killed 37,000 Kurds, including bombing them in Iraq, and removing them from their homes just as the Serbs did to Albanians. America destroyed Iraq for invading Kuwait, a former province, and now demands that Iraq be defenseless against its neighbors whom America arms to the teeth. In Africa we've stood by while millions have been murdered.

Foreign nations can't trust Washington--because it's impossible for Washington to be trustworthy. We decry accused election irregularities in Latin America, but are silent about dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and other oil producing states. The list is endless. We pity the Chechens, but try to starve the Serbs by blockade.

Furthermore, Washington attacked in fundamental violation of international law. Articles 2(4) and (7) on the UN Charter prohibit interventions in the domestic jurisdiction of any country and the use of force by one state against the another. The Geneva Convention prohibits targeting non-military targets (e.g. a cigarette factory). The Nuremberg Code forbids starting a war and attacking a sovereign nation that was innocent of any aggression. The Nato Treaty, Articles 1 and 7, declare it a defensive organization only committed to force if one of its members is attacked.

International law, like most law, although it circumscribes the rich and powerful, is generally for their benefit by codifying rules for the protection of establishment power and property. It is President Clinton who has now undermined it for the foreseeable future, replacing efforts to establish a rule of law, imperfect as it may be, with brute force. "A backlash may be brewing, but it is brought on my America's tendency to treat international norms and treaties as though they should apply to everyone but itself," wrote Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment. (Washington Post, January 23, 2000)

Already there are consequences. As Ivan Eland of Cato has written,

About 40 percent of terrorist attacks perpetrated worldwide have been directed at U.S. targets. It is unusual for a country with friendly neighbors and no civil war or insurrection to be such a prominent target for terrorists. We should first ask what motivates terrorists, state-sponsored and independent, to target the United States..... The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, (headed by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman) answered the question somewhat more honestly than others in the foreign policy establishment: 'Much of the world will resent and oppose us, if not for the simple fact of our pre-eminence, then for the fact that others often perceive the United States as exercising its power with arrogance and self-absorption...States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.'

Foreign Policy Driven by Domestic Politics

NATO expansion was proposed during the last Presidential election primarily to gain votes among Americans of Polish and other central European ancestry, particularly in key mid-Western states. The expansion violated tacit agreements with Russia for its withdrawal from Eastern Europe and did tremendous damage to the pro-democracy forces inside Russia. It was the "crowning humiliation" for Russia, said Charles Fairbanks of Johns Hopkins' Nitze School.

The Armenian American lobby brought about a law which makes it illegal to send even relief supplies to Azerbaijan which is the key nation for Caspian oil; our Cuba policy is controlled by Cuban Americans in Miami; we invaded Haiti to satisfy the Black Caucus in Congress; Albanian and Croatian descended Americans paid for major public relations efforts to demonize Serbs (less adept and organized to present their positions) and so on. The current furor to defend Taiwan doesn't come from nowhere. The Taiwan government "funds at least 10 lobbying operations in Washington...the most public of these is $4.5 million for Cassidy and Associates which recently lobbied Congress for passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act." (The Washington Post, March 23, 2000)

The Washington Times (February 25) reports how Indian immigrants, grown wealthy from the computer business, have helped tilt Washington away from its traditional favoring of Pakistan. Only the Latin Americans (other than Cubans) are not yet organized into foreign interests' lobbies, but already some Mexican American leaders are calling on their brethren to emulate other ethnic lobbies. This problem of foreign policy was well described in US News (July 21, 1997), "Multicultural Foreign Policy in Washington---The ship of state is more likely to be tugged by US ethnic groups than by foreign money." And now there is television, as Henry Kissinger wrote, "Vigorous and competitive media have compounded the tendency for foreign policy to become a subdivision of domestic politics." The American political system simply has little defense against single interest foreign policy lobbies pressing for "their" agenda in Congress against an amorphous "general will."

The pressures were well explained in the recent furor about returning the Cuban boy, Elian. "You know that if you kick the Cuba issue, you're going to have a bad day," said former representative David Skaggs (D-Colo.), who clashed with the hard line on Havana, and paid for it with lost funding for his district. "Other than to about 10 members, it doesn't matter that much. [But] when there are a few people who will die for the issue, and nobody else gets anywhere close to that, they can have their way." (Washington Post, February 21, 2000)

Even America's Allies Fear Washington

Even nations that try to do everything Washington demands can find it casually trampling their interests with barely a thought. Stratfor.com, an excellent intelligence service, writes (December 20, 1999):

"The sheer size of American interests creates a management problem in which avoiding devastating outcomes for other nations is impossible - even if this was the American goal, which it is frequently not. Policy makers at the center can't possibly oversee the range of issues being dealt with. The opportunity for interests inside and outside the United States to manipulate the decision-making process at the microscopic level is enormous. While the central thrust of policy is manageable, the micro level is easily manipulated. The result is a seemingly random set of policies that make it impossible for many countries to find a stable, safe standpoint in their relations with the United States.
"With isolated resistance and accommodation being difficult for many to exercise, the natural result is coalition-building, designed to constrain the United States. This is not a simple process and doesn't operate in a straight line. As the optimal outcome, most nations want a shift in U.S. policy. It is difficult to even get American attention on most policy issues relevant to weaker nations, let alone to generate sufficient threats to motivate the United States to shift its policies. The virtue of anti-American coalition-building is not that it builds a coalition, but that it increases the probability of attracting American attention and generating sufficient threats to force favorable policy shifts in Washington.
"Thus, most countries move into anti-U.S. coalitions less out of a desire to confront the United States than out of a desire to reach accommodation with it. For example, the Russians and Chinese both engaged in anti-American coalition building with each other less out of a desire to confront the United States than out of a desire to extract concessions. To some extent this process works. But the range of demands placed on the United States makes universal, or even frequent, accommodation impossible."

The recent growing rapprochement between Russia and Germany can similarly be explained as a consequence of America's roughshod policies in the Balkans and Iraq. Equally in South America the above happened just weeks ago when Washington tried to get the Organization of American States to put on economic sanctions against Peru. That nation had been doing almost everything Washington wanted, particularly cooperating in the "drug war." But domestic politics pushed for demanding Peru's release of a captured American terrorist and questions about a local TV station's ownership. The other Latin nations all voted against Washington except for Costa Rica.

America Can't be Trusted

Graveyards are littered all over the world with partisans who believed America's call and then were left abandoned. Most recently this happened in Kurdish and Shiite Iraq. After Iraq's defeat Washington called upon them to rebel, but then abandoned them to be crushed by Saddam's Guard. But it began long ago with the Hungarians' uprising in 1956, called for by America and then abandoned to slaughter. The Cubans at the Bay of Pigs were originally promised air support, which was than withdrawn when they were already at sea going in to attack. In Viet Nam there were abandoned South Vietnamese, and so on. Typically, a main Israeli argument for having its massive military establishment is that it dare not rely on Washington.

America Can't Mount Insurrections

Mounting or supporting insurrections has been equally bumbling. Efforts to mount one against Saddam in Kurdistan by the CIA were detailed in Newsweek (February 23, 1998). It describes the conflicting laws in Washington forbidding assassinations of foreign leaders, millions of dollars disappearing into unknown pockets, the abandonment of pro-U.S. guerrillas and their families, the calling off of attacks at the last minute, and then the FBI investigating the CIA's personnel. This makes Washington's efforts at undercover and guerrilla warfare look incompetent and dangerous to foreign allies. America has tremendous strengths, but mounting secret operations in foreign nations isn't one of them.

America Can't Keep Secrets

Then there's the problem of military secrets flowing to foreign nations. We've never been able to avoid it for long. America's strength is its openness and its recruitment of the best brains from the whole world. All our great scientific advances leaned heavily on immigrants (the atom bomb itself came from German Jewish scientists and today most Ph.D. candidates in the hard sciences are immigrants). Yet all these, now mainly Chinese and Indians, naturally also have some old allegiances and ideologies as well to the nations from which they came. Even besides many immigrants' dual loyalties, Americans can't keep secrets, much less so now with the Internet. That's another reason why our safest foreign policy is in not making so many enemies.

America Can't Take Casualties

Elliot Abrams, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, puts it well: "...a superpower willing to bomb but not to fight, willing to inflict a tremendous amount of pain on others to avoid the slightest risks to itself, under a leadership more sensitive to poll data than to the moral considerations involved in deciding which wars are just---that is a picture that should repel us."

America Can't Plan Ahead

There's always been the absence of post-war planning. America, when it goes to war, thinks only of "winning," never about what to do afterwards. The classic answer was by former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney during the First Iraq war when he answered at a press conference, "Well, we haven't thought much about what to do afterwards." With World War II our post war "policy" objective was mainly to deliver East Europe and Manchuria (China's industrial heartland) to Soviet communist occupation. With World War I, we helped destroy Europe and then walked away. Usually, as in Korea and Vietnam, policy was simply to return to the status quo.

America's Legal System is Hostile to Empire

Another great weakness, since Clinton, is a "newly hostile legal system," according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs ("The Bullied Pulpit," Jan, 2000.) The Supreme Court in 1997 in the Paula Jones case cleared the way for private suits against sitting Presidents. We are just beginning to find out what this can mean. American hypocrisy "on the world stage," argues Foreign Affairs, "Has everything to do with the weak executive." Also the recent American supported arrests of foreign leaders, such as Pinochet in England, set the precedent for foreign nations to arrest American leaders and soldiers for "war crimes" as determined in their courts. The can of worms has only just been opened on this front and already there are howls from Congress that Americans must be treated differently.

Losing Our Freedoms

Finally, world empire means tremendous stresses within America and vast new government intrusions upon our privacy and freedom. As foreign terrorists and homegrown ones tried to retaliate against our military actions overseas, Washington would clamp down draconian police measures upon all the rest of us. Every computer, every telephone, every mailbox would be subject to government surveillance and reporting. Even without a major terrorist event the Clinton Crime Bill of 1994, supported by establishment Republicans, proposed gutting the 4th Amendment to allow warrantless searches and seizures in anybody's home by federal or even state police. The proposed law was (barely) stopped by the "Freshmen" Republicans and "old" Liberals. But efforts continue. Congress has now granted the FBI new and extraordinary wiretapping laws.

In February 1999, Defense Secretary William Cohen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Americans might have to surrender some civil rights in order to gain more security in the fight against domestic terrorism. "We need greater intelligence and that means not only foreign-gathered intelligence but here at home," Cohen said. "That is going to put us on a collision course with rights of privacy. It's something that democracies have got to come to grips with -- how much are we going to demand of our intelligence agencies and how much are we willing to give up in the way of intrusion into our lives? That is a tradeoff that is going to have to come."

Already lawmakers are considering legislation that would enhance the use of military forces in domestic law enforcement capacities. The FY 2000 Defense Authorization Bill, passed by the House, includes provisions that would provide local law enforcement agencies increased access to military assets without necessarily having to compensate the Pentagon for their use. Another law currently proposed by Senator Hatch and the Senate Judiciary Committee would allow federal police into anybody's home to search their computers and papers without a warrant or even notice after the fact. It's been discovered and opposed by Representative Barr of Georgia and activist Paul Weyrich.

And, of course, there are the costs, hundreds of billions for military and police forces. Just the Persian Gulf fleet and Air Force cost $50 billion a year.

In conclusion, the greatest cost of world empire to America would be the loss of our own freedoms even without terrorist actions. As economist Ludwig Von Mises argued, "Liberty and empire are incompatible. A government powerful enough to wage aggressive war on foreign peoples will also aggress against its own people."

To preserve our own freedoms and best serve the rest of the world, our foreign policy should be non-interventionist, non-threatening, and non-militaristic. The whole world yearns to copy our prosperity and freedom; young people everywhere yearn to be like Americans (except when we bomb or starve them). Reaganomics' free market ideas conquered the world. With economic strength and a politics of fairness and non-intervention we can prosper and keep our freedom. We don't need an empire and empire won't bring us security. America is simply incapable of any other consistent foreign policy. America should be a beacon, because it can't be an effective policeman.

* * * * *

Mr. Utley is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, studied languages in Europe, and lived 15 years in South America. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for Knight/Ridder newspapers and now writes on foreign affairs for WorldNetDaily.com. He has served on the Board of Directors or Advisory Boards of many conservative organizations including Accuracy in Media, Council for Inter-American Security, Conservative Caucus, etc. He is the Editor of againstBombing.com. Send him MAIL.

See also MISES.ORG ON EMPIRE and the best book on this subject, The Costs of War.