September 28, 2001

An action program

Although it is far too early to tell, it looks like the grand-scale invasion of Afghanistan – and virtually the entire Middle East – envisioned by our more aggressive warhawks is not about to happen. While the President's speech to Congress clearly identified the Taliban as a threat right up there with "fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism" (this latter a euphemism for Communism), his secretary of state is ratcheting down the bellicose rhetoric and focusing in on the fundamental military problem of how to respond to the September 11 atrocity. "With respect to the nature of the regime in Afghanistan, that is not uppermost in our minds right now," he said. "I'm not going to say that it has become one of the objectives of the United States government to either remove or put in place a different regime."

The gasp of disappointment that greeted this news could be heard all the way from Washington, where Bill Kristol was fulminating that the President and his secretary of state had gone defeatist before the war on terrorism had even begun.


"What is going on here?" Kristol demands to know. I'll tell you what's going on, Bill. Our secretary of state sees the trap the wily bin Laden set for the US – and it is one that he has no intention of springing. For a massive US military intervention, an invasion force, could not be unleashed without seriously destabilizing the entire region – undermining the very governments whose cooperation is essential to any purely military response to the September 11 atrocity.


While the Defense Department rushed bombers to the area, it wasn't clear, exactly, where they would strike. Kabul? This city is hardly the center of support for the Taliban, which is explicitly anti-urban, and in any case Osama bin Laden & Co. won't be among the casualties. But none of this matters to Kristol and his fellow neoconservatives, who recently published their own set of war aims in a statement circulated by the Project for a New American Century. Among their goals is the military invasion of not only Afghanistan, but also Iraq, and even Syria. This view, upheld by deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and implicitly backed by his boss, Donald Rumsfeld, appears to have lost out, at least for the moment, and Kristol is furious. In a piece for the Washington Post ["Bush Vs. Powell," September 25], he avers:

"One might say that Powell's remarks simply reflect the natural perspective of a secretary of state. But of course Powell had the same distaste for large-scale wars in 1990. Then, in the run-up to Desert Storm, Powell worried, in accord with his Powell Doctrine, that the American people were not united for war behind the first President Bush (as they were not). Powell did his best to persuade President Bush not to wage that war against Saddam.

"Now the American people are united, but the Powell doctrine has gone global. Talk of war might fracture the global coalition that we have assembled. That coalition is key to this war against terror – as long as it never becomes an actual war. Powell seems now to be as sensitive to global public opinion as he once was to what he took to be American public opinion."


What kind of a person does not have a distaste for large-scale wars, or, indeed, wars of any scale whatsoever? One might believe that such a war was necessary, and justified, and yet feel a strong distaste at the prospect. This is the natural reaction of ordinary decent human beings, but the neocons are far from ordinary (I won't speculate on their decency). While the rest of us are content to live out our mundane little private lives, these large-domed Deep Thinkers are consumed with visions of "national greatness" – a state never fully attainable, it seems, until and unless the nation is at war. Surely the announced objective of the Kristolian foreign policy – "benevolent world hegemony" – is not achievable by any other means.


Kristol assumes that the American people are united behind his war aims, almost as if the GOP 2000 presidential primary had had a different outcome, and he, Kristol, had been installed in the White House by John McCain, his favored candidate. But isn't it up to the President of the United States, and not the editor of a dinky little subsidized neocon magazine, to announce the nation's war aims? You might think so, but, then again, one whose goal is "world hegemony" is better off without either a sense of proportion or modesty.


The great divide between Kristol and Powell is the difference between armchair generals and the real thing. The latter looks at the problem of how to respond to the mass murder of September 11 in purely military terms. In order to reach the perpetrators and their support network, the US must secure the full cooperation of neighboring countries – the very countries whose governments are bound to be undermined by precipitous US military action. Tightly focused on his mission – cornering and destroying the terrorists – Powell's perspective is oriented toward practical results. Go in there, get them, and then get out. Kristol, however, and his chorus of warmongering pundits and politicians, have a whole other agenda, that has little if anything to do with the original provocation. John McCain has already declared that Bush's war "will be a failure if it leaves in place the regime that aids and abetted these acts of war against the United States." But how will installing a new King on the Afghan throne avenge the worst terrorist attack in American history?


A military response to the devastating attack on the WTC and the Pentagon is not only appropriate, it is required: as many pro-war correspondents have pointed out, especially the ostensible libertarians, military defense is, arguably, the one legitimate function of government. But this does not settle the question of how to respond, and against whom. In the days following September 11, the Defense Department rushed squadrons of bombers to the region, even before a vital question had been asked: Where do we drop the bombs?


Kristol's answer is: everywhere from Kabul to Damascus. What is needed, he says, is a "broad" campaign to eliminate the terrorist threat. A more rational answer is implicit in Powell's focused approach, which has a specific and achievable goal: not the conquest of the Middle East, but the smashing the terrorist network associated with Al Qaeda. The libertarian approach to this whole question is roughly approximated by Powell's apparent stance: military force is justified in self-defense, but only in proportion to the initial act of aggression – and only against the actual aggressors. Carpet-bombing Kabul, as Kristol and some elements within the Defense Department are clamoring for, would put us on the same moral level as the devilish mad bombers of bin Laden's suicide squad, who wantonly slaughtered 6000-plus. Talk about moral equivalence – it is the "hawks" who are guilty of this, not those of us who put the events of September 11 in some historical context.


In a powerful editorial for the prestigious and popular Nightly Business Report on PBS, the conservative economist Walter Williams warned us that politicians are taking advantage of this terrible tragedy to do what they are driven to do: increase their own power: "The true threat to liberty comes not from terrorists but from our political leaders whose natural inclination is to seize upon any excuse to diminish them." On the international level, the same strategy is being utilized by many of the same people to advance another kind of agenda: the radical acceleration of our interventionist foreign policy.


The interventionist response to the massacre of September 11 is to launch a massacre of our own, albeit on a much larger scale. Theirs is an agenda of military conquest, to go in and stay in – to spread "democracy" throughout the Middle East, to impose it by force of arms – and, coincidentally, make the world safe for Israel. On the other hand, the anti-interventionist response is quite different: it is roughly congruent with Powell's arguments, as expressed to date, that we need to go in, kill 'em, and leave – without playing into Osama bin Laden's hands. For the radical Islamists would like nothing better than a full-scale invasion of the Middle East, as recommended by Kristol – all the better to spread his jihad far and wide.


It suits bin Laden to a tee that the US government is refusing to make public the alleged evidence pointing to the Bearded One's culpability, and once again the American secretary of state is on the right side of this question. It was Powell, reportedly, who argued to release the evidence, while the Defense Department and the intelligence community held out for keeping it "classified." On this front, at least, it looks like Powell is losing out. This means, perhaps, that some day, a young boy will ask his mother: "Why did Daddy have to die in the Afghan War?" And she will answer: "I'm sorry, son, but that information is classified."


To point out that it is a mistake to garrison thousands of American soldiers on the Saudi peninsula does not justify the destruction of the World Trade Center: it only helps us to understand why it happened. To hold that it does not serve American interests to unconditionally support Israel hardly justifies terrorism. To say that the continual bombing of Iraq is a war crime is not to engage in "moral equivalence" – it is to state a fact glaringly obvious to the Arab "street" and Muslims all over the world. To point to the sources and inspiration of bin Laden's movement is not to prettify it but to analyze it: for only by such sober analysis will it be possible to rip up the terrorist network by its roots. Those roots are ideological, in the conviction that the American and British "crusaders" are out to destroy Islamic civilization: to go in there, as neocon columnist Ann Coulter suggests, and forcibly "convert them to Christianity." Thanks, Ann, for sharing that: that's one point on which you and Osama bin Laden seem to agree.


The non-interventionist solution is not a pacifist response, but it doesn't engage in overkill, either. After releasing the evidence against Osama bin Laden and his followers – or whoever – we need to go in and take them out. The conquest of the Middle East, or even Afghanistan, needn't enter into it. An attack on our own soil must be meant with retaliation swift and sure: but what kind of retribution is it that demands we go in and engage in "nation-building" as neocon columnist James Pinkerton suggests? It seems like an open invitation to terrorists everywhere: just blow up a few major American landmarks, and we'll rebuild your nation for you! Was a loopier idea ever conceived?


No, much better to strike – and leave. For that is the lesson of this horrific event, the overriding conclusion imposed on us by the sheer horror of it all: let us be done with this nest of Middle Eastern vipers. Let them keep their lousy oil: we can drill elsewhere, in Alaska, in South America, off the California coast if need be. Let them fight among themselves as to whether the Holy Land is to be called Palestine or Israel. Why is this any of our concern? Here's a concrete solution to our problem, one that can be enacted immediately with overwhelming public support: Let us close our borders to all immigrants, and impose an absolute moratorium until further notice. The perpetrators of this sickening crime were legal residents of the US, in some cases, or else sneaked into the country under the current lax regime.


The massive intelligence failure that made September 11 possible can be fixed – some seem to think – by throwing money at the problem and a quick change of personnel. But the real failure, here, is of our interventionist foreign policy. In Osama bin Laden, yesterday's anti-Communist "freedom fighter," the virtual embodiment of that policy has come back to haunt us. A military strike, limited to liquidating the guilty parties, can take care of our immediate problem: but, in long-range terms, a change in our foreign policy is the only possible solution.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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