Remembering America’s Unnecessary Wars

Published May 28th, 2011 by tcarpenter

My colleague Doug Bandow has a terrific article on the Huffington Post website that is especially appropriate for Memorial Day.  He makes a compelling case that contrary to the platitudes that we will hear this weekend about how “freedom is not free,” and that we owe our freedoms to those who died in America’s wars, the truth is much more troubling.  The reality is that many of this country’s wars–and nearly all of them since the end of World War II–have had little or nothing to do with defending the freedom of the American people.  Instead, the motives ranged from misplaced humanitarianism (e.g., the Balkan wars and Libya), to insane attempts to impose enlightment and democracy on pre-industrial societies (e.g., Afghanistan), to cynical attempts to project U.S. power for dubious, if not sleazy, motives (e.g., Vietnam and Iraq.)

Doug argues that all too often the political elite in the United States has used American soldiers as nothing more than “gambit pawns” in a global strategic chess match.  He’s right.  And the best tribute we could give on this Memorial Day to those who have lost their lives in such conflicts (including two good friends of mine in the Vietnam War) is to make sure that our troops are never again sent into harm’s way for frivolous reasons. 

My Least Favorite Cheney

Published March 7th, 2010 by tcarpenter

Vice President Dick Cheney always impressed me as the most dangerous and vicious member of the Bush administration.  He seemed to regard war as the answer to every foreign policy problem, and his contempt for the Constitution and civil liberties was legendary.

But his daughter, Liz Cheney, seems determined to outdo her father with respect to both of those repulsive attitudes.  She is fast becoming my least favorite Cheney.

Her organization, which has become a prominent lobbyist for war with Iran, has now taken dead aim at supposed terrorist sympathizers in the Obama administration.   Television ads are now running attacking the president for appointing officials to the Justice Department who had previously served as defense counsels–or even just peripheral members of defense teams–for accused terrorist suspects.  Smearing those attorneys as the “Al Qaeda Seven,” the ad implies that such legal work should disqualify them from appointments to office.

That is a “guilt by association” attack that would have made Senator Joseph McCarthy (who was notorious for such tactics) blush.  And it is an especially ugly tactic in this case.  Lawyers are expected to be willing to defend even odious individuals, and they routinely do so.  That is part of the code of their profession.  It is appallingly unfair to hold that duty against them, much less to imply that they endorse the values of those individuals.  Moreover, just because someone is accused  of being a terrorist does not necessarily mean that the person is one.  That’s why our justice system requires fair trials–and defense attorneys.

If the logic of Liz Cheney and her cohorts was correct, John Adams, America’s second president, should have been disqualified from ever holding any office of trust.  After all, he was the defense lawyer for the British Redcoats involved in the Boston Massacre.  Got an acquittal, too.  Wonder what Liz and her smear artists have to say about that episode?

The good news is that decent conservatives have rebuked Cheney for her odious tactics.  People should not have their patriotism or integrity impugned because they uphold the core principles of our legal system.  That she would do so says all we need to know about Liz Cheney and her neoconservative associates.

Celebrate the REAL 4th of July

Published July 4th, 2009 by tcarpenter

The 4th of July should be a day to celebrate the values put in place by the founders of this country–the values epitomized by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (especially the Bill of Rights).  Instead, once again this year, the holiday has become an occasion for expressing reverence for the U.S. military and the wars they have fought and are fighting–supposedly, but in reality, rarely, to defend American liberty.  In other words, the 4th of July has become akin to a second Memorial Day or Veterans Day.  And that perverted meaning of the 4th is not confined to the usual suspects, such as Fox News, the media whore of U.S. hawks.  It is an attitude that has become all too pervasive, both in the news media and in the broader culture.

That development is both odd and troubling.  Odd, because the founders were profoundly anti-militaristic–even anti-military.  Almost all of them were uneasy about (if not strongly opposed to) even having a standing army.   And that remained a strong strain in American public opinion until well into the 20th century.  Boston University professor Andy Bacevich–a retired officer–does a very effective job of showing how and why that attitude has changed.  He also shows how the transformation is very troubling, because as the founders understood all too well, militarism, war, and imperialism are lethal threats to the values of limited government, civil liberties, and property rights that they held so dear.

Throughout recent celebrations of the 4th, politicians and media pundits repeatedly bleat about defending American liberty, without showing the slightest sign that they understand the substance of that liberty–much less how the policies they advocate often constrain and threaten its health.  Their attitude is similar to Barack Obama’s vacuous theme of “change,” which he touted at virtually every campaign stop, while rarely discussing what kind of change he had in mind.

By all means, celebrate the 4th.  It’s an important holiday.  But please keep in mind the values that the 4th was supposed to represent.  That is true patriotism.

Avoiding Foreign Quarrels

Published August 13th, 2008 by tcarpenter

I’ve grown accustomed to the steady stream of foreign policy drivel coming from America’s political leaders, but the reaction of both Barack Obama and John McCain to the war between Russia and Georgia reaches a whole new level.  There is a difference, though.  Obama is bad on the issue, but McCain is dreadful.  

Both political luminaries think that it is a dandy idea to admit Georgia to the NATO alliance.  That is a horrible idea.  Just imagine how much worse the current crisis would be if that country were a member of the alliance.  Under article 5 of the treaty, the United States would have to consider Russian military action in Georgia as equivalent to an attack on America, and we would be obligated to help Georgia in its fight.  In other words, we would be going eyeball to eyeball with a nuclear-armed Russia over the status of two secessionist regions in a tiny country on Russia’s border.  There might be situations in the world that are less relevant to the security and liberty of the American people, but it would take a concerted search to find them. 

Unfortunately, McCain goes well beyond favoring NATO membership for Georgia.  In response to the murky conflict that erupted last week, the gentleman from Arizona stated: “I know that I speak for every American when I say to [Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili], today we are all Georgians.”

His comment encapsulates a pervasive attitude among America’s political and policy elites.  They repeatedly act as though the interests of various small client states (e.g., Georgia, Estonia, Israel, Taiwan, Kuwait) are identical to America’s interests.  Even worse, they are perfectly willing to endanger America to advance the interests of those client states.

Whatever happened to the principle expressed so well by George Washington that America should avoid either strong antipathy or passionate attachment to any other country?  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, though.  Given the transition from the caliber of Washington and Jefferson to the likes of Bush and McCain, it becomes clear that, when it comes to politics, Charles Darwin got the theory of evolution backwards.

What Is Real Patriotism?

Published July 17th, 2008 by tcarpenter

We’ve just been through the peak season—Memorial Day through July 4—of patriotic sentiment in the United States.  Despite all of the public displays and official speeches, however, I’m left with the uneasy feeling that the concept of patriotism has become distorted, if not perverted.   So many of the tributes center around the sacrifices of America’s military personnel over the decades.  That is certainly one consideration, but is it the most important or valid one?  Too often, those people who focus on the role of the military act as though America’s wars per se are the measure of true patriotism.   I beg to differ. 

This is not a new concern of mine.  A few years ago, my wife and I had an opportunity to attend a Fourth of July celebration in Utah, where we were visiting family.  The extravaganza that night in the stadium of Brigham Young University purported to celebrate the meaning of America’s Independence Day.  Yet every one of the episodes in that celebration dealt with a war fought by the United States.  There was not a word said about the values expressed in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, nor was there a hint of the importance of  civil liberties and limited government in the history of the Republic.  Instead, there was the embarrassing spectacle of attempts to shoehorn such unnecessary conflicts as World War I and the Vietnam War—and, even worse, such imperial land grabs as the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War—into the narrative of “defending America’s freedom.”  It was a celebration of unabashed militarism, and I left the stadium with a feeling of acute nausea.  

Unfortunately, so many “patriotic” celebrations in recent years have followed a similar pattern—a salute to America’s increasingly numerous wars, with scarcely a mention of the values that made this country great.  If one would believe the sponsors and the politicians they invite to deliver speeches, all the American soldiers who perished in those conflicts died to protect our freedoms.  That, unfortunately, is a grotesque distortion.  The reality is that the vast majority of the wars the United States has fought had little or nothing to do with protecting the liberties of the American people.  One can and should mourn the deaths of those soldiers, but that does not mean that we should blindly endorse the conflicts that snuffed out their lives. 

Patriotism is not a willingness to justify whatever dubious war the political elite decides to wage.  True patriotism is an insistence that the country live up to the values it proclaims, and that America should resort to war only when its safety and liberty are truly imperiled.