Commentary

An Empire is Not Needed to Fight the War on Terror at Home or Abroad

A version of this essay appeared in the Orange County Register on September 7, 2003.

In the hours and days following the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the world poured out its sympathy to Americans in a remarkable expression of solidarity. Memorials sprouted across the globe, from tiny candlelight vigils, to massive public gatherings. The whole world, it seemed, was with us.

Two years later, the United States stands nearly alone. Today, the Bush administration contemplates a wider role for the United Nations in the hope that more foreign troops and more foreign money will set the Iraqis on the path to independence.

This belated faith in multilateralism coincides with a time of reckoning, when the imperial dreamers and internationalist do-gooders add up the costs of empire. They will soon stick the American people with the bill—in lives lost and treasure squandered.

The costs are becoming clearer by the day in Afghanistan and Iraq where, having toppled the Taliban and the Ba’athists, Americans are spending more blood and treasure in pursuit of an ever-elusive democratic peace. Overthrow dictators such as Mullah Muhammed Omar or Saddam Hussein, the argument goes, and democracy will spread. In the latest iteration, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice declares that U.S. citizens are obliged to make a “generational commitment” to reshape the political map of the Middle East.

Some protest that what’s happening is not empire. Empires of the past sought to enrich themselves at others’ expense. By contrast, the Bush National Security Strategy promises to “make the world not just safer but better.” But while such sentiments should please the ideological descendants of Woodrow Wilson, they should worry anyone committed to the principles of government espoused by America’s Founders.

All empires, even the supposedly benign variety favored by modern-day imperialists, are costly at home, and counterproductive abroad. The costs are measured in the familiar terms of blood and treasure, and also in the erosion of individual liberty.

Much attention has been directed toward the threats to privacy and individual rights posed by the USA Patriot Act and related measures that erode the fundamental rights of Americans. Democrats have assailed the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties.

It is telling, however, that some of the loudest criticisms of the Bush administration’s approach to civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 come not from the usual suspects, but from rock-ribbed Republicans who have no desire to see President Dean (or Kerry, or Lieberman) succeed President Bush in 2004.

The dollar costs of the War on Terror are substantial but are often lost in the morass of the $2.3 trillion federal budget. Consider: We spend more on our military than all the developed nations combined. By 2007, that total will exceed the spending by all nations.

Yet that isn’t enough for the most enthusiastic of the empire-builders. They want to double the U.S. military budget to field an army to police the entire globe. But such calls for more spending ignore that the United States was as dominant on September 10, 2001—and yet our military might could not stop the maniacs who turned commercial airplanes into cruise missiles. Today, two years later, perhaps as much as half of our military is dedicated to missions that have nothing to do with the War on Terrorism—from a dubious peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, to obsolete troop deployments in Germany and Japan, to the downright dangerous situation that places 37,000 Americans in harm’s way on the Korean peninsula.

But the potential for harm to our government and way of life extends beyond the threat to civil liberties, the high dollar costs, and the U.S. soldiers killed and wounded because crises—real and imagined—have been used throughout history to increase the size and authority of the government.

Unable to create a larger federal government in the midst of the greatest economic depression in American history, Franklin Roosevelt largely achieved his ends during World War II. As Bruce Porter notes in War and the Rise of the State, “the nonmilitary sectors of the federal government actually grew at a faster rate in World War II than under the impetus of the New Deal.” In similar fashion, the Bush administration has presided over a 30 percent increase in non-defense discretionary spending over the last three years. Much, but certainly not all, of this spending is couched in anti-terrorism terms. But little of this spending actually goes to protecting us from terrorism.

The events of 9/11 should have refocused our attention on the threats facing us from terrorist groups with global reach. We should not allow legitimate attacks against those who would murder Americans to be used as a pretext for implementing a national security strategy that is inconsistent with our country’s values and traditions. An empire is not needed to protect us from the threat of terrorism.

We can’t be 100 percent secure from any threat. But sensible, timely intelligence sharing, and aggressive, cooperative law enforcement are the key elements of an effective strategy for dismantling the Al Qaeda network. In the few rare instances where governments are actively supporting terrorists—as the Taliban were doing in Afghanistan—military action is warranted. But our military exists to defend us from threats. Efforts to step beyond that narrow charge by attempting to impose our values on others, can stir anger and resentment. The end result will be a world with more enemies and more threats.

Christopher Preble is the director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.