I Support “Fortress America”

Omar bin Laden says his father manipulated America like “a bull that runs after the red scarf.”

Omar bin Laden has likened America to “a bull that runs after the red scarf.”

Islamists, say Lindsey Graham, “want to drive the West out of the Mideast … and if we ever take the bait and try to come home and create fortress America, there will be another 9/11.”

An Obama Republican, Senator Graham is not normally one to make thought-provoking statements. Yet I find the two metaphors he used here to be genuinely fascinating.

The first, “take the bait,” reminds me of a remark made by Osama bin Laden’s estranged son Omar. During a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone, Omar was asked if his father would conduct more terrorist attacks in the United States.

“I don’t think so,” said Omar. “He doesn’t need to. As soon as America went to Afghanistan, his plan worked. He has already won.”

After 9/11, Omar – who expected the United States to respond by raining down cruise missiles – “was surprised the Americans took the bait” by invading Afghanistan like “a bull that runs after the red scarf.” Emphasis added.

Omar explained: “My father’s dream was to bring the Americans to Afghanistan. He would do the same thing he did to the Russians.”

The young bin Laden is referring, of course, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The late USSR imploded after it overextended its power, exhausted its military, and drained its treasury in a futile land war against Afghan guerrillas, of whom Osama bin Laden was a chief financier.

Graham, apparently, thinks this is a coincidence; we’re to believe that the man who orchestrated “the worst international terrorist attack ever” had a poorer grasp of international politics than Joe Biden.

Lindsey Graham's favorite board game?

Lindsey Graham’s favorite board game?

In Graham’s mind, bin Laden did not anticipate any parallels between the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and our own; instead, he thought America would react to 9/11 by “coming home” and was dismayed when we did the opposite.

Graham must imagine that bin Laden was the stupidest man ever to lead a global terror network or a construction company.

Secondly, I’m intrigued by Graham’s use of the phrase “fortress America.” After poking around a bit, I’ve concluded that this is either a phrase of Graham’s own coinage or the name of a 1986 Milton Bradley board game. Since the 58-year-old Senator has never married or had children, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the former.

While Graham likely intended the term as a derogatory jab at “isolationists,” I find it oddly agreeable. A fortress, after all, is:

— n
2. a place or source of refuge or support …
2. any place of exceptional security; stronghold.

— vb 3.
( tr ) to protect with or as if with a fortress

Moreover, consider the most famous of Martin Luther’s hymns:

1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.

To turn such a glowing metaphor into a term of derision is truly a remarkable feat. A fortress possesses strength, vigor and power over mortal ills: all qualities that – with one third of the U.S. population now on welfare – even Lindsey Graham ought to agree we could use more of.

Yet it’s easy to see why Graham would rather America not become one. A fortress is effective rather than wasteful and stalwart rather than crumbling to the ground. Its stones are stacked high rather than scattered. Becoming a fortress would take us away from the Soviet footsteps in which Graham would have us follow. The Senator’s liberal internationalism is reflected in his language as well as his positions.

I support a fortress America. Here are some ways in which such an America might differ from today’s.

  • It would not station contingents of 10,000 troops in Italy and the United Kingdom.
  • It would not provide for economic powerhouses like Germany and Japan with 45,000 troops apiece.
  • It would not have 6,000 more soldiers in South Korea than agents employed by its own border patrol.
  • It would not spend more on “overseas contingency operations” alone than the entire military budget of Russia.

A fortress America might also be the preferred model of our own soldiers, who are rightly “suspicious of grand proposals for creating world peace,” unlike, say, Samantha Power.

Carcassonne, France

Carcassonne, France

To Graham’s credit, his motives are perhaps measurably less immoral than Power’s (though his policies are irredeemably horrible). Graham does not want the US to be a heavily armed global charity organization so much as he imagines that policing the world leaves the taxpayers who foot the bill with a grander country.

Graham may really think he wants a greater America – but he is certainly confused about what greatness is. The sheer landmass controlled by a nation cannot be equated with its greatness. Anyone who says otherwise has never compared Kazakhstan to the United Arab Emirates or Greenland to Vatican City.

While an empire may be larger than a fortress, the former inevitably crumbles. And through empire after fallen empire, a fortress can remain standing. Americans should take Lindsey Graham’s inadvertent advice: gather together the nation’s scattered stones, and build one.

Liberty at War

rand1.1.13Last week, military lawyer David French wrote that “I’m noticing military libertarianism increasing, not decreasing, among the more politically aware and engaged officers and enlisted.” French’s column affirms a hunch I’ve had for some time: that libertarianism is a military ideology.

I don’t mean that libertarianism is militaristic, in the sense that it subordinates society’s other concerns to those of the military. I mean it’s a military ideology in the sense that Mithraism was a military religion; it’s a system of thought well-suited to people in the military.

I’ll illustrate my point. Suppose the United States was attacked, or faced the credible and immanent threat of an attack, during a Rand Paul presidency. How might President Paul respond?

Firstly, I think we can expect that Paul would use the U.S. military to thoroughly destroy both the enemy’s offensive capabilities – as a matter of simple practicality – and the enemy – as a matter of long-term deterrence.

Paul has said that, when we must fight, “we fight to win.” Antiwar’s Steve Breyman – who I presume is some sort of pacifist – has called this statement “code for the application of massive, unrestrained levels of violence.” If by this Breyman means destroying all those responsible for and complicit in an attack or near-attack on Americans, even at the inevitable cost of civilian casualties, I essentially agree.

Secondly, Paul would begin withdrawing U.S. forces as soon as these tasks had been accomplished to a reasonable degree. Libertarians recognize that soldiers are not police; it is both unnecessary and counterproductive to, for any prolonged period, put soldiers in the role of alien interlopers patrolling streets that are not their own.

The late CBS journalist George Cirle III, who wrote the book that inspired Charlie Wilson’s War, once said that America helped grow Al Qaeda by “washing its hands” of Afghanistan in 1993. In other words, by not doing enough nation-building in the Middle East.

Cirle, apparently, never looked at any Al Qaeda propaganda. That American forces did not stick around long enough to install plumbing in Afghanistan has never been one of its primary talking points.

Appropriately, Paul recognizes that it is neither feasible, nor the job of American soldiers, to forge new republics by affixing American-style governments to cultures vastly different from our own. In Paul’s own words:

Instead of large, limitless land wars in multiple theaters, we would target our enemy; strike with lethal force.

We would not presume that we build nations nor would we presume that we have the resources to build nations.  Many of the countries formed after WWI are collections of tribal regions that have never been governed by a central government and may, in fact, be ungovernable.

In other words, Paul’s foreign policy would permit soldiers, when necessary, to wage war. It would not consign them to the futile chores of policing streets and installing plumbing, with which they’ve been burdened by liberal internationalism. It’s not that there should be no role for constructive, rather than destructive, personnel in a military – there should. But they should be in the National Guard. French agrees:

That’s why I wonder if a libertarian military might be more lethal, even on smaller budgets. A trimmed-down bureaucracy, an increased emphasis on the destructive rather than nation-building capabilities of the force under arms, and doctrines designed to inflict maximum (non-nuclear) destruction on enemy forces rather than transforming and democratizing communities — all of this could add up to a more lethal (yet smaller) military.

After 9/11, the U.S. military experienced a spike in recruitment. Barring a staggering coincidence, I don’t imagine that many of these recruits expected to be sent to Italy or the United Kingdom, which each host 10,000 U.S. troops. Nor do I suspect they wished to go Germany or Japan, each home to contingents of 45,000 American soldiers. As the U.S. continues to plummet into debt, these latter countries are becoming economic powerhouses at our expense.

Defense analyst Adam B. Lowther has written a fascinating paper for the National Defense University titled “The Post-9/11 American Serviceman.” On the worldview of servicemen, Lowther writes “Believing that man is a fallen creature and wicked by nature, the military is suspicious of grand proposals for creating world peace.” That’s a “very strong libertarian streak” if there ever was one.

French is right to say that a libertarian military would be more formidable: libertarians would let the military do its job.

Iran, Syria, and Intervention

Last week, citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran went to the polls to select their next President. Moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani won the election to replace the much-reviled Mahmoud Achmadinejad, who has held the office for 8 years. And while many believe that Rowhani may be ushering in an era of reform and stepping away from Achmadinejad’s hardline policies, Achmadinejad’s legacy may be a bit more complex than most Americans realize. As Reza Aslan writes in Foreign Policy,

I was not suggesting that Ahmadinejad is some sort of democracy icon or that he is even a good guy, let alone a competent president — though he is far more politically sophisticated than his critics generally assume. It is a Western fallacy that “more secular” necessarily means “more free.” But the fact remains that no president in the history of the Islamic Republic has so openly challenged the ruling religious hierarchy, and so brazenly tried to channel the government’s decision-making powers away from the unelected clerical bodies that hold sway in Iran.

To many Americans, this probably sounds like blasphemy. Our caricatured picture of Achmadinejad doesn’t often allow for the idea that he may not be 100% evil or have a less-than-negative impact on Iran. Of course, none of this is to say that Achmadinejad has been good for Iran. I would encourage all readers to read Aslan’s piece fully for a better understanding of the issue that I can’t fully articulate in this short article. However, the main point we can take from this is that foreign regimes often have a lot more nuance than we realize.

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, the second of the Pahlavi monarchs.

What a lot of us also don’t realize is that Iran’s political history has been marred by intervention. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, modern Iran fought to maintain its independence from foreign control. Iran’s support for the Axis powers in WWII led to the occupation of Iran and the installation of the brutal, but Western-supported, Pahlavi Shahs. The Pahlavis were a polarizing presence because of their authoritarian policies that included forced “westernization” (including banning traditional Islamic clothing). In 1953, the Shah, facing mounting opposition, fled the country. However, British and American intelligence agencies engineered a coup to overthrow democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. After his overthrow, the Shah returned and his regime became more brutal than ever. The backlash against the Shahs ultimately culminated in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that established the Islamic Republic and the Ayatollahs.

This (very abridged) summary of Iran’s history as well as its present situation has a lot of important implications for America’s foreign policy. First of all, we often underestimate the nuance of a foreign nation’s political situation when pressuring our representatives to make decisions about our foreign policy. We also allow our representatives, unquestioned, to present us with black and white assessments of situations that are really much more complex. A current example of this is the situation in Syria. As James Antle points out in the American Conservative, we are currently arming Syrian rebels in the name of “democracy,” when the banner most of them fight for is Islamism (the rebels even possibly have ties to al-Qaeda!) This situation is eerily reminiscent of what happened when America supported Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. We need to think about unintended consequences of getting involved in complex situations overseas. We also need to remember that the enemy of our enemy may not always end up being our friend in the long run.

John McCain meets with Syrian rebels.Ronald Reagan meets with Afghan rebels.

Furthermore, when Americans talk about intervening in foreign nations, we often forget to take into account the impact of our prior intervention in that nation or region. In Iran, for instance, American intervention against a popularly elected leader eventually contributed to a populist Islamist revolution that installed a theocracy that holds power today. This isn’t ancient history, either. Many Iranians are old enough, or have parents old enough, to remember Mossadeq. Even more of them can remember the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Americans would never accept a foreign nation trying to implement what was best for us, especially not if that regime had interfered in our affairs as early as sixty years ago, and not done a great job of it, at that. Why should we expect other nations to be any different? If we are ever going to have a reasonable foreign policy, we have to accept that interventionism very rarely leaves America any better off than we were before (not to mention the countries into which we intervene)! Interventionism hardly ever works.  As International Relations theorist (and one of my favorite authors and thinkers) Stephen Walt stated on the subject, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In our attempt to make things better for citizens of other countries, we very well may do (and historically have done) just the opposite.

5 Reasons to Talk DPRK

“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once.”
Chuck Hagel

kim-jong-un-upA qualifier: I’ve unequivocally opposed every military action undertaken by the United States during my lifetime since, at least, Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. I hope that adds some weight to my analysis here.

My late grandfather once told me that, in the pre-WWII United States, Hitler was widely seen as a buffoon making empty threats. Then, in 1939, Germany invaded Poland in a sneak attack.

Over the past several days, I’ve watched libertarians of all sorts come together to laugh derisively at anyone who remotely suspects that North Korea might be a threat. The whole thing has been an eerie reminder of my grandfather’s cautionary tale.

The DPRK is a “fully fledged nuclear power” that constantly sacrifices its own well-being for its insane dogma. I don’t think there should be any doubt that, if one nation on Earth possesses both the technological capability and suicidal insanity needed to attack the United States, it’s North Korea.

Moreover, if North Korea does do something rash without a single libertarian having taken its rhetoric seriously, it could deliver a fatal blow to the cause of American non-interventionism. The hermit state’s threats, then, should warrant a real conversation and not just dismissive optimism. Consider the following:

1)  North Korean missiles can probably hit the mainland United States

Several of my libertarian friends have now shown me the same illustration of North Korea’s missile capabilities ending with the Taepodong-2 – which everyone agrees could travel over 4,000 miles and strike Alaska.

This projection is out of date, however. It leaves off the Unha rocket, which North Korea successfully tested in December. An Unha could strike most anywhere in California.

Granted, there is an ongoing debate about the Unha in the national security community, but it’s actually not a debate about whether an Unha could reach the mainland United States. It’s a debate about whether the DPRK could attach a nuclear bomb – something it certainly possesses – to an Unha – which it also certainly possesses. Asserting that North Korean technology is nothing to worry about, then, is quite a gamble.

2)  Our missile defense system is a joke

I’ve seen a number of libertarians point to America’s missile defense shield as a reason that everyone should calm down. This is ironic, since libertarians know that our government is incompetent at things much less complex than hitting one missile with another in midair. I think, therefore, that this is a pretty clear case of doublethink.

Because the War on Iraq was sold to the public under the pretext of a foreign military threat, we’ve apparently resolved to dismiss any purported military threat. This could be a grave mistake.

Although Reason does not see any threat from North Korea, they do seem to agree with me that it’s unlikely our missile defense system would stop much of anything.

In controlled tests against sitting ducks, these weapons miss their targets as often as they hit them … To have any realistic hope of shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile, you have to be able to track it while it’s above the atmosphere (“midcourse”). But the enemy probably won’t cooperate.

Moreover, this questionable defense system isn’t even in place. Here’s National Review:

Remember what Obama did in April 2009: The day after North Korea conducted a missile test, he canceled the interceptors that President George W. Bush had ordered for Alaska.

Now flash-forward to this very month: March 2013. North Korea again conducts a missile test. And, immediately, the administration announces that we will proceed with those interceptors after all. They should be ready in 2017. So, we have lost four years.

3)  The attack would be a predictable instance of blowback

The sunny disposition of libertarians towards the ongoing Korean debacle is historically perplexing. After all, not only were libertarians in the 90s gloomy about America’s actions in the Middle East – their gloom was correct.

In fact, as a teenager, I likely first took note of Ron Paul when I heard he’d warned that a heavy military presence in the Middle East would provoke a terrorist attack. Today’s libertarians, however, apparently don’t think that surrounding North Korea with vast contingents in South Korea and Japan will produce equivalent results.

Why is it that we anticipated violence from networks of non-state fanatics but expect sensible behavior when those same fanatics are organized under the mantle of a formal state?

Libertarians shouldn’t be telling everyone to relax. We should be warning people about the costs of interventionism like we have in the past.

4)  The DPRK is bloodthirsty and insane

North Korea Window on North KoreaIt’s tempting to suppose that North Korea wouldn’t dare sign its own death warrant by attacking the United States. This thinking, however, assumes certain parallels between North Korean and American culture. It’s possible that these parallels simply do not exist.

North Korea didn’t become a pariah state, after all, by rationally responding to incentives. At every turn, the fulfillment of its dogma has taken priority over its own self-interest.

Libertarians might be slightly more concerned about an attack by the DPRK if they spent a few minutes researching its society. North Korea is a nation from another world.

The country lives and breathes a garish, hive-like brand of neo-Marxism. It’s government owns the largest stadium in the world, Rungnado May Day, where it’s fond of creating enormous images by having thousands of people arrange themselves like color-coded ants. Public executions are handed out for even the minutest of crimes and are attended by tens of thousands of people like sporting events. When a North Korean leader dies, the nation’s people collapse in despair en masse, weeping hysterically in the streets.

The American reaction to this last item was interesting. Americans of all backgrounds are happy to dismiss entire regions and ideological groups within the United States as gullible dolts. When it comes to North Korea, however, we’ve somehow decided that the nation is populated by rational skeptics who secretly see right through their government’s propaganda and are only feigning fanatical loyalty.

Conversely, I don’t suppose that North Koreans are any cleverer than we are. They have been told their entire lives that their rulers are deities and that Americans are evil incarnate. Overwhelmingly, they have no access to contrary information. Chances are, I think, that the isolated despotate is brimming with people who would really like to kill us.

5)  We risk nuking non-interventionism by avoiding the subject

The entire time this Korea fiasco has been unfolding, libertarians should have been using the opportunity to warn against the potential dangers of America’s interventionism in East Asia.

Should the worst happen now, the ensuing wave of jingoism would go uncontested. It would be too late for libertarians to criticize American foreign policy in the region; any talk of blowback would be understandably brushed aside.

In addition to being a horrible tragedy, an attack tomorrow would not even affirm non-interventionist predictions; libertarians would lose credibility, leaving America more likely to get itself into similar situations in the future.

While we should continue hoping for the best, we should be planning for the worst. If the liberty movement wishes to secure it’s place as a viable political force, it’s time to have a serious discourse about North Korea.