All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 1997

Global Interventionism and the Erosion of Domestic Liberty

Why Do Americans Accept Governmental Intrusions in the Name of National Security?

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

“Perhaps it is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provision against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.” —James Madison to Thomas Jefferson May 13, 1798

There is a tendency of many people to separate domestic and foreign issues. For instance, many supporters of the free market advocate government activism abroad. But categorizing issues as “foreign policy” or “domestic policy” can be artificial and misleading. Developments in one arena frequently interact with and affect developments in the other. Most analyses of this phenomenon have focused on how domestic attitudes and interests influence the style and substance of foreign policy. Less attention has been paid to the opposite phenomenon—the impact of foreign policy aims or requirements on domestic institutions and practices. Yet that feedback may ultimately have a more important impact on the health of American liberties. The foreign policy of the United States has obviously changed dramatically since “isolationism” held sway at the end of the 1930s. Over the past half century, the republic has acquired and maintained a host of global political and military commitments. Washington has linked America’s security to that of the other hemispheric nations through the Rio Treaty and has done the same with Western Europe through NATO. It has negotiated multilateral pacts such as ANZUS (with Australia and New Zealand) and concluded bilateral security treaties with such nations as Japan, South Korea, and Pakistan. Such formal arrangements, however, do not fully measure the extent of U.S. obligations in the world. The Truman Doctrine, promulgated in March 1947, pledged the United States to assist other nations confronting either external aggression or subversion by “armed minorities.” Washington attached no discernible geographic limits to that promise of assistance, and it served as the explicit or tacit basis for U.S. involvement in numerous Third World struggles throughout the Cold War. In the late 1950s, the Eisenhower Doctrine committed the United States to “secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence” of Middle Eastern nations from “any nation controlled by International Communism.” The so-called Carter Doctrine, proclaimed in early 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, made the United States the gendarme of the Persian Gulf. That commitment, which was fulfilled on a grand scale during the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-1991, remains in effect. In addition to the presidential doctrines, the United States has informal but real security arrangements with Israel and several other countries. All told, the United States is committed to help defend dozens of nations. Moreover, growing U.S. involvement in peacekeeping operations authorized by the U.N. Security Council (most notably in Somalia) and “out of area” operations conducted by NATO (as in Bosnia and Macedonia) is likely to increase the total. That expansion of obligations is most evident in the Clinton administration’s plan to enlarge the membership of NATO to include several Central European nations—and perhaps someday most East European nations as well. Five decades after the dawn of the Cold War, and more than six years after the end of that bitter rivalry, U.S. foreign policy remains interventionist on a global scale. This policy has had a pervasive impact on the Republic’s domestic affairs. In ways both obvious and subtle it has transformed the nation economically, socially, and politically. Some of those changes are unarguably positive. Concern about how America was perceived throughout the world—especially in the emerging nations of Asia and Africa, in which the United States was competing with the Soviet Union for influence—was a significant factor impelling political leaders to abolish the legal framework of racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. The odious Jim Crow system probably could not have endured in any case, but the fact that it was a liability to American foreign policy undoubtedly hastened its demise. Other domestic changes caused or at least facilitated by Washington’s policy of global interventionism, though, have been far less benign. The early twentieth-century social critic Randolph Bourne observed that “war is the health of the state,” by which he meant that governmental power inexorably expanded at the expense of individual freedom during periods of armed conflict. Robert Higgs’s seminal work, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (1987), documented that observation, showing how many of the powers now routinely exercised by the federal government were not acquired during such spasms of domestic “reform” as the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Instead, they emerged because of national mobilizations to fight the two world wars. Moreover, the New Deal and the Great Society were explicit attempts to replicate in peacetime the mobilization of human talent and natural resources that had occurred during wartime.

Enhanced State Power Remains

Even when the nation terminated its war mobilizations, a sizable residue of enhanced governmental power always remained. Manifestations of that “wartime” authority would later surface during peacetime—often in unexpected ways. For example, President Richard Nixon based his 1971 executive order imposing wage and price controls on an obscure provision of the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, enacted during the early days of World War I but still in effect decades later. These surviving wartime powers have also been an important factor in the permanent expansion of the size and scope of the political state. One “temporary” measure enacted during World War II was the withholding provision of the federal income tax. That device has had the insidious effect of disguising the true tax burden on most Americans by “painlessly” extracting the money from their payroll checks before they get an opportunity to see (and use) those funds. For such taxpayers the category of gross salary or wages is little more than a meaningless bookkeeping entry on their payroll check stubs. One suspects that citizens would be decidedly less willing to carry their current bloated tax burden if they had to write annual or quarterly checks to the IRS. Indeed, it is likely that there would have been a massive tax revolt long before the federal government began consuming more than a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. It seems more than a coincidence that the two groups that are not subject to the anesthetic of withholding taxes (sole proprietors and independent contractors) have most militantly opposed high taxes. A wartime innovation has thus become an important permanent building block of the leviathan state by continuing to conceal the real tax burden from most Americans.

Perpetual Crisis

Bourne’s observation about war being the health of the state is not sufficient, however. It is not only an actual state of war that creates the regimentation and massive violations of civil liberties he feared. An atmosphere of perpetual crisis and preparation for war can produce the same result. The creation of a national security state to wage the Cold War produced many of the same domestic problems and distortions associated with periods of actual combat in earlier eras. America has been essentially on a war footing for more than half a century, and the result has been a significant erosion of liberty. Perhaps most ominous, the end of the Cold War has not produced a retrenchment in either the nation’s foreign policy or pervasive garrison-state mentality. There are numerous examples of undesirable changes in America’s domestic system brought about by Washington’s global interventionist foreign policy. Waging the Cold War led to the creation of a large and expensive military establishment. Despite the end of the Cold War, military spending (currently $268 billion a year) consumes nearly four percent of America’s GDP. U.S. military outlays dwarf those of other industrialized countries. For example, Japan spends just $45 billion and Germany a mere $30 billion. Each American must pay more than $1,000 a year to support the military; the burden for each German is about $260 and for each Japanese about $240. That huge disparity is one tangible measure of the financial costs of sustaining a foreign policy based on maintaining U.S. global “leadership” and responsibility. In addition, government continues to guide the American economy in the name of national security, much as it would during a wartime mobilization. In marked contrast to the pre-World War II era, the national security apparatus wields considerable economic power. The emergence of multibillion-dollar defense firms whose principal (and, in some cases, sole) customer is the Pentagon is testimony to that fact. There are also restraints on commerce that would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. Embargoes have been imposed on trade with certain countries deemed to be adversaries of the United States—including such a mortal threat to American security as Burma. In addition to such formal sanctions, there exists a variety of restrictions on the export of technologies that the government decides (often arbitrarily) could have military applications or national security implications. The tug of war between the Clinton administration and the business community over encryption policy is only the most recent example. An interventionist foreign policy has not only facilitated the expansion of federal governmental power at the expense of the private sector, but has also produced ominous changes within the federal government itself. The conduct of foreign affairs during the Cold War enhanced the power of the executive branch to an unhealthy degree. Fulfilling global obligations placed a premium on the reliability of Washington’s commitments as well as the speed (and often the secrecy) of execution. The procedural demands of an interventionist foreign policy are fundamentally incompatible with the division of responsibilities and powers set forth in the Constitution and generally adhered to throughout America’s history. Extensive congressional participation in the foreign policy process involves the possibility of delay, the disruption of national unity, and the creation of doubts about the nation’s constancy.

The Imperial Presidency

Maintaining a global interventionist policy has led inexorably to the emergence of an “imperial presidency.” Chief executives have grown accustomed to using the military according to their personal definitions of the national interest, frequently without even the semblance of congressional consent. The congressional war power, stated in clear and concise terms in the Constitution, has become moribund. Harry Truman’s unilateral decision to commit more than 300,000 U.S. troops to the Korean conflict in 1950 remains the most brazen episode of the imperial presidency, but it was hardly the only one during the Cold War. Nor has such executive usurpation of the congressional authority over matters of war and peace abated now that the Cold War is over. The Clinton administration’s dispatch of 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia as part of a multilateral peacekeeping and nation-building mission confirms that the imperial presidency is alive and well. The consequences of interventionism are not confined to changes in the nation’s political and economic systems. Individual citizens find their liberties circumscribed in a variety of ways. Throughout most of our history, Americans routinely exercised the right to travel outside the country without having to beg permission from Washington. That has changed dramatically during the past half century. Foreign travel and participation in events held in other nations are no longer an inherent right of American citizenship; such activities are often used as pawns to serve foreign policy objectives. Certain countries are declared off-limits to U.S. citizens if Washington deems it in the national interest, and ostensibly nonpolitical events such as the Olympic Games have become tools of diplomacy. Americans whom the government brands as threats to national security are subjected to passport revocations and various forms of harassment.

Undermining Foreign Policy Debate

The garrison-state mentality fostered by an interventionist policy leads to practices that undermine both the legitimacy and the feasibility of debate on defense and foreign policy issues. Indeed, policymakers habitually regard public or congressional scrutiny as an obstacle to be avoided or removed. To thwart such oversight, they have sought to maintain a monopoly of information by misusing the secrecy classification system. Information that contradicts official versions of events or might cast doubt on the wisdom, legality, or morality of a presidential policy is kept from the prying eyes of potential critics. The cult of secrecy surrounding defense and foreign policy issues has evolved as an indispensable corollary of global interventionism. As Washington’s overseas commitments have grown, so too has the scope of information—including much that is essential to any public debate on foreign policy options—concealed from the American people and even their congressional representatives. Interventionism has not only encouraged foreign policy elitism and secrecy, but has also promoted a pervasive intolerance of alternative views on national security issues. Too often, dissent has been viewed as synonymous with disloyalty. The McCarthy era in the early and mid-1950s was the most infamous example of an intolerant loyalty crusade, but it was hardly unique. Precedents for what became known as McCarthyism were established during and immediately following World War I as well as the period just before American entry into World War II. Moreover, the Truman administration utilized the politics of loyalty even during the earliest stages of the Cold War to quash dissent. The practice of smearing and harassing foreign policy critics did not expire with the junior senator from Wisconsin. The FBI, the CIA and other intelligence services, and even elements of the military conducted sophisticated programs to spy on, disrupt, and discredit opponents of the Vietnam War. And they usually did so with the full knowledge and approval of high-ranking officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Disclosure of such tactics led to reforms designed to prevent a repetition, but events during the Reagan years indicated that those changes were largely ineffectual. Evidence surfaced that opponents of the administration’s Central America policy were routinely harassed by agents of the Customs Service and the FBI upon returning from trips to that region. Even more disturbing were revelations that the FBI secretly investigated the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) for more than two years despite a dearth of evidence that the group was engaged in any unlawful activities. Congressional allies of the Bush administration smeared critics of the Persian Gulf War as apologists for Saddam Hussein.

Managing the News

Because dissent is often equated with disloyalty, the national security bureaucracy has waged a determined effort to co-opt, intimidate, and exclude the press on foreign policy issues, since members of the news media who question the logic of policy decisions or the veracity of officials raise doubts about the wisdom of U.S. globalist strategy, thereby sowing division among the American people. That is especially true of those individuals who dare to penetrate the veil of secrecy and reveal evidence that might discredit that strategy. During both world wars and the first two decades of the Cold War, the government primarily sought to enlist the press as an instrument of the nation’s foreign policy, and did so with considerable success. (Although officials preferred to stress co-option, even in those periods the threat of intimidation, exclusion, and outright censorship lurked in the background.) As the press became more critical of U.S. policy during the Vietnam War, confrontation increasingly replaced co-option. During the Nixon administration, reporters who published stories based on leaked classified information were threatened, together with their sources, with prosecution for espionage. The alleged authority for such prosecutions was a statute, passed in the initial stage of World War I, that was aimed at preventing spies from giving militarily relevant information to enemy governments. A campaign to treat embarrassing disclosures as a form of espionage re-emerged during the Reagan and Bush administrations, and the government scored an ominous legal victory by successfully prosecuting defense analyst Samuel Loring Morison for the “crime” of leaking classified information, not to a foreign government, but to Jane’s Defence Weekly. In addition to resurrecting that technique of intimidation, the national security bureaucracy found an ingeniously effective method of stifling hostile press coverage of military operations. When the United States invaded the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada in the autumn of 1983, the Pentagon simply barred the media. For more than 48 hours, the government enjoyed the luxury of exercising absolute control over information about a significant and controversial military operation. In so doing, it established a tempting precedent for an exclusionary policy to be invoked in similar—and perhaps far larger and more prolonged—interventionist enterprises. Indeed, when U.S. forces invaded Panama in December 1989, the techniques used in Grenada were applied again, albeit in a slightly more subtle fashion. Reporters were delayed and kept away from the scenes of military action and were instead given guided tours of such important sights as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s pornography collection. Government manipulation of the media reached its apogee during the Persian Gulf War. Military officials herded reporters into organized pools monitored by “public affairs” personnel and barred them from attempting to reach front-line areas on their own. Meanwhile, correspondents were fed a steady diet of briefings (i.e., propaganda) by the military, replete with videotapes showing the clean-kill capabilities of smart bombs and other high-tech U.S. weaponry. The press corps became little more than a transmission belt for the Pentagon’s version of events. Consequently, the American public saw astonishingly little of the bloody reality of the war (especially the extent of Iraqi casualties) and learned even less about the complex roots of the Gulf crisis. The politics of loyalty, the pervasive cult of secrecy, and governmental attacks on the press all have one thing in common. They have the effect (and perhaps the intent) of hobbling public debate on both the substance and the execution of U.S. foreign policy. A strategy of global interventionism, to be effective, requires domestic unity and conformity. Those requirements run directly counter to the values of political pluralism and unfettered debate so essential to the maintenance of a democratic system. An interventionist foreign policy promotes the growth of a centralized and remote political structure, creates economic regimentation, and undermines a variety of civil liberties, especially freedom of expression. Another ugly manifestation of interventionism was the policy of conscripting young Americans into the military and sending them off to fight in distant wars. That infringement on their liberty was exacerbated by the fact that most of those struggles were murky geopolitical conflicts that bore little if any relevance to America’s vital security interests. Many of the unfortunate conscripts returned home maimed in body or mind; many others failed to return at all. The military draft became an important device to sustain an interventionist strategy in both world wars and throughout the most virulent stages of the Cold War. It also became the quintessential symbol of the domestic regimentation that global interventionism promotes. It is no coincidence that ardent global interventionists are usually among the most relentless supporters of efforts to restore conscription, either directly or in the guise of a more comprehensive national service system.

“For the Security of the Nation”

Perhaps the most corrosive domestic effect of Washington’s interventionist foreign policy has been on national attitudes. Americans have come to accept governmental intrusions in the name of “national security” that they would have ferociously opposed as blatant power grabs in earlier eras. Politicians gradually learned that the fastest way to overcome opposition to schemes to expand the state was to portray initiatives as necessary for the security of the nation. Sometimes such reasoning has been exceedingly strained. The statute that first involved the federal government in elementary and secondary education was titled the National Defense Education Act. Similarly, the legislation funding the interstate highway system was the National Defense Highway Act. It is surprising that the sponsors of Medicare didn’t fashion their bill as the “National Defense Elderly Care Act.” Not only has the national security justification been cynically used to defuse opposition to mundane welfare state and traditional pork-barrel initiatives, the rhetoric of war has come to dominate the national discourse to an unhealthy degree. We have seen the “war” metaphor used promiscuously, including Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, Jimmy Carter’s Energy War, the war on drugs, and more recently “wars” on cancer and illiteracy. Language matters, and the fondness for such rhetoric is a revealing and disturbing indicator of how deeply the garrison-state mentality has become entrenched. The adverse domestic consequences of global interventionism raise serious questions about the future of individual liberty in the United States. At the dawn of the Cold War, social commentator Garet Garrett warned that America could not indefinitely remain a republic at home while taking on the trappings of empire abroad. He noted a fundamental contradiction between the desire to play the role of global policeman and the objective of maintaining long-standing American traditions of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty. Garrett’s warning is even more applicable today. Americans are rapidly reaching the point where they must confront a stark choice. Either the United States will adopt a more circumspect role in the world in order to preserve domestic freedom, or that freedom will continue to erode (perhaps beyond the point of recovery) to satisfy the requirements of a globalist foreign policy. That choice will determine not only how the United States is defended but whether this country retains the values and principles that make it worth defending.