Benjamin Franklin once observed that those who would trade their liberties for security will wind up losing both. James Madison stated that no nation can preserve freedom in the midst of perpetual warfare. Few can question that America's Founding Fathers epitomize true conservatism. There is something seriously wrong in America today precisely because the elites from both political parties have forgotten about Franklin and Madison and ignored their wise counsel.
No one should doubt that ill-conceived security measures and the greatly exaggerated fear of terrorism have driven much of both foreign and domestic policy since 9/11. 9/11 was undeniably a horrific experience for this nation, but it did not threaten the survival of the American Republic. Its remaining perpetrators and their handful of heirs do not do so today. Only we Americans can do that and we are doing so by over-reacting to the danger and compromising our own liberties. Conservatives should be the voice of reason. They should demand commensurate and realistic responses to genuine foreign and domestic threats rather than overkill, more bureaucracy, and lots of unneeded government pork. The government's creation of a no-fly list with one million names and a terrorist suspects list with nearly half a million entries exemplify that damage that has already been done. If there were even one percent that many people in the US actually threatening terrorist acts there would be waves of bombings in the streets. That that has not taken place tells you that both the lists and the process used to compile them are essentially bogus.
The expression "war on terror" is meaningless. Terror is a tactic, it is not a foreign government or political movement. To use the expression a "terrorist group" is equally misleading as the groups which come in all shapes sizes and colors are essentially political and have frequently clearly defined political objectives even if they use terrorism to advance their agenda. In most cases, the groups we call terrorists seek to take over the government of the countries where they operate, replacing groups not dissimilar to themselves who are currently in charge.
Why is what we call something important, whether we use the expression "terrorist" or not? It is important because how you name and define something shapes how you think about it and how you respond to it. It frames the narrative. Instead of bumper sticker definitions, we should instead be asking whether international groups that use terror genuinely threaten either the United States or any vital national interest. If we were to undertake such an analysis, we would quickly learn that frequently the terrorist label is misleading.
The exploitation of fear of terrorism by those in government has led to wars that did not have to be fought. Fear has been the key to the door for expansion of government and government powers and the people in charge in Washington have seized the opportunity. It has also eroded the liberties that have defined us as a nation. To cite only one example, the position taken by the Obama Administration that it is all right to assassinate American citizens overseas based on secret information violates principles of due process and deprives every citizen of the constitutional right to defend himself before a jury consisting of his peers. The government has also decided that it doesn't need any judicial review to read your emails, look at your bank account, and it can even attach a gps device to your car so it can have a record of where you went and who you visited. John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, says that his officers can force you to strip naked at the airport and there is nothing you can do about it. If you object and try to leave you can be arrested, fined, and imprisoned.
Government is twice as big and twice as expensive as it was in 2001. The federal deficit has grown nearly five-fold during that time. And this is all because America's leaders, who view the world in terms of institutions and power, looked at the terrorism tactic and drew all the wrong conclusions, namely that those we call terrorists hated the United States for no rational reason and that there was a military solution that could be imposed to make the terrorists go away. The Washington elite confused America's ability to field a large army with something we call policy, in this case foreign policy, not understanding that using the military is a failure of foreign policy, not an alternative to it. The same officials and politicians also created a vast and ineffective homeland security bureaucracy, the domestic equivalent of an interventionist foreign policy, that has stripped many Americans of their fundamental liberties here at home. Predictably, the international situation has become even more unstable as a result of the enormous expansion of the security state. When meddling in the affairs of others began to produce bad results, the solution was more meddling, most recently in Libya, Syria and Yemen, never looking at intervention itself as a possibly source of the instability and the terrorism.
Some of the numbers behind what has happened should appall every true conservative. The United States now spends nearly one trillion dollars every year on the military, homeland security, and intelligence. Much of the money is borrowed from China. If one assumes that there are something like 500 active terrorists in the world who actually are ready, willing, and able to attack the American mainland (and there are likely less than that), it works out to something like $2 billion per terrorist per year every year. Fear of terrorism drives growth in government and has led to involvement in multiple little wars and some bigger ones as well as subsequent exercises in nation building, all of which have been unconstitutional, and none of which have turned out well. The so-called global war on terror, now referred to as overseas contingency operations, is without end and without limits, and has made the US hated and feared in most of the world, not respected. It has even made American citizens potential targets of their own government without any recourse to the protections afforded by the constitution.
And America's war against the world did not have to happen. There are real threats in the world against Americans and American interests, but military action in support of the national interest should only be a last option after every other step has been taken. Whenever I hear the expression "American exceptionalism" I cringe because for the Michelle Bachmanns and Rick Perrys that means it's okay to drop bombs on people because we know we're good folks and we suspect that the folks being bombed are not. Exceptionalism is no excuse for acting irresponsibly.
And then there is the issue of blowback. Why is America the target of terrorists and suicide bombers? Surely not because it has freedoms. As the dear departed Osama bin Laden once put it, in possibly the only known joke made by a terrorist, if freedoms were the issue al-Qaeda would be attacking Sweden. Ron Paul, former CIA Bin Laden Task Force head Michael Scheurer, and numerous others have noted that America has become a target because it is involved militarily in so many countries, meddling in other people's business. As they put it, "They are over here because we are over there."
Above all, the American people should watch the money. It is fashionable to blame the Republican Party for many of our ills, but the war party in America is bipartisan. It is driven both by the lust for power and the good old fashioned profit motive. The current push to attack Iran has more Democrats behind it than Republicans and it is fully supported by a media that has been characterized as being largely liberal but which really shares the collectivist viewpoint and interests of the Washington elite. War is big business and it produces money and jobs for a lot of people, ranging from think tanks to defense contractors to congressmen and senior government officials who are looking for a nice income supplement when they retire. The American people must demand a change in that dynamic. Into the early fifties it was still possible for a traditional conservative Republican like Russell Kirk or Robert Taft to object to America's growing global role without being labeled an isolationist or being ostracized by one's own political party. That changed as war became an engine driving the economy with a bit of pork sweetening the deal in every congressional district. Today, one might argue, that weapons are the only thing that the United States produces for which there is a worldwide demand. That is not only sad, it has been the undoing of the American Republic.
In short, real conservatives who believe in small government, fiscal responsibility, a rational foreign policy based on the national interest, and non-involvement in other people's quarrels should never support global wars on terror or global wars on anything. They should reject completely the insidious and absurd notion that Washington can intervene all over the world and not raise taxes to pay for the cost, handing our security over to the Chinese lenders and bankrupting our children and grandchildren. Some in Washington have already seen the folly of our present course and are speaking out. "The moral and constitutional obligations of our representatives in Washington are to protect our liberty, not coddle the world, precipitating no-win wars while bringing bankruptcy and economic turmoil to our people." Ron Paul said that in 2008, and it should be our rallying cry for 2012 to achieve a constitutionally based foreign and defense policy that truly benefits the American people.