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“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”

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James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, wrote that of all the enemies to liberty, war is the greatest. What he meant by that is that governments inevitably use wars and other crises and emergencies to centralize and expand their powers over the citizenry. Thus, in the process of claiming to keep the citizenry safe from external threats, the government often becomes a grave threat to their freedom and well-being.

The United States has been at war for more than 15 years, ever since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003. But it’s actually much worse than that. If we go back to 1941, we see that the United States has been embroiled in what has become perpetual war, including World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the violent regime-change operations in Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, and other countries around the world.

Thus, it shouldn’t surprise anyone, given Madison’s dictum, that Americans now live under a regime that wields powers that are ordinarily found in countries ruled by totalitarian regimes, including assassination, indefinite detention, torture, and secret surveillance of the citizenry. All of these powers have been upheld by the federal judiciary so long as U.S. officials relate them to national security, foreign policy, or the war on terrorism. Very few Americans ever expected, when they were growing up, that they would be living under a government with such totalitarian-like powers.

There are two things to note about the state of unending war and totalitarian powers in which Americans now find themselves.

The first point is that such powers are antithetical to the principles of freedom. There is just no way that any society in which people’s government is wielding such totalitarian powers can be considered genuinely free. They are the same powers, after all, that are wielded by the communist dictatorships in such countries as Cuba, North Korea, China, and Vietnam.

Ironically, however, many Americans are convinced that they are free. They have been told that since the first grade, and they still believe it as adults. They go around singing, “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.” Or they express thanks in sports stadiums, churches, and other venues for the troops protecting “our rights and freedoms” in overseas military activities. The plight of many Americans can best be summed up by the words of the great German thinker Johann Goethe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”

That’s why many people are befuddled by us libertarians. They hear us saying that we are fighting to restore a free society to our land, and they just don’t get it. How can freedom be restored, they ask, if freedom already exists?

In fact, that’s why many statists who love big government power and hate freedom resent us libertarians. They don’t like it that we tell people they’re not free. Their position is that ignorance is bliss and, therefore, as long as Americans believe they’re free, that’s all that matters. They don’t like the fact that libertarians are telling them otherwise, even if it is the truth.

As any psychiatrist would tell us though, living the life of a false reality or a life of a lie can have grave psychological or mental consequences. It’s no coincidence that so many Americans are engaged in drug abuse, alcoholism, irrational acts of violence, and suicide. A life based on denial of reality and on lies can produce severe psychoses.

The second point to recognize about America’s system of unending wars and totalitarian powers is just as important: It is destroying our society from within. While so many people are constantly focused on ISIS, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Latin America, and other so-called enemies, they fail to see that it is the internal rot that is taking us down.

It’s not just the financial and economic damage that this way of life is doing to our country. That’s certainly a big factor. Federal spending and debt continue soaring out of control, with the amount of the federal debt now at $20 trillion and climbing every year. Excessive government debt has brought down empires in the past. It also brings down non-imperialist regimes, as we have seen with Greece, and, for that matter, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Out-of-control federal spending and debt constitute a grave threat to the economic well-being of the American people. A big part of the reason for such spending and debt is the enormous and ever-growing expense to fund U.S. military bases and operations all over the world.

The greatest damage, however, that the warfare-state way of life is doing to our nation, however, is spiritual and moral, specifically what it’s doing to people’s conscience and sense of right and wrong. It’s stultifying and paralyzing them. The moral compasses of the American people are off kilter, and it’s because of their undying devotion to the warfare-state way of life.

A good example involves Iraq, a country whose government never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so, a country where U.S. personnel have killed, injured, or maimed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed homes, businesses, industries, and infrastructure, brought on a vicious and deadly civil war involving a violent group called ISIS, and instigated a massive refugee crisis.

It’s all been done with little remorse, empathy, or prayers on the part of U.S. officials and many Americans for any of the victims of this U.S. initiation of violence against Iraq. That’s what happens when conscience is stultified and paralyzed and when people’s devotion to their warfare-state apparatus trumps everything else, including the concept of right and wrong.

After the Cold War

Let’s go back to the year 1990. Without any negotiations with the United States, the Soviet Union had unilaterally ended the Cold War, permitted the peaceful unification of Germany, withdrawn Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, and dismantled the Soviet empire.

That was all good from the standpoint of both Western and Eastern Europeans. However, the Soviet Union’s actions simultaneously brought the U.S. government’s official Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, to an end. Ever since the end of World War II, that official enemy had guaranteed ever-growing budgets, influence, and power for the Pentagon, the CIA, and NSA.

Suddenly, the official enemy was gone, and people were talking about a “peace dividend,” which meant a drastic shift in military and intelligence spending to domestic welfare-state programs. The Pentagon and CIA were exclaiming, Not so fast! We still live in an unsafe world, and we are the only ones who can save you from it.

Enter Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq. I sometimes wonder how many Americans realize that Saddam and Iraq were close partners and allies of the U.S. government during the 1980s, much as Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union were U.S. partners and allies during World War II.

During the 1980s, Iraq was waging war against Iran, and the U.S. government was helping it to kill Iranians. Why did the U.S. government want to kill Iranians? Because U.S. officials were still chafing over what the Iranian people had done in 1979. In a violent revolution, they had ousted from power the shah of Iran, who was another partner and ally of the U.S. government.

Why did the Iranian people violently revolt and oust him from power? Because he was one of the most brutal dictators in the world. He showed no mercy toward Iranians who objected to, criticized, or opposed his brutality. To enforce his tyranny, he adopted such powers as indefinite detention, torture, and execution, without judicial interference or any semblance of due process of law — i.e., the same powers that the U.S. government now wields.

To exercise his omnipotent powers, the shah used a domestic agency named SAVAK that was a Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and FBI, all wrapped into one. In fact, Pentagon and CIA officials helped train and support SAVAK personnel.

How did the U.S. government come to partner with the shah and help him to enforce his brutal dictatorship?

In the early 1950s, Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had been democratically elected by the country’s parliament, nationalized British oil interests. The British approached the CIA for help in getting their oil back.

At first, Harry Truman said no. But when he was replaced by Dwight Eisenhower, the answer became yes, whereupon the CIA initiated a covert coup that removed Mossadegh from power and ensured that the shah would wield total dictatorial power within the country.

So, in the 1980s U.S. officials were still chafing over losing one of their favorite dictators, the shah, in a violent revolution. That’s why they were helping Saddam to kill Iranians.

All that changed, however, in 1990, when U.S. officials lost their longtime official Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. That’s when Saddam was converted into America’s new official enemy.

What happened was that Iraq and Kuwait were involved in an oil-drilling dispute. The U.S. government assured Saddam that they had no interest in the controversy. However, when Iraq invaded Kuwait to resolve the dispute, U.S. officials suddenly had their new official enemy, one that they referred to as a new Adolf Hitler. The U.S. mainstream press picked up the theme, with hardly anyone’s noticing or caring that this so-called new Hitler had recently been a close partner and ally of the U.S. government when they were working together to aggress against Iran and kill Iranians.

The U.S. government, led by George H.W. Bush, immediately declared Saddam Hussein to be the gravest threat to world peace since Hitler. Bush went to the United Nations, where he pulled together a “coalition of the willing,” which consisted of foreign regimes that were willing to unite with Bush to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

One problem, however, was that while he secured the approval of the United Nations, Bush never secured a declaration of war against Iraq from Congress. Why is that important? Because the Constitution requires a congressional declaration before a U.S. president can legally wage war against a foreign regime. That made the U.S. war against Iraq illegal under the U.S. form of constitutional government.

The U.S. intervention against Iraq was a slaughter. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone, given that Iraq was a relatively poor Third World nation. Iraqi military personnel were bombed to smithereens, along with many Iraqi civilians.

But there was one fascinating outcome to what became known as the Persian Gulf War: Once Iraqi troops exited Kuwait, U.S. officials decided to leave Saddam in office rather than sending U.S. troops to Baghdad, removing him from office, and installing another partner and ally as Iraqi dictator.

Instead, concerned that a military regime-change operation might mean a high casualty rate for American soldiers, U.S. officials hoped that Iraqis would accomplish the regime change that U.S. officials were yearning for.

The first step involved encouraging Iraqi Shi’ites and Kurds to rise up and revolt against Iraq. Thinking that the U.S. military would come to their assistance, a large number of Shi’ites did revolt. However, U.S. officials decided to stay out of the fray, and the Iraqi army easily put down the revolt.

The second step involved the imposition of some of the most brutal economic sanctions in history, sanctions that targeted the Iraqi people. The idea was that if the sanctions could make the Iraqi people suffer enough, they would rise up, oust Saddam from power, and replace him with another pro-U.S. dictator.

The sanctions process actually began during the Persian Gulf War. Concluding that the destruction of Iraq’s water and sewage treatment plants would help spread infectious illnesses among the Iraqi people, U.S. officials gave the order to the U.S. Air Force to bomb the facilities.

Once the fighting was over, the sanctions prevented the water and sewage treatment plants from being repaired. That accomplished what the Pentagon had predicted — the spread of infectious illnesses, especially from drinking sewage-infested water.

While the sanctions succeeded in destroying what little wealth the Iraqi people had, the deadliest impact was on their children. The mortality rate of Iraqi children soared, with thousands of children dying every month.

In 1996, Sixty Minutes asked U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright whether the deaths of half a million Iraqi children were “worth it.” She replied that while the issue was a difficult one, the deaths of the children had in fact been “worth it.”

Albright’s comment received no rebuke, criticism, or condemnation from any U.S. official, including her boss, Bill Clinton. During her confirmation hearings for secretary of State, she wasn’t asked to explain or account for her statement. The U.S. mainstream press remained scrupulously silent about her claim that the U.S. killing of half a million children, none of whom had ever attacked the United States, was “worth it.”

Not everyone was silent. In a crisis of conscience, two high UN officials, Hans von Sponek and Denis Halliday, resigned their posts in protest against what they called “genocide” against innocent children. U.S. officials were not disappointed. They considered both of them too soft on Iraq.

Von Sponek and Halliday weren’t the only ones. A man from Seattle named Bert Sacks was so angry and outraged over the U.S. killing of innocent children that he decided to do something about it. He personally took medicine to Iraq, which caused U.S. sanctions bureaucrats to go ballistic.

Fining Sacks $10,000 for violating their sanctions, U.S. officials went after him to collect the money with an obsession that bordered on the pathological. Sacks refused to pay the fine and U.S. officials refused to let him off the hook. Many years later, Sacks ended up winning the case, but only on a technicality relating to the government’s failing to comply with the statute of limitations.

While the Seattle Times and perhaps a few other mainstream papers came to Sacks’s defense, most of them remained silent. Instead, the predominant view of the press throughout the 1990s was “Saddam! Saddam! Saddam! We have to get Saddam before he gets us!” As the new official enemy, Saddam Hussein became a national obsession for many Americans and remained so for more than 10 years.

The sanctions remained in place for several more years, killing more children in the process. One of the fascinating aspects of the sanctions was the indifference that that U.S. bureaucrats displayed to the deadly and destructive consequences. In their minds, after all, they were just enforcing the rules. It was a classic example of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”

People sometimes forget that there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Ramzi Yousef, one of the terrorists, cited the high death toll among the Iraqi children at his sentencing hearing in federal court. The death toll among the Iraqi children was also among the factors that Osama bin Laden mentioned in his fatwa against the United States prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Notwithstanding the many years of death and economic suffering that the U.S. sanctions inflicted on the Iraqi people, they never succeeded in motivating the Iraqi people to rise up and violently revolt against the Saddam Hussein regime. It was the 9/11 attacks that finally gave U.S. officials, led by George W. Bush, the opportunity that they felt George H.W. Bush had squandered at the end of the Persian Gulf War — the opportunity to use a military invasion to accomplish what the sanctions had failed to accomplish — regime change in Iraq.

The Iraq sanctions finally came to an end after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Little was said by editorial or op-ed writers or church ministers across the United States about the deaths of all those Iraqi children and the economic suffering that had been inflicted on the Iraqi people, whose government had never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so.

An anti-militarist tradition

How did all that come to be?

When the Constitutional Convention adjourned, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government was being given to the American people. Franklin responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”

What he meant by that was a government whose powers were limited to those enumerated in the Constitution itself. Since the Constitution did not empower the federal government to detain people indefinitely, torture them, or execute them without judicial process and due process of law, the federal government did not possess such powers and, therefore, could not exercise them. To make sure federal officials got the point, the American people demanded the enactment of the Bill of Rights, which expressly forbids U.S. officials from incarcerating or killing Americans and others without following long-established procedural processes, including due process of law and trial by jury, and from inflicting cruel and unusual punishments on people.

Americans at that time hated big permanent military establishments, or what they called “standing armies,” which they considered a grave threat to their liberty and well-being. That’s why there was no military-industrial complex, foreign military bases, CIA, or NSA (and no FBI) for more than 100 years of U.S. history.

On July 4, 1821, John Quincy Adams, who would go on to become the sixth U.S. president, delivered a speech to Congress in which he described the founding foreign policy of the United States, a foreign policy based on nonintervention in the affairs of foreign nations. The United States, he observed, does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” If it ever did, he said, there was a good chance America would turn into the dictatress of the world.

Unfortunately, however, there were Americans in the 19th century who believed that national greatness depended on a strong, powerful federal government, one that wielded the powers and the means to go abroad, acquire colonies, partner with brutal dictatorships, and effect regime change in faraway lands with invasions, coups, assassinations, and sanctions.

The big turn toward overseas empire and intervention occurred with the Spanish American War in 1898. It proceeded apace with interventions into World War I and World War II, during which the U.S. government partnered with and allied with the communist regime in the Soviet Union.

Immediately after the war, the Soviet Union was converted from partner and ally to new official Cold War enemy. That resulted in the conversion of the federal government from a limited-government republic to what is called a “national-security state,” a type of governmental apparatus that wields such totalitarian powers as indefinite detention, torture, and assassination.

The war on communism ultimately morphed into the war on terrorism, a state of unending war that increasingly threatened America with destruction from within.

The obvious question arises: Which way of life will restore peace, prosperity, harmony, morality, conscience, and freedom to our land?

By now, the answer should be obvious. By returning to our founding principle of a limited government republic and a foreign policy of noninterventionism, the American people can lead the world to the highest reaches of freedom and prosperity ever seen by mankind.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.