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I told you so is irresponsible

By W. James Antle III
web posted September 24, 2001

Opponents of unlimited US involvement in myriad conflicts around the world feel vindicated by the events of September 11, 2001. It is not too strong a statement to say that many of them, while their countrymen were extricating the survivors and burying their dead, reacted with a thinly disguised "I told you so."

While the rest of America was contemplating everything from improved intelligence to better airport security, particularly dispensing with the baggage scanners who are paid less than those who fry hamburgers in the same terminal, many paleoconservatives and other non-interventionists were behaving as if it were the United States government that flew fully fueled commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. While grieving Americans were saying to themselves, "if only I had told my loved ones how I felt about them once more," the isolationist lament was "if only the US had not been supporting Israel."

Justin Raimondo went so far as to title one piece he authored on the subject "What Goes Around, Comes Around," implying that this was somehow just deserts for US foreign policy mishaps. And this was after being taken to task by fellow paleolibertarian Myles Kantor for "soft-pedaling the barbarians."

Articles coming from these quarters too often took a sanctimonious air of validation from the terrorist attacks. Mourning the losses and commiserating with their fellow citizens was at a minimum. The basic moral similarity of the United States, particularly its federal government, and those who commit terror around the world was assumed. Voices on the Old Right sounded like New Left America-bashers at their worst.

This is not just wrong because of its gross insensitivity, its crass self-righteousness and its violation of tenets of patriotism. It is tactically wrong and poor tactics by those who advocate a retrenchment of American foreign adventurism is ultimately bad for America.

The United States cannot be policeman of the world. Attempts to act in this manner will both prove futile and expose Americans to grave dangers at home and abroad. Pat Buchanan is right that if we become an empire, we will lose our republic. Unattainable globalist schemes put our nation at risk of endless conflict overseas and will lead inexorably to the growth of government on our shores.

That is why the argument for limited military involvement abroad, consistent with the desires of our Founding Fathers, should made clearly, forcefully and forthrightly but without appearing to give aid and comfort to the enemy. There have been many responsible critiques of both our foreign policy within the context of recent events and our policy response to the terrorist attacks. Essays by Lew Rockwell and Lee R. Shelton IV come to mind. I will leave for readers themselves to decide which ones are beyond the pale.

But the paleos and their foreign-policy allies are at risk of discrediting themselves and by extension discrediting all of us who would limit the use of force abroad. They have run this risk before by minimizing the evils of dictators and tyrants who globalists have wanted to intervene against militarily.

The United States cannot use its military to wipe out everything that is wrong with the world. It cannot establish democracy in countries with no democratic tradition, it cannot overthrow every dictator who abuses his citizens' rights, it cannot eradicate terrorism or genocide. Its very existence is to defend this nation's territory against aggression. It is not to build new nations or a utopian world order that has never been attained and shows no signs of being attainable now. On occasion, commentators have been unwilling to limit their argument to these realities. They have wanted to go the step beyond and refute the liberal and neo-conservative characterization of those who are proposed targets of intervention, when in many cases the appropriate response is to say that the people and events are truly horrible, but it is neither right nor productive for us to intervene.

Slobodan Milosevic

Case in point is Slobodan Milosevic. Our military intervention in Serbia was wrong. Our presentation of the facts in the Balkans war to justify that intervention was one-sided almost to the point of being propagandistic. But there is little doubt that Slobo committed horrific and inexcusable acts as leader of Yugoslavia, and both his country and the region are worse off because he was in power. Pretending that this is not the case is to simply counter propaganda with the other side's propaganda.

Additionally, while many of our interventions have been wrong-headed and resulted in the loss of civilians' lives, America does differ in motivation from expansionist totalitarian regimes. We are not, as some claim, "the real evil empire." For all of the coldness of Madeline Albright's response when confronted about the deaths resulting from US sanctions against Iraq and for what I would contend is the immorality (to say nothing of ineffectiveness) of that policy, the differences between the incidental damages of a misguided policy (however severe) and deliberate policies such as the Soviet gulags and the Nazi death camps are real and have moral significance. We did not intervene in Iraq to commit genocide. We did not bomb Serbia to ethnically cleanse the Serbs and rule its territory. This does not mean that these policies were right; it simply means that some characterizations of them by their opponents were irresponsible and made Americans less likely to heed their arguments.

Conservatives often venerate the military as an institution dedicated to the preservation of liberty. I am one. But we realize that government cannot cure all ills at home. Such an endeavor would be doomed to inevitable failure and the attempt would come at great cost to individual freedom and the Constitution. Neither can the government, acting through the military, cure all the world's ills. It too would be an inevitable failure that would also entail casualties, including personal liberty, the Constitution and countless human lives.

Yet when we make this case carelessly and do not make important moral distinctions, we risk alienating those we most need to convince and making this view appear to be little more than the appeasement of terror. If endless US involvement in centuries-old tribal, ethnic and religious wars worldwide is the result of our recent tragedies, that would be tragic in itself. Let it not happen because of reckless words written by those who know better.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at

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