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Live and Let Die

A call to end liberal imperialism.

by James Leroy Wilson
November 21, 2001

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Live and Let Die_James Leroy Wilson-A call to end liberal imperialism. Did you ever wonder why the Marshall Plan in post-World War II western Europe succeeded where virtually all other foreign aid has failed to bring about stable economies and democratic regimes? Or why Gen. MacArthur's dictatorship of Japan after the same war helped build what would later become an economic powerhouse?

In both Japan and Germany, the problem was with the regime itself, but not with the people accustomed to hard work and stable social structures. The people were proud, with an ethic that refused to see themselves as victims of their conquerors. Wanting to pick up the pieces and move on from the wreckage of war, the people of Japan and western Europe did just that and have existed as peaceful allies of America. In short, these people were civilized, needing only a regime worthy of them. On the other hand, when foreign aid of any sort is given to cultures already addicted to state handouts, institutional corruption, and arbitrary, tyrannical rule, failure can be the only result.

It's for a similar reason that economic sanctions worked against the apartheid regime in South Africa but failed in Cuba, Iraq, and virtually everywhere else they've been tried. In South Africa's case, it was the nature of the regime that made the government vulnerable to the pressures of economic sanctions. For while blacks had no vote and fewer rights than whites, within the context of those who did enjoy full citizenship it was clearly a "democratic," liberal government, not an arbitrary dictatorship. Such regimes allow the possibility of a far-sighted, reasonable man like F.W. deKlerk to rise to legitimate power. Sanctions can't and don't work against barbarous dictators, because they are half-measures to depose those in power. Such rulers use the resources they have to keep themselves in power and pass the punitive effects of the sanctions on to the people. In South Africa, the regime structure was civilized, whereas the laws and social structures were not.

It is for this reason that hopes for a liberal transformation of the Islamic world through benign aid even as we fight the "War on Terrorism" are unrealistic. I fail to see either civil government or a working civil society in many Moslem nations. What we see is a temptation of the people in many countries to extremism - provoked by regimes whose corruption is disguised as "moderation." Previously in the PO I recommended ground invasions of enemy territory, in which major reconstruction of public services and civil institutions would give the people incentive to weed out terrorists from their midst. That may yet be our best option.

But what if it doesn't work? Our occupation might itself be seen as a form of national humiliation. Indeed, our military presence in Saudi Arabia is precisely what Saudi expatriate Osama bin Laden finds revolting and humiliating.

There is one more option, and it is a course which we should pursue whether we win or find ourselves unable to win conclusively. That option is retreat - retreat from foreign entanglements altogether.

Let's face it: we did not have to fight World War I, and in no way can it be said that the world is better off by our involvement. It led to a chain of events, including the rise of Nazism, and the expansion of the Soviet Iron Curtain, which led us into one epic and two other bloody wars, not to mention far worse bloodshed and genocide suffered by other countries. But as of 1990, with the Berlin Wall down, Communism defeated in Central America, and the Soviet Union on its last legs, a grand opportunity presented itself to America to withdraw from a bloody world it helped invent. Then, the Iraqi Army of Saddam Hussein, a former ally, conquered Kuwait, with oil-rich yet vulnerable Saudi Arabia right next door.

Hindsight is 20/20. At the time, I believed that anyone who supported the very idea of the United Nations had to support this war. For if a UN-recognized sovereign country like Kuwait could be invaded by another UN country, what was the point of the UN? I still agree with that. Where I differ is that in 1990 I supported the UN as the last, best hope for world peace, but now, I don't believe there is a last, best hope for peace. All I see now is maintaining peace for ourselves through military strength and preparedness.

And this war is a direct result of our involvement and continuing presence in the Persian Gulf. A presence with one seemingly noble goal of checking Hussein, but also with another, self-interested yet also "benign" goal (because it affected the world economy) of maintaining a stable oil market. Which leads us to an uncomfortable truth: one reason we do not yet have cheap, efficient alternative fuels is that corporations, confident in the security of the oil supply, found no reason to get off their butts and discover or invent some. By protecting corporate oil interests abroad, government actually interfered in America's free enterprise system and stifled innovation. We're at war now because we decided to go to war 11 years ago when we didn't have to.

That Madeline Albright cliché "democracy and human rights" is a pale imitation of the genuine American principle of liberty. But in any case, just as British (and Spanish, and French, and American) imperialism failed almost every time to bring about stable, civilized, and democratic regimes once their foreign colonies became independent, so is it also true that liberal ideas can not be exported through force or through international organizations. It is a contradiction for governments to impose liberty on a people. The people must desire it and fight for it themselves.

If other countries fail to respect human rights, that's not our problem. If sovereign territory that is not ours is invaded, it's not necessarily our problem. We should let our laws allow individuals to send money, arms, or themselves to fight in any foreign conflict they see as morally just. But I can't, anymore, tell my neighbor's son that he should go bomb a Serbian bridge and wreck the lives of thousands of people, and call that advancing "human rights." Nor could I force him to breathe sand in a far-off desert land and tell him that cheaper fuel is worth his life. Advancing the cause of liberty means limiting government's power, not letting it loose to dominate the world. And liberty in poverty is always preferable to slavery in prosperity anyway.

I know, I know. If we give in and retreat now, we'll just encourage the terrorists further. Fine. Let's try to defeat these terrorists. But after that, call it quits on the world. If other countries want to trap themselves in cycles of barbarity and destruction, let them. Give them the chance to do that while we pursue liberty-loving ways at home. Once they see how America works in freedom, instead of how it works through threats and brute force away from its shores, maybe their opinions will change about us and about themselves and the sorry state they're in. Change can only come from within.

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