I recently spoke with Dr. John David Lewis about American foreign policy, the uprisings in the Muslim world, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the light that history can shed on such matters. Dr. Lewis is visiting associate professor in the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University and he’s the author, most recently, of Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History. —Craig Biddle
Craig Biddle: Thank you for joining me, John.
John David Lewis: I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.
CB: Before we dive into some questions about U.S. foreign policy and the situation in the Middle East, would you say a few words about your work at Duke? What courses do you teach and how do they relate to foreign policy and the history of war?
JL: The courses I teach all bring the thought of the ancients into the modern day and always dive to the moral level. For example, I teach freshman seminars on ancient political thought. I also teach a course on the justice of market exchange in which I draw upon the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etcetera, and approach the question from a moral perspective. In regard to foreign policy and the history of war, I just finished a graduate course at Duke University on Thucydides and the Realist tradition in international relations. International relations studies have been dominated by a school of thought called Realism. This course explores the ideas of Thucydides and how they’ve translated through history into modern international relations studies and ultimately into the formulation of foreign policy in the modern day.
I also teach courses at the University of North Carolina on the moral foundations of capitalism, which use Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as its core text. I’ve been involved in speaking to Duke University medical students on health care where, again, I approach the issue from a moral perspective, namely, from the principle of individual rights.
CB: That’s quite an array of courses, and I know you speak at various conferences and events across the country as well, not to mention your book projects. Your productivity is inspiring.
Let’s turn your historical lights to some recent events. On the second of May, U.S. SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. This is certainly worthy of celebration, but it’s also almost ten years after he and his Islamist cohorts murdered nearly three thousand Americans on American soil. In the meantime, America has gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than five thousand additional American soldiers have been killed, and now we’re at war in Libya as well. In all of this, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has so much as touched the regimes that everyone knows are the main sponsors of terrorism, those in Iran and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, neither administration has identified the enemy as Islamists and the states that sponsor them. Bush called the enemy “terror” and “evildoers,” and Obama, uncomfortable with such “clarity,” speaks instead of “man-caused disasters” and calls for “overseas contingency operations.” Are there historical precedents for such massive evasions, and whether there are or aren’t, what has led America to this level of lunacy?
JL: That’s a very interesting question, with many levels of answers. The first thing to do is to congratulate the Navy SEALs and the military in taking this evil man out in a flawlessly executed operation. Congratulations are also due Obama insofar as he knew there was a good chance that bin Laden was in this compound and authorized the operation without notifying Pakistan in advance. That is very telling: Obama wouldn’t have done that without the advice of his major advisers, which indicates that everyone at the highest level of the administration—I mean, everyone—knows that Pakistan is not a reliable ally. Pakistan, in some way or another, with the complicit agreement of at least some members of the government, had allowed bin Laden to be there for years. His compound is less than two miles from a major military academy in Pakistan; imagine him hiding out in a house two miles from West Point and no one noticing he was there. So the Obama administration deserves some credit for recognizing that Pakistan is not a reliable ally and acting on the basis of that knowledge.
Now, why did it take ten years to get this man and why in the meantime did we get involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that are, at best, secondary to the main conflict? I think two main factors are at play here, one that I’ll address now and one that I’ll come back to later.
The first factor is altruism. The fight has gone out of Americans in the sense that we’re really afraid to hurt anyone on the other side, especially anyone who isn’t a direct combatant. We got into these wars for the sake of foreign peoples, not for the sake of our own freedom. I spoke to troops coming back from Iraq who said that their rules of engagement did not allow them to shoot someone carrying an AK-47 automatic weapon on the side of the road until the weapon was pointed at them, at which point they were allowed to take him out. This is the kind of thinking—literally sacrificing our men for the benefit of our enemies—that has come to dictate how we fight wars.
Take this to a higher level, and we realize that we deal with other nations the same way in our diplomatic efforts. We don’t want to offend the Saudis, partly because we get oil from them and partly because they pretend to be our allies. And, in some particular instances, their positions are consonant with ours. But their number one goal is the spread of Islam, and that goal couldn’t be further from America’s interests. Yet, because we don’t want to offend the Saudis, we evade this fact and pretend they’re our friends, at great risk to ourselves.
Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, we know that the Pakistanis support terrorists. Western Pakistan, in an area close to Afghanistan, is home to the prime breeding grounds for the world’s jihadists. Yet, rather than confront this fact, we pretend that Pakistan is an ally and materially support its government. This kind of altruistic thinking, placing the feelings and the interest of others above our own, has become a powerful force in American foreign policy.
And while it leads us to evade major threats, altruism also leads us to take action against certain despotic leaders regardless of whether they’re an immediate threat to us. Under altruism, our own interests are of secondary importance, if important at all. Thus, we wage war against Saddam Hussein to overthrow his regime in order to bring “freedom” to Iraqis at the expense of American lives and with nothing clear to be gained from it for us. And although we wage war against Afghanistan for some good reasons—namely, to end its support of Al-Qaeda—we’ve wound up trying to build some kind of a nation or stable “democracy” in Afghanistan that doesn’t clearly support our interests. And now we’re fighting Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear program and has become one of many run-of-the-mill thugs in the Middle East, and we’re doing so on the grounds that it’s our moral duty to defend civilians in Libya.
Altruism has come to set the moral tone for American foreign policy and is one of the major factors leading us into these wars that are, at best, secondary to the main wars we should be waging and, at worst, contrary to our own interests.
Largely because of this factor, the United States has become completely unwilling to name our enemies—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. How we conceptualize things is crucial to determining how we’ll act. Because the “war on terror” has been conceptualized as “enemyless,” it should be no surprise that it’s also being fought this way. We end up ignoring, or even aiding, our worst enemies, while squandering our money, military resources, and lives on conflicts that are not in our interests, in order to meet altruism’s requirement that our actions be based on self-sacrificial service to others.
CB: The regime in Iran is building centrifuges, enriching uranium, and moving ever closer to its goal of building a nuclear bomb for use against the infidels, namely, Israel and America. And now, among other maneuvers, for the first time since 1975 Iran has sent warships to the Mediterranean where the Revolutionary Guards have also built mooring facilities in the Syrian port of Latakia. What historical parallels are there for this kind of unfettered military expansion, what were the respective outcomes, and what can we learn from them?
JL: To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves: What is the nature of the Iranian regime? What are their goals? What are their motivations? What are they after and what means are they willing to use to attain them? It’s only by looking at the character of the regime, its goals, and motivations that we can find historical parallels that might guide us in how we should approach them.
Iran, in my view, is not just a typical thug regime. Iran is guided by a certain messianic motivation. Many Iranians see themselves as having a unique role in the world of furthering Islam, as being an instrument toward the end of bringing Allah’s rule to the whole world. Members of the Iranian government have even spoken of the necessity for a final battle, an Armageddon, perhaps a nuclear holocaust in which the rule of Allah is cemented over the Earth. They’re messianic enough in their views that their elected president has been widening and straightening streets in Iran so that when the Hidden Twelfth Imam returns in a triumphal parade, he’ll have safe passage through the center of Tehran. That’s how strongly they believe this.
So now, what other regimes in history have had such messianic visions? I’m not talking about Saddam Hussein, who saw himself as another Nebuchadnezzar, and therefore wanted to conquer Kuwait and perhaps part of Saudi Arabia to take its oil. I’m talking about someone with a messianic goal of world domination. The communists come to mind. The failure of their system and revolutions to take root throughout the world was not for lack of motivation. But the situation that comes closest to comparing to the current Iranian regime is Hitler’s army of Germany in the late 1930s, prior to World War II. At that time, many of the same arguments made about Iran were being made about Hitler. It was said, “Oh, he had only notions of justice and wanted to return certain territories to Germany that were taken from them after World War I,” which shifted the blame from Hitler’s regime toward those who imposed the Versailles Treaty on Germany. Hitler himself, of course, had a vision of dominating Europe and, indeed, much of the world; and he strove for this vision by rearming Germany, by employing lying diplomacy, and by making treaties and alliances with erstwhile enemies—Stalin being the most notorious one. But publicly many held Hitler to be acting in Germany’s interest and construed him as being just and even reasonable. Before Hitler had the means to wage continental conquest, those who held this view argued that Germany should not be confronted. They, of course, turned out to be dead wrong, and that’s the unfortunate historical parallel with Iran right now.
Iran has a vision and goal—both publicly stated—and they’re working to obtain the capabilities to make that goal a reality. They have the will but not yet the capacity to wage war—which is what they’re building right now. The will to fight, something Iran clearly has, combined with the capacity to fight will make a war with Iran necessary and inescapable.
An argument made in international relations studies is that once regimes obtain nuclear weapons, they adopt a more rational worldview when they realize they have weapons of frightening destructive capacity. Such regimes, it is claimed, moderate their demands in order to avoid using these horrible weapons. It is true that since WWII nuclear weapons have not been used. However, I see no reason to attribute any rationality or concern with human life to the Iranian government. They have a messianic, religious worldview that does not fear death. One of the statements we hear coming out of that part of the world repeatedly, and that bin Laden had used, is that “Americans love life, we love death. That’s the difference between us.” If that kind of thinking dominates in Iran, then Iranian possession of nuclear weapon makes a nuclear war almost inevitable.
The United States should confront this regime immediately. (In fact, we should have done so thirty years ago.) We should do so keeping firmly in mind that Iran waged war against the United States in November of 1979 by taking over our embassy, even though that act of war has never been acknowledged by the United States. In short, history, along with the current facts on the ground, tells us that we should answer finally this de facto declaration of war—and the sooner, the better.
CB: Also highly relevant is the recent news that the leaders of Fatah and Hamas have agreed to reconcile their differences and form a government unified by the goals on which they agree. On which goals do these factions agree, and what is the significance of this unification for Israel and America?
JL: The Palestinian territory is basically divided in two, the Gaza Strip on one side and the West Bank on the other. Hamas, first by democratic election and now by thuggery, has been in control of Gaza. The result has been a malignant totalitarian regime over the Gazans, which has, as one of its central planks, the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a radical Palestinian state. The issue here is not “land swaps” but, rather, whether the Palestinians will accept the existence of Israel. On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is not as overtly violently radical as Hamas and has at least shown some signs of acknowledging that it should work with Israel to attain a settlement. The only way Hamas would enter into such agreement is if the Palestinian Authority agrees with its basic goals, which, to repeat, are the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a radical Palestinian state. So what this agreement signifies is that there is agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on those goals.
The Palestinian Authority was likely motivated to make the agreement because it was fairly certain it would lose the next general election, because a large portion of the population is on the side of Hamas and willing to engage in violence to destroy Israel. This agreement signifies an increasing radicalization among the Palestinians, meaning a stronger commitment to destroy Israel and establish a Palestinian state on its ashes. This development throws water on any of the claims by Americans that they can actually work with the Palestinians to attain some kind of agreement with Israel.
It should always be remembered that in November of 1947, the United Nations authorized two states in this area of the world; Israel on one side, an Arab state on the other, with Jerusalem as a neutral city. In response to that resolution, the so-called Partition Resolution, all members of the Arab league and the Palestinian leadership responded not by declaring an Arab state, but by declaring war on Israel. In that sense, nothing has changed since 1947. So this agreement is very, very bad news and demonstrates that those who claim you can deal with radical religionists by way of reason are tragically wrong. The only rational way to deal with such people is to name them for what they are, confront them, and defeat them.
CB: Over the past few months, there have been several uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Syria. What do you regard as the most significant aspects of these uprisings and, granting of course that no one can predict the future, where do you see all of this going and why?
JL: One significant aspect of these uprisings is that many people in Arab countries are sick and tired of the dictatorial rule that they’re living under. They wanted to remove the leadership in Yemen, for instance, an attempt that still continues. They wanted to remove the leadership in Libya, and they’re working on that. They got rid of the leadership in Egypt—to what end remains unclear. They’re rising up in Syria, in which hundreds of people are being slaughtered by the military in the streets. It shows that the people are upset at these regimes. And that sounds, on the face of it, like a good thing. And perhaps it is.
The question is: What is to follow and replace these regimes? And this is a tough question. I’ve found in my business management experience that disgruntled people are often clearer on what they don’t like about their positions than they are on what positive improvements could be made. And I think this is generally true of people, the Arab world included. Egypt is a case in point because, as far as I can tell, the political situation there could go in several directions. Egypt might wind up with a moderate faction of the Muslim Brotherhood leading, the Brotherhood being the largest single group in Egypt and the one with the most political clout. If the Muslim Brotherhood really wants some kind of open, constitutional rights-protecting state, and Egypt went that way, then there may be hope for that country. If, as I think is much more likely, the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical Islamist organization that wants to establish its own form of Sharia, then it’s very likely that Egypt will become a theocratic state, akin to Iran, albeit with Egyptian-Arab rather than Persian trappings. It’s also quite possible that the country could pass back into some kind of authoritarian role under the military with leaders elected by the people but with actual power held by the military.
It is impossible to predict how these things are going to turn out, but the one thing we can and must identify is this: The fact that the people are marching against one dictatorship does not mean that they’re in favor of individual rights and constitutional government. The enemy of our enemy is rarely our friend. Unfortunately, the United States itself offers no model of what they should strive for, given what we’re doing to ourselves. So it is possible, but far from certain, that nothing positive will come on the heels of the protest against the regime but, rather, that a different dictatorship will be established.
CB: I recently read about a survey of Egyptians in which 93 percent said they want a constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, yet more than 50 percent also said they want Islamic law to be the sole source for legislation. What do you think accounts for such patent contradictions in people’s minds?
JL: It’s a huge confusion. With all the propaganda and misinformation passed down via Islamic teachings, there are many incredible things that Muslims may hold as contradictions in their minds. I remember one talk I gave at the university during which a young Muslim advocate stood up and said that I was ignorant of history because I failed to recognize that Islam embraced the separation of church and state—after which he immediately announced his support for the imposition of Sharia law. I just looked at him and I said, “You want separation of church and state by the government enforcing religious law? That’s just a blatant contradiction.” But he utterly refused to see it.
Some people may hold such contradictions in their minds as the result of misinformation, for instance, by being fed the notion that Islam, in its so-called proper form, supports freedom of speech. But such contradictions, held in the mind, show the power of religion as a worldview—a power that can lead them to blank out all facts and turn away from the obvious. And if the survey shows that such contradictions have taken root in the Egyptian people, then the future is bleak indeed.
It should also be noted here that in Egypt there is a big divide between urban, educated people, many of whom have experienced the West, and those who live in the countryside. You might survey a portion of the population in the cities and find that people don’t want as much Sharia law—I say “as much,” because no one in an Arab region is going to turn against it completely—and may favor freedom of speech, whereas in the countryside people may want a simpler, old-time religion and may blame their failure in the modern world on their turning away from the so-called true principles of Islam, including Sharia law.
More interesting to me is how the Saudis can uphold such contradictions. They have wealth, they’ve seen American technology, and most from the upper crust of Saudi society visit Europe and have visited the United States. Many have advanced degrees from Western countries. Mohamed Atta, one of the pilots who destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001, had undergraduate and graduate degrees from Germany. How can he hold the contradiction of getting those degrees and seeing their benefits, yet wanting to destroy the culture that produced them? All I can say is that this goes to show the power of a simple, monotheistic, fear-based religion.
CB: Turning elsewhere in the Arab world, the Iranian regime relies on Assad’s regime in Syria to, among other things, transport weapons and aid to Hamas and Hezbollah for use against Israel. But now Syrian dissidents are calling for Assad to step down—and, of course, Assad and his thugs are slaughtering the opposition en masse. Although Obama entered the current war with Libya to save the rebels there from the wrath of Gadhafi, he has done nothing of significance to aid the rebels in Syria. What do you make of this, and what, if anything, do you think the United States should do with respect to the Syrian rebellion?
JL: Who can come up with a rational answer as to why it’s a moral obligation for us to protect civilians in Libya but not in Syria, or not, for that matter, Myanmar or Central Africa or Somalia or any other place in the world? In this case a coalition of European nations was willing to take such actions against Libya, and Obama felt safe going along with them, a feeling of safety heightened by the lack of American interests in the struggle.
By contrast, there doesn’t appear to be any such movement among other nations to move against Syria, which does pose a threat to us all. The fact is that Syria has been a leading sponsor of state terrorism for two decades at least, is a major conduit of ideas and weapons from Iran and other places of the world, and is home to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and other militaristic groups. Syria should have been confronted a long, long time ago. Yet we call Assad a reformer and a moderate, pointing to the fact that he wears a suit and tie and he was trained as an ophthalmologist, pretending that he’s not a dictator like his father. There’s a conceptual obfuscation at root that is showing itself in our failure to name him for the enemy that he is, and to name that regime for the enemy that it is.
It is tragic that since 2001 the United States has made no inroads against any of its major enemies. We have made no major inroads against Pakistan; if anything it’s been more radicalized. We’ve made no progress toward confronting Iran, which has become more radical. And we’ve made no inroads against Syria, which, rather than reforming under this relatively new dictator, has also become more radical. Turkey is also radicalizing. Meanwhile the Obama administration demands that Israel retreat. But that’s what happens when you fail to recognize your major enemies for what they are, fail to identify and state their true nature, and fail to act consistently against them.
CB: American politicians and pundits are calling for “democracies” in the various countries where dissidents are struggling to oust tyrannical regimes. What does history have to say about democracy, and what is likely to happen if and when a dominantly Muslim society embraces this alleged ideal?
JL: Well, democracy comes from the Greek word demokratia, which is a merger of two words: demos meaning people and kratos meaning power. Democracy is direct exercise of power by the people. The best example of true democracy was ancient Athens, where the people voted directly on all major decisions and their rule was final. In its modern use, “democracy” has come to mean a representative government in which the elected officials follow the wishes of the majority, rather than an Athens-style democracy.
So, what happens if we bring that system of government to a country whose dominant philosophy is, let’s say, radical Islam? Those people are going to elect officials who best reflect those views. We have direct evidence for this in Egypt in 2006 when President Bush urged Mubarak to make elections open and not to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood or prevent their candidates from running. The result in the provinces was a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. And after that, Bush got somewhat of a clue and toned down his calls for democracy. Mubarak meanwhile suppressed a lot of these people in order to keep the radical Islamic movements at bay. So there we have a great example of what happens if a people with a dangerous philosophy are given the power to rule directly or to elect representatives: They elect radicals who are destructive of individual rights and freedom.
Democracy, equated with the right to vote, does not equate to freedom. It can even be the worst enemy of freedom. Democracy in the Middle East right now in most cases would, from what I can see, be a very bad thing, because it would allow the radical population to elect radical leaders.
CB: What do you think we should advocate in these areas if not democracy?
JL: We should advocate freedom and individual rights. This comes down to a fundamental question: What is a foreign policy? A policy, as it were, is a general statement and commitment to certain goals, to certain principles on which those goals are to be attained. A foreign policy serves to integrate a nation’s values and its actions across a broad range of particular situations. It’s because the world is complicated and complex that that we need a policy. If the world were simple, we wouldn’t need a policy; we’d deal with each simple situation and be done with it. But the world is not simple. We need a policy; we need a statement of principles according to which we can integrate our values and our actions.
The last time I actually heard a foreign policy statement by a president—not one I agreed with, mind you, but a statement of policy nonetheless—was when President Bush proclaimed that the policy of his administration was to support freedom across the globe. Now, this policy was fundamentally flawed. First off, it was blatantly altruistic: Who says it should be our position to support the freedom of others? It’s not our job to bring freedom to the Iraqis; it’s our job to defend our own freedom. And then Bush didn’t fulfill his mission; the people who were actually advocating freedom got little support while those who were really enemies of the United States got a lot of it. Nevertheless, it was a statement of a policy and has the virtue of being discussable. I’ve heard no such statement of policy come from the Obama administration.
And the reason for that, I think, is the second major influence on foreign policy after altruism: the philosophy of pragmatism. The philosophy of pragmatism is not the philosophy of being practical. The philosophy of pragmatism, and by this I mean the philosophy enunciated by William James, says that the world is a flux of events, each of which you must deal with without generalized or abstract connection to any other event.
So, for example, we’re confronted with the problem of Libya. If our foreign policy were to preserve and defend American freedom, we would look and ask ourselves whether this action serves that end. We would then look at our policy toward the Middle East and the entire world and ask how we could preserve and defend American freedom. If we did that, we would realize that Libya has nothing to do with this, that our real interest lies in confronting our true enemies in the Middle East, which are Iran, Syria, and ultimately Pakistan to the extent that it is supporting these radical Islamic totalitarian movements, and in nations such as Saudi Arabia, which pays lip service to American interests while exporting totalitarian Islam all over the world.
But pragmatism says, “No, no, no, we can’t deal in abstractions: Every event is unique.” So we’re left with an approach to the world that we can’t even call a policy, because there are no principles uniting its components. The philosophy of pragmatism is profoundly anti-integration; it’s against connecting one’s thoughts and actions into a single coherent plan. It says deal with Libya as Libya is, then deal with Saudi Arabia as Saudi Arabia is, then deal with Iran as Iran is, but don’t look for similarities between them or principles to guide our actions.
The result for American foreign policy has been . . . well, look back to WWII. We armed the Russians to defeat Hitler, then we armed the Iranians to hold back the Russians, then we armed the Afghanis to oppose the invading Russians, then the Iranians got too strong so we armed Saddam Hussein to oppose them, then Saddam Hussein got too strong so we armed the Saudis to oppose him—in the meantime, arming holy warriors in Afghanistan to fight the Russians and arming the Egyptians in order to oppose this guy or that guy (and to prevent an attack on Israel).
It’s the philosophy of pragmatism that leads to such a disconnected, incoherent set of actions over time. And, as can be seen from this chain of actions, it is deeply detrimental to America and to America’s freedom and rights. The answer is to ditch the policy of pragmatism and its associated ideas—for example, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend—and to develop a foreign policy that supports and defends American freedom and American individual rights in both the short and long term.
CB: What would this kind of foreign policy mean with respect to the situations in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world today?
JL: It is difficult to overestimate, in my view, the profound impact that it would have upon the world for America to stand up and say, “We are going to defend American self interest,” and then to define that in terms of individual rights. One of the things we should do in the Middle East is give moral support to those who seek to overthrow regimes that oppose us. That said, I am deeply skeptical of arming any group in the Middle East (outside of Israel). We don’t know, for example, who these Libyan rebels are; it is completely pragmatic to give them arms, only to potentially find out later that they advocate a theocracy in Libya that fights against Americans. This is precisely what happened when we armed the Afghanis against the Russians: We found out later that they were radical Islamists and members of the hostile Taliban. But we should, at minimum, state that we will support morally all movements toward freedom and individual rights in the world today.
We should also offer full, unimpeded, trading freedom with nations that share our fundamental values. We should, for example, have free and open trade with the Canadians and Mexicans, both of whom are our friends. While ignoring our actual enemies, we’ve demonized the Mexicans as some kind of terrible threat to our jobs and culture. But we have much in common with them and should treat them as the friends and allies they are. And we should treat the Japanese, the Taiwanese, the Israelis, and most countries in Europe the same way. This would constitute an act of justice toward those with whom we share certain fundamental values. But this would also help develop mutually beneficial relationships with other countries, which could see the value in such a relationship with us. They need not agree with every decision we make, but disagreements would be between friends, not enemies.
But, most of all, we need to state to the world that our policy is to preserve and defend the freedom, lives, and rights of Americans. We would then gain friendship with those who deserve to be our friends. This would place a clear dividing line in the world between those who are our friends and those who are not, clarifying what it means to be a friend or enemy of America. And this would place enemy countries on notice that, should an action be taken against nonaggressive Americans in a foreign country, we will demand that the relevant foreign government track down those involved and destroy them or else turn them over to us. This would demonstrate that our actions match our statements—and that their actions match their claims. The integration of thought, word, and deed is crucial. Nowadays those involved in diplomacy are obscuring the nature of what we are and want, and, accordingly, our deeds don’t match our statements. For this reason, nobody takes America seriously anymore, and who can blame them?
The context of a foreign policy is the world at large in which we deal with other sovereign nations, sovereign in the sense that they each have a government that controls a certain territory, where we hold those governments responsible for what they do in those territories. And if they constitute threats or direct actions against American lives, freedom, and rights, then we should take action against them. Consider Iran: They have clearly stated the desire to destroy Israel and to destroy the great Satan, which is the United States. That places them outside the bounds of friendship to the United States; according to the proper principles of foreign policy, it makes them a target for America. Those principles won’t necessarily tell us whether we should bomb Iran or cordon it off and blockade its major ports, or impose an embargo. What they will tell us is that we should tell the Iranians clearly what we want, demand it, and convince them they will suffer terrible consequences if they don’t follow through.
That, I think, would be the foundation of a proper American foreign policy. And just note in passing that this is no different than the formulation of an American domestic policy. The same principle is at stake: A proper domestic policy would preserve and defend the lives, freedom, and rights of American citizens, wherein the context is at home with the geographic territory that the American government controls and takes the form primarily of police and courts.
CB: That’s a sensible policy many Americans, upon hearing, would agree with—in theory. But for some reason Americans don’t demand this kind of policy in practice. Why? What stands in the way of merging theory and practice to form such a principled foreign policy?
JL: First, note that the formation of a foreign policy is really the responsibility, a constitutional responsibility in my view, of American leaders. It’s not for the man in the street to define and vote on. So the question really is: What stands in the way of our leadership making such a policy, and what would stand in the way of Americans fully understanding it? First, we must at least follow such a policy at home, and note that currently we’re violating our own rights. We have airport screeners groping Americans’ privates, 70-year-old Americans in wheelchairs being patted down in search of weapons, all because we are unwilling to confront enemies overseas. So Americans are seeing their own rights deteriorating in action at home.
Many Americans have no idea what these rights are anymore. Ask most Americans what their rights are, and some will mention freedom of speech and, in the same breath, the “right” to health care or to a certain standard of living. In a speech a few years ago I heard a Republican senator say that the main purpose of government is to deliver services: not to defend rights, not to defend freedom, not to hold foreign invaders at bay, not to stop criminals, not to use retaliatory force against those who initiated it, but rather to provide services such as the post office and welfare checks.
These ideas spread enormous confusions, as we see in the Tea Parties today. I’ve seen signs at Tea Party events that say things such as “No to socialized medicine, hands off my Medicare.” But Medicare is government-run medicine—essentially socialized medicine—and the person holding this sign has an enormous confusion in his mind. Until such confusions are resolved, he will not be able to accept a decent, rational domestic policy in regard to health care—and the same goes for foreign policy. Having told him that our foreign policy should be to defend American freedom and rights, he will likely agree and then advocate helping the poor people starving in Somalia, on the grounds that when they’re starving they’re more likely to become enemies of the United States. There will always be people like this, which is why we need good leadership to help straighten them out.
A rational foreign policy cannot be the starting point of spreading a rational political philosophy in the country. Rather, it is properly the culmination or the result of such a philosophy being sufficiently accepted in the country. So there is a need for reeducating the American people as to the meaning of their founding ideals, the meaning of individual rights, and the purpose of government as a protector of those rights. And once that reeducation is underway, then it will become possible for them to understand the applications in particular situations.
Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t see how the United States can develop a rational foreign policy—and I don’t see any way out of the mess we’re in in the world unless such a policy is devised, publicized, and implemented. So let us spread the right ideas, in particular the principle of individual rights and the idea that the government’s job is to secure those rights; demand that our leaders act on these ideas; and anticipate the day when our foreign policy, like our domestic policy, flows from these principles.
CB: Thank you for your time, John. It’s been enlightening, as always.
JL: Any time; the pleasure’s been mine.