Commentary

Year 2000 Warning from Uncle Sam: “Duck and Cover”

By Ivan Eland
December 22, 1999
The American foreign policy elite, Democrats and Republicans alike, regularly boasts that the United States is the world’s only superpower — unrivaled in its ability and willingness to project military power and influence around the globe. Yet what does this swaggering global dominance have to do with ensuring the security and safety of the Republic and its citizens? If the U.S. government’s recent admonitions to U.S. citizens — both at home and abroad — to essentially “duck and cover” when the millennium turns are any indication, the answer is nothing. In the post-Cold War security environment, profligate U.S. interference in the business of other nations and groups may, in fact, reduce the security of Americans.

Despite the global power of the United States, the U.S. government fails in its most basic task — ensuring the protection of its citizens. According to the State Department’s report on global terrorism, the United States alone is the target for 40 percent of the world’s terrorism. That hefty share is unusual for a nation that has no civil war, domestic insurgency or unfriendly neighbors.

An important question is hardly ever asked and never adequately answered: What motivates terrorists to single out Americans? Using the underlying and unquestioned assumption that the United States wears the white hat and the terrorists wear the black hats, the foreign policy establishment focuses mainly on the modi operandi of terrorists and how to combat them. Although many supporters of an interventionist U.S. policy claim that terrorism is directed at the United States because of “who it is” — the largest capitalist nation and mass exporter of culture — both President Clinton and the Defense Science Board have admitted that the United States is targeted because of its “unique leadership responsibilities” and “involvement in international situations” (euphemisms for meddling unnecessarily in the affairs of other nations).

The foreign policy apparatus inside the Beltway — which looks at the world as if it were a chessboard — is reluctant to curb its voracious appetite for American military escapades (for example, bombing Serbia, even though that nation in no way threatened the United States and continuing to pound the economic rubble that is Iraq). The U.S. foreign policy elite — diplomats, military brass, members of Congress and even academics — gain from America’s role as the “global leader.”

In international circles, they have enormous prestige and an eager world audience that salivates for their analyses and predictions of the global hegemon’s foreign policy.

But what does the average American get from U.S. meddling in far-flung corners of the world that do not remotely affect U.S. vital interests? A much lighter wallet and an increasing uneasiness when traveling abroad or even when participating in large public celebrations at home.

As the new millennium rapidly approaches, the American public has reason to be uneasy. The bombings of the World Trade Center and the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania indicate that terrorists are now more willing than ever to inflict mass slaughter in retaliation against an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Also, terrorists now have access to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons that could inflict massive casualties. In a little-known incident in 1995, the Japanese religious cult that attacked the Tokyo subway with poison gas was planning to release nerve gas at Disneyland during a fireworks celebration — when attendance at the park would reach maximum capacity. Fortunately, U.S. authorities apprehended the group members before they could launch the attack.

It is chilling that the foreign policy elite seems resigned to such catastrophic acts of terrorism. Officials speak of “when,” not “if,” such attacks will occur on U.S. soil. The recent conclusion by a commission formed to advise the administration and Congress on the vulnerability of the United States to catastrophic terrorism shows the mindset of the “experts”:

As serious and potentially catastrophic as a domestic terrorist attack might prove, it is highly unlikely that it could ever completely undermine the national security, much less threaten the survival, of the United States as a nation.

An average person might wonder about leaders who fail to regard tens or hundreds of thousands of American casualties as a complete breech of the nation’s security. The United States — in all of its history — has never suffered casualties of such magnitude on its soil at the hands of a foreign attacker.

The foreign policy establishment will arrogantly reply that the world’s only superpower should not appease terrorists. By that reasoning, any person who refused to burn down the house of a difficult neighbor could be accused of appeasement. Most terrorists and the rogue states that sponsor them are far from U.S. shores and would not bother the United States if it did not constantly meddle in foreign regions. It is unfortunate that Americans must “duck and cover” on the eve of the new millennium. A more restrained U.S. foreign policy would have greatly reduced the chances of terrorist attacks.

Ivan Eland is the Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute