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American History, American War, American Empire
September 7, 2010
American Empire Before the Fall. By Bruce Fein. Campaign for Liberty, 2010. Vii + 219 pages.
It is hardly news that George Bush’s Iraq War has been a disastrous failure and that Barack Obama, learning nothing from his predecessor, has renewed and expanded our crusade in Afghanistan. Criticisms of recent American policy have not been slow in coming, and Bruce Fein, in this excellent book, has given us one of the best of these. But he does more than this. He embeds his criticism of our current military misadventures within a full-scale account of the history of American foreign policy.
As Fein sees matters, our country began well. Washington and Jefferson rejected empire and instead sought to limit military action to the defense of the United States. Unfortunately, the lesser lights who assumed control of American foreign policy in the nineteenth century proved unequal to the task of upholding the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Fein sees an early portent of trouble in the Monroe Doctrine, which exceeds the bounds of strict self-defense. Matters really got out of hand with the Mexican War, clearly an imperialist venture; and since then our policy has abandoned restraint, culminating in the twentieth century with the pursuit of world mastery.
Fein raises a simple and devastating objection to the dominant thrust of our foreign policy. Why should we involve ourselves in foreign wars when victory for the party we oppose would pose no threat to us? Suppose, e.g., that the Taliban were to overthrow the Karzai government and regain power. Henry Kissinger, who evidently takes his sorry record under Nixon to qualify him to render further advice, warns of the dire danger posed by a Taliban victory. In a brilliant riposte, Fein says, “Kissinger is unable to articulate a single coherent national security interest of the United States that rides on the outcome of the Afghan war. He sermonizes that if [the] Taliban prevails, the fall-out will threaten Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and Indonesia – but the United States is omitted from the list.” (p.168, emphasis in original) Fein goes on to dispute Kissinger’s assessment of the threats to these other nations, but his fundamental point is that “enemy” control of other nations does not endanger the United States. Given the manifest costs of wars in death and destruction, not to mention their tendency to aggrandize the State and assault civil liberties, the case against our reckless policy of aggression is conclusive.
Fein again and again returns to this simple objection, applying it to one war after another. Against the alleged need to contain Soviet Russia during the Cold War, Fein remarks, “a nation expanding territorially though military aggression or otherwise ordinarily reduces its threat to American sovereignty. Military invasions routinely weaken the aggressor by squandering military and economic resources in occupying or controlling hostile populations. The Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern and Central Europe during the Cold War until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is emblematic. During that approximately 40 year interval, the USSR encountered uprisings or serious resistance in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Poland (1970, 1976, and 1980.)” (pp.107–08, emphasis in original).
Fein is entirely right that our current foreign interventions violate the dictums of Washington and Jefferson. Classically, Washington’s Farewell Address rejected intervention in the power politics of the Old World. “Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” (p.59)
. It would not be plausible to object that Washington’s dictum applies only to Europe, leaving the United States free to intervene elsewhere. Here we need only appeal to another classical statement of the traditional view, John Quincy Adams’s July 4, 1821 speech: “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will be her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.” (p.63). The contrast between this modest realism and the unbridled Wilsonian ambition to make the world safe for democracy, characteristic of our time, could not be more marked.
Fein makes his case that there has been a break with tradition ably and well, but on one issue he leaves himself vulnerable to attack. Although America indeed pursued a non-interventionist course in foreign policy, this was accompanied by ruthless expansion across the American continent, as numerous American Indian tribes learned to their cost. Jefferson spoke of an “empire for liberty,” and, contrary to Fein’s claim, it is false that the “Charter Documents [setting forth non-interventionist foreign policy] were profaned by the emergence of ‘Manifest Destiny,’ a euphemism for dominating other nations by force or conquest.”(p.78). Manifest Destiny, at least insofar as it was confined to expansion on the American continent, was always very much in the mainstream, not a break with the Founders. Fein’s failure to see this leads him to misinterpret the War of 1812. He sees the war as a response to “repeated British assaults against United States’ citizens, its sovereignty, and commerce,” (p.70) ignoring entirely the widespread American desire to annex Canada as a fundamental cause of conflict. (The thrust at the province of Quebec beginning in 1775, later supported by George Washington, prefigured later expansionist efforts.) Once more, though, extending America’s continental domain did not imply any wish to become involved in European power politics.
By neglecting American continental expansionism, Fein leaves himself open to a flank attack by supporters of contemporary imperialism like Robert Kagan. In his Dangerous Nation, Kagan argues that American foreign policy has never been non-interventionist. His principal evidence is precisely the policy of continental expansion just discussed. In order to refute Kagan, it is essential sharply to separate non-intervention in foreign quarrels from the efforts to seize control of North America. Unless Fein confronts the evidence that Manifest Destiny was not an aberration, he will be unable adequately to respond to Kagan.
Despite this criticism of Fein, he handles very well another effort to find early precedent for foreign meddling. Does not the war against the Barbary Pirates, avidly pursued by Jefferson, give the lie to the thesis that America avoided involvement in foreign wars? As Fein rightly notes, “Conflicts with the Barbary States in the early 19th century did not contradict the principles of neutrality, defense against foreign aggression, or the supremacy of Congress in national security affairs expounded in the Charter Documents. Military force was employed to end piracy – a universal crime. Force was not used to extend freedom to North Africa or to gain an economic advantage over rival trading nations. The Barbary States, not the American Republic, declared war and initiated hostilities.” (p.69) (Actually, the Pasha of Tripoli declared war in May 1801 but Tunis and Algiers did not.)
Fein rightly emphasizes the Constitution assigns responsibility to Congress, not the president, to declare war. The evidence for this is overwhelming, although Fein does not help his case much when he cites as evidence for Congressional supremacy a passage from the Federalist Papers that warns against Congressional encroachment. (pp.26–7) In this connection, the machinations by James K. Polk to deceive Congress into declaring war against Mexico were a radical departure from the American tradition. By falsely representing that America’s forces had been attacked, Polk made it difficult for Congress to deny his request for a declaration of war and thus in effect seized for himself a Congressional prerogative.
Fein’s motive for writing is of course not confined to providing a historical account of our departures from non-intervention. Quite the contrary, he wishes to restore the older and wiser doctrine, and to that end, he offers many sensible suggestions. He calls for a Constitution Act of 2010 that provides, among other things, that “The President should be exposed to criminal prosecution or impeachment for initiating war without an express statutory directive, or for intentionally deceiving Congress or the American people about a material fact for the purpose of obtaining authorization to initiate war,” and “No monies of the United States should be expended to support military bases or troops abroad except in times of war expressly declared by Congress.” (p.191)
One of Fein’s recommendations, I regret to say, comports badly with his defense of peace and liberty. He calls for a return to the draft, on the grounds that a conscript army will make people reluctant to support wars of aggression.. “A draft. . .would restrain the President or Congress in the reckless use of military force in pursuit of utopian or Hail-Mary type goals. In contrast, an all-volunteer force encourages politicians to squander lives for trivial or hopeless causes because the volunteers come predominantly from the lower social or economic classes with inaudible political voices.”(pp.158–59) Given Fein’s stalwart protests against the violations of civil liberties by the Bush and Obama administrations, his support for slavery of this kind is more than a little surprising. As to his professed rationale for this assault on liberty, conscription did not block Wilson’s efforts to make the world safe for democracy, the quintessential utopian policy.
Despite this lapse, Fein has written an outstanding book. He realizes, a few people do, that the world can change in many ways that, however much we dislike them, do not threaten our country’s safety.
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