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Confessions of a warhawk: defending the American Empire

By Jackson Murphy
web posted November 26, 2001

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the ongoing war against terrorism, criticism of American foreign policy has not only been the job of the predictable and bankrupt left but also the object of some in the libertarian crowd. They have ratcheted up the anti-war rhetoric, all but issuing their own fatwa on the conservative movement-especially those at National Review. Who are they kidding? It is not as if liberal apparatchiks like Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd are writing for NR. Sure editors Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg purged their publication of the shrill Anne Coulter but this hardly makes Buckley and Co. an enemy to freedom.

There are those who claim that US power in the world is misplaced-the traditional left who see the US as mere imperialistic baby killers and the Libertarians whose lofty ideals lead them to thinking that the US operates in some sort of giant freedom vacuum.

Libertarians are fearful of two concurrent themes that have emerged-one the on domestic front, the other on the international side. First they are worried that the terrorism has concentrated powers of the president, may erode civil liberties, and could end up returning the big government of the past. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) recently wrote that, "Any talk of spending restraint is now a thing of the past, we had one anthrax death, and we are asked the next day for a billion dollar appropriations to deal with the problem."

Jonah Goldberg, editor of National Review Online, had a helpful response. "It's worth pointing out that we've been told that we are on a slippery slope for more than two centuries. And yet, from the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed to the moment you eat your turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day 2001, Americans have become more, not less free. Maybe not on a month-to-month basis but the trendline is undeniable. The emancipation of the slaves, the enfranchisement of women and blacks, the breakthroughs in technology which make Americans the most mobile — i.e. free — people in the history of the world: All of these things describe a society climbing up a slippery slope not swishing down it."

Second, one of their first principles, call it their foreign policy 'Alamo', is that the reason the attacks took place were because of a growing American Empire abroad and the fear that the US is the global policeman.

The Libertarians are right to be concerned over the erosion of freedom but during war this is not something new-and growing numbers of people would rather make sure that airport security is rigid rather than have another 5,000 citizens dead. Not that it makes it right but it has come to be expected.

But on the foreign policy front they continue to argue that American foreign policy should return to the rationality of the time of Washington and Jefferson. That separated by an ocean, America could live without the interference and bother of European politics and wars. It was George Washington writing to a friend in 1788 that said, "Separated as we are by a world of water from other Nations, if we are wise we shall surely avoid being drawn into the labyrinth of their politics, and involved in their destructive wars."

George Washington

Then in his farewell address Washington told the nation that, "The great rule in conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible." To which Thomas Jefferson later elaborated, in his First Inaugural Address, that American foreign policy should strive for, "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none."

How long did this golden age of non-interventionist foreign policy last? Not very, if it ever was true it lasted until about 1823 -- but really the US was already flirting with the European powers earlier than that. It would be President Monroe, and his Monroe Doctrine, that laid out a vision for an American Empire that would go from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Less than a century later America waged its first war of conquest-the Spanish-American War in 1898. And by the end of World War I America was showing its economic might which at that time represented 33 percent of the world's GNP.

President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, wrote that, "America's political institutions and free market economy created unprecedented opportunities for ambitious and iconoclastic inventors, who were no inhibited from pursuing their personal dreams by archaic privileges or rigid social hierarchies. In brief, national culture was uniquely congenial to economic growth, and by attracting and quickly assimilating the most talented individuals from abroad, the culture also facilitated the expansion of national power."

Current Libertarian thought on foreign affairs takes basic premises of harmonious trade and independence to new levels. The Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter's work, "Toward Strategic Independence", argues for a policy of strategic independence which would best protect American liberty and encourage world peace. These goals are part of a larger school of "Libertarian nonintervention" which is not isolationism per se but a grand strategy of military and political nonintervention combined with economic and cultural contact across borders.

Carpenter suggests that the United States should only use the military to defend her, "vital security interests." A new Libertarian foreign policy would mean that it no longer takes part in UN peacekeeping operations, that it's Cold War alliances must be phased out, it rejects a role as global policeman, and becomes the "balancer of last resort in the international system, rather than the intervener of first resort."

He concludes that, "The US government has the constitutional and moral responsibilities to protect the security and liberty of the American republic. It has neither constitutional nor moral writs to risk lives and resources to police the planet, promote democracy, or advance other aims on the bureaucracy's foreign policy agenda."

Ground zero for the libertarian anti-war movement can be found at websites like and is the self-proclaimed, "anti-state, anti-war, pro-market news site". It's founder, Lew Rockwell, is also the founder of the Mises Institute and a vice-president for the Center for Libertarian Studies.

In a recent article Rockwell says that, "I'd venture a guess that there's less than 1 percent backing among full-time workers who earn less than $30,000 per year for permanent stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia." But I would guess that those same workers know how much a gallon of gas costs and if you told them that Saudi Arabia produces a barrel of oil for $2.50 we'd all hope they would put two and two together.

In another piece he says this: "So let's talk motive. It's a fact that the terrorist actions and continuing threats are a direct response to US troops in Saudi Arabia, trade sanctions against Iraq, and the perception that the US approves of the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Anyone who pays attention to the news, and understands anything about the region, knew that these policies spelled trouble even before bin Laden announced it."

The terrorists don't have a grudge that is solely against the US-this is a canard. Bin Laden, ever the student of history, has argued that the actions on September 11th have to do with, among other things and in no particular order, the expulsion of the Moors from Andalusia in the 15th century, Israel, the United Nations, MTV, Bush (41), Bush (43), and so on. Suppose for a moment that the US had not been engaged in the Middle East? Iraq, for instance, is a menace not because of American involvement but in spite of it. Bin Laden was kicked out of Saudi Arabia because even the decadent House of Saud thinks that having a few US troops there will give Saddam pause. Does the woefully inept "street" in the Islamic world really know why the US is on their soil? I think not.

Another Rockwell contributor tries to equate America to the Roman Empire. "The point suggested is that of pristine Imperial Conservatism: Empire and its trappings are preferable to barbarism; if you wish to be safe in your person and your property, you must empower Government to do whatever it takes at home and abroad to develop and maintain the Empire that will shield against barbarism, including that apparently burbling within your own people."

It is not the empire building that is the problem. History shows us that the eras of relative peace coincide with the existence of a reliable and stable hegemon. Sure if the US is that hegemon it is going to pay a large share of the burden for peace while others free ride. This unabridged hegemony or empire is also a burden that carries with it a dire warning. "The road to empire leads to domestic decay because, in time, the claims of omnipotence erode domestic restraints. No empire has avoided the road to Caesarism unless, like the British Empire, it devolved its power before this process could develop," writes Henry Kissinger in his latest book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? "As challenges grow more diffuse and increasingly remote from the historic domestic base, internal struggles become ever more bitter and in time violent. A deliberate quest for hegemony is the surest way to destroy the values that made the United States great."

Far be it for me to disagree with Henry the K, but as New York Times writer Thomas Friedman tells it, "The global system cannot hold together without an activist and generous American foreign and defense policy. Without America on duty, there will be no America Online." Globalization requires the US to ensure that goods flow. Terrorism, major wars, and intra-state conflict, are all threats to that flow of goods and make pretty much every backwater region in their interest.

Seriously if we left globalization up to France, for instance, not only would they have surrendered our freedoms to Germany in World War II. Had they managed to hold out globalization's freedoms would be limited to stinky cheeses and women's unshaved armpits. If the US is not a global leader, will the Rockwell crowd be willing to risk some other nation becoming one?

There have been mistakes in US foreign policy. Its general liberal tendencies are not unknown and its often-crusading exceptionalism is never to far off. The selfish poll driven and focus group policies of the Clinton Administration come to mind. There are intangible goods, say freedom, that are not the sole possession of Americans. Just take a good look at the liberation of Kabul and how happy those people were to do the little things-kite flying, going to see a movie, shaving, removing the veil.

On a personal note I guess all this makes me a "warhawk". Am I pro-state? Hardly, but that is the problem I have with libertarians. If you are even the remotest bit sympathetic to the state, say during wartime, you are a statist-against freedom and liberty. Forget that this is preposterous claptrap for a moment. While you can't be slightly pregnant, you can certainly be slightly, moderately, or predominantly libertarian. Being more conservative during this war on terrorism in no way makes me a socialist any more than living in Cuba would.

They call us conservatives overly statist like it is some sort of mental problem rather than a realist reaction to what the world is, not what it ought to be in some libertarian utopia. In an article in the December Atlantic Monthly Robert Kaplan sees the conservatives somewhat differently. "In the United States, Federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton expounded conservative principles to defend a liberal constitution." In this way conservatism and libertarianism are yin and yang-more complementary than combative.

"Real conservatism cannot aspire to lofty principles, because its task is to defend what already exists. The conservative dilemma is that conservatism's legitimacy can come only from being proved right by events, whereas liberals, whenever they are proved wrong, have universal principles to fall back on," writes Kaplan. In effect it is the conservatives, those 'bastards' at NR and beyond, that are liberties greatest ally during war-not as the libertarians argue, its greatest enemy.

My support for this war is not blind. To be fair, and honest, my warhawk stance is nothing like Homer Simpson's love of donuts. The libertarians are off their rocker if they think staying close to home will give us more security and more liberty. Terrorism has given us pause. Liberty cannot be placed ahead of life; terrorism requires us to temporarily rethink our pursuit of happiness.

Jackson Murphy is a young independent commentator from Vancouver, Canada writing on domestic and international political issues. He also writes weekly at You can reach him at

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