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Not War, But an Imperial Venture


President Bush, sticking to a script like a five-year-old clinging to a security blanket, insists that the United States can bring democracy to Iraq and other Middle East countries at the point of an American bayonet. So convinced is he of that, he has made death America’s best-known export.

Not everyone is convinced, however. A refreshing dissent was voiced during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to the United Kingdom. There Douglas Hurd, Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign secretary, said what has long needed to be said: “It is quite possible to believe … that essentially the path [to democracy] must grow from the roots of its own society and that the killing of thousands of people, many of them innocent, is unacceptable, whether committed by a domestic tyrant or for a good cause upon being invaded.”

It was Thatcher, of course, who bullied Bush’s father into war against Iraq in 1991 to undo the invasion of Kuwait with the admonition “Don’t go wobbly, George.” Much of younger George’s conduct can be understood as his attempt to correct what he saw as his dad’s error in not going all the way to Baghdad. In retrospect, dad’s “error” looks positively sage. No wonder the first President Bush is reported to be disenchanted with his son’s conduct in office.

The son never tires of reminding us that we are at war and that he is a war president. That’s reason enough to be skeptical of the claim. There is a sense in which “we” are at war. The U.S. government, acting in our name, invaded a country (that never threatened us), defeated its army, overthrew its government, and now is killing people in an attempt to subdue forces that object to the foreign presence. Innocent civilians, inevitably, are among the casualties inflicted by American firepower.

But is this really war? To say “we are at war” implies that we the American people are at risk. That’s ridiculous. The integrity of our society is unthreatened. The government’s grip on power is (alas) safe. The economy is unshaken. In past wars there has been rationing of consumer goods and a full government takeover of production. No one suggests such things today — thank goodness. Thus to say that “we are at war” is to traffic in a cynical political trope calculated to promote childish support for the government. For that reason, we must resist and reject the claim.

We are not at war. Instead, the ruling clique led by President Bush is engaged in an imperial venture that has nothing to do with the security of the American people. The history of this conflict, which in reality stretches back to the end of World War I, should make any honest observer sick with the knowledge that politicians could so cruelly manipulate their own taxpayers as well as innocent people in foreign lands.

The war rhetoric has another function. It enables the political manipulators to exploit dead and injured Americans in order to stifle dissent. “Don’t you support the troops?” If supporting the troops means anything other than bringing them home forthwith, then I do not support the troops. I certainly don’t support the continued occupation, which among other evils, is spreading virulent anti-Americanism and making additional innocent Americans vulnerable to attack. Contrary to the offensive cliché, the troops are not protecting our freedoms — quite the opposite. Those who are responsible for the policy deserve to be called to the dock and made to answer to charges.

The endless songs to American “sacrifice” in Iraq have another horrifying function: they ready Americans for the next war. As Paddy Chayefsky movingly put it in the old anti-war movie The Americanization of Emily, “We … perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices.” As if to illustrate Chayevsky’s point, the Associated Press several weeks ago published a photo of a grieving widow sitting in front of her Marine husband’s flag-wrapped coffin. Standing with her was her toddler son — in Marine dress uniform. A future casualty?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.