Monday, August 25, 2014

Hawks, Doves, And The Unnamed Region Between Them

Political labels are misused and abused so frequently that I often despair of them. The complete bundle of convictions and policy positions nominally attached to a given label is seldom found in the person of an actual, living man. Worse, when a man chooses to use some "controversial" label, it's six-five and pick 'em that he'll be accused, derided, or dismissed because of the positions he doesn't hold.

Yet we continue to employ them. They're too useful. They save a lot of breath...well, for some of us, at least. And in many cases they can win sympathy or support from persons who might otherwise be inclined to turn away.

So when someone as generally intelligent and well-meaning as Roger Simon writes a poorly aimed piece such as this one, it grieves me to no end: in part because I've long borne the label libertarian, in part because other labels have similarly grievous malformations, and in part because the freedom philosophy offers the great mass of "politically homeless Americans" (Marshall Fritz) the best hope of attaining the conditions they most want from politics: peace and quiet.


The first, and in the opinion of many the greatest, of the presidents of the United States included the following in his Farewell Address:

It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense. But, in my opinion, it is unnecessary and would be unwise to extend them.

Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies....

There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.

George Washington wrote from the perspective of the late Eighteenth Century, when the most fearsome weapons were wheeled cannons, the fastest vessels of war were wind-driven sailing ships, and land battles were typically prearranged by agreement between the combatants as to time and place. Let us grant that things are a bit different today. Yet he enunciated an important truth and laid down a wise guideline for American foreign policy:

Alliances should be temporary and ad hoc.

If an alliance is necessary to meet some exigency, let it be formed for the duration. Equally important, let it cease to bind once the exigency has been firmly dealt with. That has not been the practice of the United States since the conclusion of World War II.

This nation undertook the role of "world policeman" at a time when we were the world's preeminent power; when Europe and a good deal of Asia lay in ruins; when ours was the sole significant nation with a smoothly functioning economy; and when we were flush with pride over our victories both in Europe and in the Pacific. Yet ordinary foresight could have told us that those conditions would not persist. The economies of war-torn Europe and Russia would eventually recover. Both aggressive and pacific nations would rise from the rubble in the years ahead. Thus it has always been, and thus it will be until we resolve to wipe ourselves out to the last man.

For one nation to accept responsibility for the peace and security of the world, unbounded by place or time, was a foolish act. Yet we committed to exactly that, if not explicitly then with our behavior. For a time it seemed an arrangement beneficial to all parties.


NATO, the military consequence of the North Atlantic Treaty, became a growing burden on American power and finances. At its peak, in combination with our security commitments to Japan, Taiwan, and several other states, it employed roughly a third of American combat power and consumed approximately half of all American military expenditures. We told ourselves those deployments were the indispensable bulwark against Communist expansion, the sole force capable of deterring aggression from the Soviet Union and Red China. And we were quite correct to think so.

Yet it was inevitable that those deployments would have a cumulative consequence for the priorities and behavior of the governments whose nations they shielded. Trusting that America would provide, they systematically underfunded and undermanned their own military establishments. The funds Europe would otherwise have put to military preparations went to expanding its welfare states: creating a culture of idlers and persons who disdained any responsibility for their own defense. Perhaps worst of all, the dynamic nourished political forces that blamed all international tensions on American militarism. In their view, the one and only enemy was the one whose sons stood ready to defend them.

The dynamic has produced a continent lousy with state-supported layabouts, and cultures to which things military are anathema. It no longer matters that they would refuse to defend their own nations, for they lack all power to do so. As for conflicts in other lands, they're inherently someone else's problem -- and probably America's fault.

The sole functional military in the First World, now as in 1946, is that of the United States.


Americans have good reason to be proud of our military. Our men in uniform are in many ways the best of us. They deserve our wholehearted support. But that can't efface the most important fact about them: they're horribly overstretched and overburdened, with no end in sight.

Had we firmly time-bounded our participation in NATO and our other, less formal commitments...had we encouraged the other nations of the First World to develop their own militaries and strategic deterrents, perhaps as co-developers...had we limited the role of our blue-water Navy to assuring the freedom of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans...had we refused to let the rest of the world believe that we would play "world policeman" until the Sun goes nova...how much different might things be today?

What we have before us is, of course, what we must cope with. But that doesn't mean we should perpetuate the strategic mistakes of the past into the indefinite future. The other nations of the world must become self-defending if Americans are ever to enjoy the luxury of looking upon some new conflict in a distant land and saying to one another that "this one's not our problem."

Sensible libertarians look upon the messes of our foreign policy and our military posture as a single problem. The two cannot be disentwined; they must be addressed together. In those cases where there is no current alternative to the use of American power in some distant place, let it be so -- but let us put the other nations of the world on immediate notice that we are disinclined to bear such burdens any longer than we must. Let us inform the nations of Europe, the Western Pacific, and our quasi-clients in the Middle East that our patience with their inanition is running out. Let's give them ten years to develop adequate militaries of their own, during which time we'll pull back ten percent of our overseas commitments each year. Let's save our strength -- military, financial, and emotional -- for the conflicts in which we must intervene: the ones that touch palpably on American interests, or that are both unambiguously morally compelling and admit of no other solution.

It's not just our yearning for some peace and quiet speaking. We've got problems of our own to solve, after all. We'll never get around to some of them if we remain indissolubly entangled with the security of every other nation on Earth.

3 comments:

  1. Not only are these alliances entangling, and the precise sort of thing the Founders wished to steer us clear of, they are also remarkably incoherent.

    Bush favored Britain and Israel, Obama favors France or even, paradoxically, Iran. The supposed long-term alliances aren't even consistent, and the Left wastes little time in snubbing those allies. To the outside world, it must appear that America suffers from schizophrenia.

    Ukraine was promised that if it gave up its nuclear weapons, America would ensure the Russians were kept at bay. Maybe the architects of that deal were even being truthful. But today, it is clear that no one intends to keep that promise.

    In other words it isn't merely a case where America should not engage in these alliances, it is clear that America is completely unable to keep its word in the first place. Take the Kurds, the closest thing to a reasonable group of people in the Middle East, aside from the Israelis. American policy, under multiple administrations, has consistently wronged them in order to favor our enemies. It makes no sense whatsoever.

    In light of America's schizoid foreign policy, it should be clear to any nation on the planet that an alliance with us is completely worthless -- even when those exigencies you describe exist.

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  2. Boon Vickerson is out thereAugust 31, 2014 at 8:54 AM

    Dear Fran,
    you have a nice way with words, I bet you could write a nifty essay of the basic essentials of Libertarianism, a kind of tool kit for less enlightened.

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  3. Well, Boon, it wouldn't come to much more than this: Thou shalt not aggress. Problem is, like all seemingly good ideas, the nonaggression axiom has a proper domain of application, outside which it produces perverse results that are impossible to endure or defend. That's most of what the conservative-libertarian schism is all about.

    Apropos of which, if you can find a copy -- these days it's pretty hard to come by -- read Herbert Spencer's early masterwork Social Statics. Talk about being ahead of one's time!

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