As the 21st century dawns, Americans have come to define patriotism as uncritical support of war and the military. In this year’s presidential campaign, John Kerry touts his war exploits in Vietnam, and those with connections to George W. Bush try to rewrite this history decades later. The president dresses up in military garb and lands on an aircraft carrier, pretending to be a war hero to make people forget that he avoided the danger of conflict years earlier. Both Bush and Kerry favored the unprovoked U.S. invasion of a sovereign nation (Iraq)—the same thing Saddam Hussein did to become a world pariah in 1990. And both the president and his challenger said they would have invaded even if they knew in advance that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Such militarization of U.S. society and foreign policy would cause the founders of this great nation to roll over in their graves.
The profligate use of the war metaphor in unrelated matters demonstrates that the glorification of war runs deep in contemporary America. The word “war” is so effective in raising passions that it is used as a propaganda tool for the cause of the day. For example, there is a war on poverty, a war on drugs, and a war on terrorism. (Terrorist attacks are usually isolated in time and place and often can be better countered when thought of as crime). None of these “campaigns” have been very successful, and often the term “war” is used only as a marketing tool to garner support from an all-too-eager American public. The use of such terminology could be dismissed as harmless rhetoric rather than an intrinsic subconscious desire for war. The reality, however, is that the U.S. government’s post-World War II meddling in the affairs of countries overseas has embroiled the United States, either directly or through proxies, in many conflicts. Some foreign policy scholars on both the left and right—Chalmers Johnson of the Japan Policy Research Institute and Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, respectively—have decried the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. This interventionist foreign policy is an aberration in American history that now seems like the rule. For more than 170 years before the Cold War began, the United States followed, albeit imperfectly, a policy of military restraint overseas and eschewed permanent, entangling alliances that could drag the nation into unnecessary war.
Some would argue that much of the post-World War II period was spent in the laudable fight against the forces of totalitarian communism. But that jousting against a second—rate enemy (the Soviets’ dysfunctional communist economic system made it an “Upper Volta with missiles”) masked a U.S. effort to remake the world in its own image. The United States established alliances and military bases around the world and regularly intervened in the affairs of other nations through coercion, covert action and the use of armed force. The best evidence that this U.S. overseas “empire” was not created mainly to fight communism was its retention—and even expansion—after the Soviet rival collapsed into the dustbin of history.
After the demise of the rival superpower, however, the advantages of wanton U.S. global intervention have declined precipitously. And blowback from foreign meddling—for example, the September 11 terrorist attacks—has demonstrated that the dangers of such a policy have increased exponentially, especially if hostile terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon.
It’s time to reconsider the founders’ original foreign policy of restraint overseas—made possible by America’s blessed geographical position oceans away from the world’s centers of conflict. Today, with the most powerful nuclear arsenal on the planet, the United States remains secure from the vast preponderance of threats, except that of catastrophic terrorism.
In the short-run, the United States needs to neutralize al Qaeda, but in the longer term it needs to ask why the group attacked U.S. targets. If the United States quietly abandoned its interventionist foreign policy, it would greatly reduce the worldwide anti-U.S. hatred and the resultant blowback terrorist attacks. General Anthony Zinni, the tough Marine who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East, perceptively advised that the United States should avoid making enemies but treat its intractable foes forcefully.
As the founders astutely realized, when the leaders of nations start wars of aggrandizement, the costs—in lost lives, taxes, and reduced liberties—often fall on the backs of the common people. Even General George Washington was suspicious of unnecessary foreign wars and a large military, leading to big government oppression at home. His form of patriotism is truer to the American spirit than its modern day militaristic counterpart, which treats war as a cool videogame and has more in common with German and Soviet-style patriotism of the 20th century.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and OnPower.org.
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