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I can forgive a man who loses his temper, but to lose one’s temperance lock, stock, and barrel? That is a damnable offense. Without a sense of moderation, even the most courageous and prudent man will fail in his quest for justice and may even become that which he wishes to destroy.
Yet, “moderation” has come to mean something wholly different than temperance in American politics. Rather than restraint, American moderates insist our shared classically liberal ideals call for the prodigal spending of our wealth, as well as bellicose and bloody actions abroad — not only on behalf of the American people but also on behalf of the liberty of all people on the face of the earth.
“Human rights exist above the state and beyond history. They cannot be rescinded by one government any more than they can be granted by another. They inhabit the human heart, and from there, though they may be abridged, they can never be extinguished,” writes Senator John McCain in an op-ed for the New York Times, wherein he chastises Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for suggesting the United States government cannot always act simply with its ideals and values in mind.
That the U.S. must show restraint — a sort of realist, “first do no harm” foreign policy in advancing its ideals with the many diverse nations around the globe — McCain considers to be a type of retreat of American values that can only lead the oppressed peoples of the world to despair that America is no longer their champion.
“Our values are our strength and greatest treasure,” McCain writes. “We are distinguished from other countries because we are not made from a land or tribe or particular race or creed, but from an ideal that liberty is the inalienable right of mankind and in accord with nature and nature’s Creator.”
Yes, John, America purports to stand for universal human rights and the liberty of all, but does this love of liberty require us to threaten and actually wage war as long as there are monsters abroad to destroy?
Does our zeal for our libertarian ideals really behoove us to be forever tilting at windmills? Or, could this Quixotic quest actually be counterproductive to spreading the seed of liberty around the world?
Could the love of power and the constant the use of fear and force to advance liberty, in fact, pervert the cause of liberty?
The Perversions of War
Aggressive wars, even wars prosecuted in the name of liberty, have a way of sowing discord and devastation, both abroad and at home. The loss of life, the wasting of wealth, the destruction of social institutions, and the corroding of the commercial, liberal, limited government spirit — these are only some of the effects of war.
War should be a last resort not only because of its costs in terms of blood and treasure but also because war always requires the sacrifice of liberty, e.g. today’s intrusive surveillance state. Furthermore, we should be wary of liberty becoming synonymous with American military intervention and global rule (even under the imprimatur of the “international liberal order.”)
Are we truly prepared to say the bloody military misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, and beyond represent America’s best ideals? Or, were these wars for democracy and human rights really just another episode of Americans, as Aldous Huxley observed of politics long ago, exercising their will to power dressed up by political gentlemen in the noble toga of American ideals?
Changing Hearts and Minds
No, liberty needs much more than tough talk and the toppling of tyrants to blossom. We must recognize that the spontaneous order of a free society cannot be built by war or centrally planned by Washington D.C. Liberty must first occur in the hearts and minds of foreign peoples themselves before they are encouraged to rebel.
As John Adams noted of the American revolution:
“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations …This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
Whether it be Russia or Saudi Arabia, North Korea or Syria or China, many tyrannical governments operate based on cultures going back centuries. It will be largely up to their own people to effect the change needed in their cultures and political institutions. America’s role in this struggle must be to serve as an example of a free society, as well as a well-wishing persuader. How tragic it would be to see those with a revolutionary zeal for liberty, in losing their temperance, give into an imperial mindset and use of imperial means.
Liberty has never been something to be imposed by immense, let alone imperial power. We would be foolish to think simply cutting the head off the snake (or threatening to do so) will usher in new Jeffersons, Franklins, and Paines in foreign lands. No, such societies, when thrown into the maelstrom of war, tend not to be incubators for liberty, but rather, fertile ground for vengeful and power-hungry tyrants in waiting. Accordingly, we must be patient in our efforts to bring liberty to all.
As Rex Tillerson said to Marco Rubio in his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state regarding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia:
“I share all the same values that you share and want the same things for people the world over in terms of freedoms. But, I’m also clear-eyed and realistic about dealing in cultures—these are centuries long cultures, cultural differences. It doesn’t mean we can’t affect them and affect them to change. In fact, over the many, many years that I’ve been traveling to the Kingdom, although the pace has been slow, slower than any of us wish, there is a change underway in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. How and if they ever arrive at the same value system we have, I can’t predict that….what I wouldn’t want to do is to take some kind of a precipitous action that suddenly causes the leadership in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to have to interrupt that.”
Dare I say, what a temperate stance by the now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. If the United States acts too brutishly on the world stage, we may very well experience an unwanted, illiberal backlash. In the future, it may serve Tillerson well, at least for the sake of eloquence, to recite a well-known presidential sentiment to neoconservatives such as McCain and Rubio, that,
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Beware the American Colossus
In the meantime, Senator McCain and his ilk should be wary. If the United States government continues as it does today, bestriding the narrow world like a colossus, it will most likely be stabbed through the heart by daggers inscribed with the nation’s founding principles, the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” shedding salty tears of blood from sullied steel. I worry an American Colossus — full of dissonance, full of sound and fury, full of fear and vaunting — will not inspire a love of liberty but a fear and resentment of America’s power.
Indeed, Senator McCain, we can see the world for what it is and then seek to make it better, but we must first keep our temperate wits about us, else our courage, prudence, and passion for justice and liberty for all may very well turn us into the monsters we seek to destroy.
Written by Joey Clark