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Beware of Allies

October 17, 2000

“Target: America.” “Terror in the Middle East.” “Sneak Attack.” “Act of War.” The hysterical headlines were routine. An American destroyer was the target of a suicide bomber in the Gulf of Aden, 17 American sailors died, and the media had a big story. How would the president “respond”? (And which candidate would gain?)

Bill Clinton pledged to “find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.” We’ve heard these words so many times, and in this case those who were responsible seemed to have died in the blast. They made themselves accountable in the most direct way.

[Breaker quote: A 
greater threat than our enemies]But nobody really cared. Ordinary Americans know perfectly well that they weren’t the targets. A warship, allegedly “their” warship, was. They are vague about why their “defense” forces are scattered all over the globe, but they understand that it’s none of their business, really. These foreign policy decisions are made by committees of experts in some Washington office, prattling of “U.S. interests,” meaning their own. The rest of us aren’t invited to sit in on the meetings. In a democracy, the people are allowed to vote. They have no say in running an empire.

The bombing of the USS Cole wasn’t a “terrorist” attack. That’s just the word Madeleine Albright automatically uses to express her disapproval, in the apparent belief that she can scold her enemies into behaving themselves. No, this was an attack on a military target. The bombers — the “terrorists” — probably had no help from or association with any government.

When governments bomb, it isn’t “terrorism.” Terrorism is a private-sector affair, usually employing homemade materials. Part of its essence is that it’s officially unauthorized. American and Israeli bombs that fall on civilian populations aren’t considered terrorist, but counterterrorist.

The devilish thing about private, unauthorized violence is that the target country’s government doesn’t know whom to retaliate against — or, as they say, “respond” to. Of course it can pretend it knows and unload a few bombs to display its “resolve” and “determination,” but this is only a gesture. An empire can’t afford to look helpless.

There are no fleets of Arab destroyers off the coast of Florida, no Chinese fleets off San Diego. There are American fleets around the world, and they aren’t popular. Now and then an incident reminds us of this. And the usual moral is drawn: “The world is still a dangerous place.”

Yes, it is, if you go around asking for trouble. And that is what the U.S. government does. There is nothing “defensive” about its enormous military system, at a time when we face no military threat whatever. The only enemies we have are the enemies our government continues to make for us, particularly by meddling in the Middle East. And even so, those enemies can do little damage to us at home; for the most part they can only strike our military and diplomatic targets abroad, though that may change.

Countless people are “anti-American” in the sense that they don’t want to be ruled or bullied by this country and its allies and clients; but they aren’t anti-American in the sense that they would wish us ill, let alone try to hurt us, if we minded our own business.

The wisest foreign policy is simply to avoid making enemies. That should be too obvious to need saying, and it used to be this country’s policy. It was called neutrality. But we abandoned it and got into two world wars that created bigger problems than those that caused them.

After World War I, many Americans drew the appropriate lesson: stay out of foreign wars. They are now censured as “isolationists.” That’s what you get for having learned from experience.

But isolationism died at Pearl Harbor, when the foolish Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt his wish by plunging Americans into a war frenzy. So far, fortunately, the “terrorist” attacks haven’t disturbed our slumbers. Our enemies are real but puny. But our extravagant military supremacy makes war seem a more remote possibility than it really is.

It’s not so much our enemies as our allies that we should worry about. Some of them want war, and they will never rest until they can provoke our enemies into provoking us.

Joseph Sobran

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