The Power of Independent Thinking


Stay Connected
Get the latest updates straight to your inbox.

The Empire Has No Clothes
October 28, 2004
Ivan Eland


David J. Theroux
Founder and President, The Independent Institute

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux and I’m the President of the Independent Institute. I want to welcome you all to our Independent Policy Forum this evening.

The Independent Policy Forum is a regular series of lectures, seminars and debates that we hold here at our conference center in Oakland and elsewhere around the Bay Area, and around the country for that matter.

Our program tonight, as you know, is entitled The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed. And our speaker is the foreign policy expert Ivan Eland, who is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. He’s author of the new book by the same name, and this is a copy for those of you who have not seen it yet. We certainly hope that you’ll buy a copy before you leave.

In his book, Dr. Eland examines U.S. military interventions around the world from the Spanish-American War to the war in Iraq.

Those of you who are new to the Independent Institute, hopefully you picked up a packet when you registered. The institute is a scholarly public policy research institute. We complete studies and produce books and other publications on a wide range of social and economic issues, including foreign policy issues and civil liberties issues.

The institute is devoted to adhering to the highest standards of independent academic inquiry. We welcome you to visit our website, which is at And at the site you’ll find information about upcoming events, new books, and many different studies. I think you’ll find it’s a treasure-trove on almost every issue there is.

Most Americans don’t think of their government as an empire. But, in fact, the United States has been steadily expanding its control of overseas territories since before the beginning of the 20th Century. Now increasingly through political intimidation and with the existence of over 700 and expanding number of bases worldwide, the U.S. holds sway over an area that dwarfs the great empires of world history.

The war in Iraq has produced, as many of you know, now almost 1,200 U.S. dead, at least 7,000 injured, an estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilian dead, costs approaching $200 billion—many of you may have noticed there’s a proposal now to add another 70 billion to that—and no weapons of mass destruction.

Since the U.S. has launched its war on terror, the number of terrorist incidents worldwide has dramatically increased, and the U.S. is hated more than ever. As a result, a growing number of Americans are beginning to question U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast, and elsewhere, and we believe that Dr. Eland is an excellent person to discuss these issues.

How does the concept of empire fit with the principles of liberals, of conservatives, or people of no particular ideological orientation? What about the issue of so-called blowback and its effect on security and civil liberties at home and abroad?

At our policy forum this evening, Ivan will examine the motives behind U.S. foreign policy, the assumptions on which it is based, and a tradition of ideas, including that of the Founding Fathers’ vision of what a free republic should be and should not be.

Dr. Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty here at the Independent Institute. He received his Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He’s been principle defense analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, Evaluator in Charge for National Security and Intelligence for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

His articles have appeared in more publications than I can list, but include Arms Control Today, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, Middle-East and International Review and others, as well as popular publications like the LA Times, USA Today, Washington Post and so on. And he regularly appears on local and national television.

One thing I also wanted to add is that on the 17th of this month, Ivan was invited to Italy to receive the Medal of the President of the Italian Republic from Mikhail Gorbachev for his work. And he was among a number of people to receive the medal, but his distinction is something that we’re very proud of. So Ivan? [Applause]

Ivan Eland
Director, Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute

Thank you, David. First of all I’d like to thank everyone at the institute because everyone had a part in helping me produce this book or market it or provide the office and everything to write it, and the scholarly environment. So I need to thank everybody for that. And it’s been a real pleasure to work with everyone on the book.

I’m just the author, but you have to have cover design, you have to have marketing, you have to have press, and on and on down the line. And so everyone at the institute has helped me in this endeavor and I’m much grateful to them for that. And I don’t want to list names because I’ll leave somebody out, so I’m just going to thank everybody at the same time because everybody had a part in it.

Now, the reason I wrote this book is because there have been a number of books on empire, and this term “empire” has been resuscitated because for many years people who used the term “imperial” or “empire” to describe American foreign policy were regarded as far-left, communist, etc.

But now, with the dawn of the Bush administration and the people who have influence, the so-called neoconservatives, they have used this term in a positive sense. They have said the U.S. has an empire, but they said that’s a great thing.

And in fact, I disagree with almost everything the neoconservatives stand for, but in the dark cloud of the neoconservatives, there’s a silver lining to that, and that is that they’ve now joined the debate, I think, by using the word empire, because it is accurate, I believe, to describe the U.S. foreign policy, particularly since World War II.

It started, as David mentioned, with the Spanish-American War in 1898, but then we went back into more sensible foreign policy in periods after that. There was a backlash against the empire, and the true global empire came after World War II.

Both conservatives and liberals, the majority of both the conservative and the liberal side, believe in this empire. There’s a minority of liberals and conservatives and others who are opposed to the empire.

And I want to convert more people to the non-imperial side, to a policy of military restraint overseas. It doesn’t mean that you don’t ever take military action, but it means that you’re much more restrained, and you adopt a policy that’s more in concert with what the founders of this country, who were very suspicious of large standing armies—a policy which they would be more approving of, which of course, we’ve gotten away from.

What does the empire consist of? I go into this in the book. Do we really have an empire in the technical sense?

I don’t like to spend too much time on this because people fall asleep. But I did examine the empirical literature, the academic literature on the subject. And even by fairly tight definitions of empire, the U.S. does qualify.

It’s not the same as the Roman Empire or the British Empire where the troops marched in, they grabbed territory, they looted the precious metals, like the Spanish did, the gold and silver, or with preferential trade treatment with the colonies, one-sided trade arrangements like the British had. Or the Romans grabbed slaves—they grabbed all sorts of stuff from these territories.

We don’t have that type of an empire per se. Ours is a much more informal empire consisting of military bases around the world, one-sided alliances where the United States provides most of the security for many countries around the world, and of course, profligate military interventions into the affairs of other countries.

And I was looking at a book that was written the other day about U.S. intervention around the world, and it was easier to count the number of countries we hadn’t intervened in since World War II than it was the number we had. I mean, if you look at it as an American, most Americans aren’t aware of this, but there’s just been a tremendous amount of monkeying around, either through CIA covert action, or overt military action in many countries around the world.

And so I decided to write this book because I think that liberals, conservatives, and all Americans should ask themselves if this policy really isn’t out of date now, now that the Cold War is over, and that sort of thing.

So this informal empire, in my opinion—most empires didn’t really pay for themselves. They were done for glory. And it’s mostly for glory of certain groups in the society. And the common people usually pay the price in high taxes, and many times with their lives, because of the imperial wars that are conducted to either maintain or expand the empire.

And I think our empire is more like ancient Sparta than anything else, where we have a loose control over our allies. We control essentially most elements of their foreign policy because they don’t—our objective is, and this is now pretty well stated in the National Security Strategy, that we’re trying to provide security so that other countries, including our allies, won’t develop independent military capabilities. And our adversaries, we’re trying to intimidate them from challenging us by having so much military power that it would be fruitless to do so.

Of course, that’s never worked over history, and it’s probably unlikely to work now. But anyway, that’s the strategy of primacy that we’re now seeing.

The problem is that this military primacy, and most primacy and power, is based on economics, how healthy your economy is. And frankly, our large military budgets undercut that. And I’ll discuss that a bit later.

But I think this is a misguided policy. And this empire has resulted in many ill effects, both internationally and here at home.

Now, I don’t blame America for everything. I’m not in the Blame America School. But I just think that we should be wiser because our policy, to me, is out of date. We’re still on autopilot from the Cold War.

After the Cold War was over, one would think that we would have questioned some of these alliances that we had—which were designed to fight the Soviet Union—and we would ask ourselves if some of our rich allies couldn’t pay more and do more for their own defense.

But instead we’re expanding the empire. Clinton intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo. This region of Europe was never considered vital, even during the Cold War when the Soviet Union was still there. And now, of course after the Soviet Union is gone, we’re now involved in this area, the Balkans area.

Clinton also went into Somalia and Haiti. And of course Bush’s father went into Panama, invaded Panama, and I’ve never really understood why they did that, other than an imperial notion that Noriega was a small dictator that was tweaking the administration’s nose at the time.

And now, of course, we have the war on terror being used to go beyond fighting Al Qaeda to go into Iraq, to re-establish our alliance with the Philippines, to go into Georgia, which is in the former Soviet Union, to Yemen; to go into other places, to increase the drug war in Colombia, etc.

So our empire is expanding even as the primary threat, the Soviet Union, went away. And in fact one can say that it looks like, just on paper, that we’re moving into areas that the Soviet Union previously had. We also used this war on terror to go into Central Asia.

Now Central Asia is an interesting place because it’s in between China and Russia, two countries that we might want to contain in the future. So we now have temporary bases in Central Asia, but they look like they’re going to become permanent bases.

So we have this empire. And it was originally justified to fight the Soviet Union, although if you look at the historical documents, you’ll see that the leaders of the United States admitted that they overstated the Soviet threat.

The Soviet Union was very powerful militarily, but the real problem—and this brings back my point where all power, cultural, military, other types of power, all flow from having economic power. The Soviet Union was always referred to as an Upper Volta with missiles.

And, of course, that’s what eventually caved the Soviet Union in was over-extension. They had too much military spending and their communist economy creaked along and wasn’t very effective at all.

Now, I’m going to talk about U.S. overextension later, but let’s keep that example in mind of excessive military spending and—wow, that’s very ambiance. [Laughter]. Yeah, turn those back on. I don’t want anybody to fall asleep. [Laughter]

I’m going to start with the conservatives. There’re probably conservatives, liberals, libertarians, and greens here. We usually get a pretty eclectic crowd, so I’m not going to leave any side uncriticized here.

Why Conservatives Should Be Against Empire

So I’ll start with the conservatives. Why should conservatives be against empire? Conservatives were more against empire before, during, and after World War I. In fact, they were really principally the ones who were against this sort of thing. And the reason that they were, and they’ve kind of lost sight of that, is because military incursions and adventures overseas lead to big government at home.

And I’m not just talking about national security spending. We all know that after 9/11, security spending went up. I’m talking about domestic spending.

The permanent big government in the United States really didn’t start until World War I. Of course, we had some big government in the Civil War, but it kind of went away, it was kind of temporary. Some of the things lasted. And the income tax was revisited later.

But the real big government started in World War I. And the reason for that was that was the first war that mobilized the entire U.S. economy.

So conservatives often blame FDR for creating big government, but really they should blame Woodrow Wilson, because Woodrow Wilson was the one who created the war economy. And when the New Deal came along, FDR merely brought back a lot of these agencies, renamed them, and even brought back some of the people to man them.

And, of course, in World War II the government increased even more than during the New Deal. So we can say that in the 20th Century, and really for the history of the world, war has led to big government. It’s an us-versus-them mentality. Resources go from the private sector into the government.

I’ll give you a modern example. In the modern presidency, let’s say since 1960, the top three spenders—and I’m not talking about national security spending, I’m talking about domestic spending—the top spender was Lyndon Johnson. The second highest spending president is our current president. I’m talking about domestic spending. The Republicans are supposed to be for small government, right? And of course the third was Richard Nixon.

Now, what do those three presidents have in common? Well, they all had a long war in their administration. Bush had the war on terror, and of course Johnson and Nixon had the Vietnam War.

Now, there are other presidents who spent less—Reagan, Carter, Clinton. Those presidents had sporadic military actions, but had no long war. So even in the modern era we see that domestic spending rises.

An example would be when the President, our current president, said after 9/11, “Well, we have to—.” He was justifying this huge farm bill and beef subsidies, and he said, “Well, beef subsidies are a national security item because, after all, we have to eat.” [Laughter] He said that.

Now, it’s very difficult to believe the administration on anything else when they come out with this. So I kind of stopped believing what they were saying at that point.

Now, of course, when you have big government, you have high taxes. The President has reduced taxes, but it’s really a fake tax cut, because you still have the spending. You’re going to have to pay for that spending somehow. They’re either going to have to raise taxes, if you continue to borrow you’re going to have high interest rates, etc. So there ain’t no free lunch, as Ronald Reagan said, so big government leads to big taxes.

So certainly the war alone is staggering. I was just in Washington, and I talked to the guy who actually keeps track of the cost of the war, and he said we’re spending at really a higher rate than in the press. It’s about $80 to $90 billion a year, and he said it might even stretch to $100 billion a year. That’s absolutely staggering for a small war in a small country.

So if you have big government and high taxes, you’re also going to have a drag on the economy, because you have all these resources that are being taken from the private sector and put into less productive military spending.

Conservatives are often free market until it comes to defense spending, and then they seem to be very pro-government. And if domestic spending is bad for the economy, in their view, then war spending should be the same because it’s government spending.

So there are all sorts of financial reasons why conservatives ought to be a little bit leery of the empire.

But one thing that’s really, I think, a non-financial issue: many conservatives are Great Power conservatives. They want the United States to stand tall, be tough, etc.

However, we have a problem in that most empires over history have either been lost due to a direct military defeat, such as Nazi Germany or imperial Japan, or if you’re remembering World War II, even the people who won the war, some of them—France and Britain—lost their empires.

And they lost their empires because the war sapped their financial strength and they simply were worn out by the wars. And they lost their empire because they were over-extended.

So we have a big economy and our defense spending is about 3.5 percent of GDP. That’s the defense budget itself. When you add the Department of Energy, and nuclear weapons, you add foreign aid, you add veterans’ benefits, you add interest on the debt that you have to count for all the money that’s borrowed for defense, you actually come up with about double that. We’re spending probably about $800 billion on security. Oh, and Homeland Security as well, which has been increased recently to $40 billion per year.

It’s running about 7 percent of GDP for security expenditures.

People say, well, we could probably still afford that. It’s a tremendous drag on the economy, even the 7 percent. However, I think it’s worse than that, because we have commitments all over the world to defend NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Israel, and Taiwan. Some of these are informal alliances, some of them are formal alliances. Most of them are left over from the Cold War. And make no mistake about it—they’re not going to be defending us, we’re going to be defending them.

So what we have here is a case of where we account for about 40 percent of the world’s military spending, but only 30 percent of the world’s economic power or GDP.

Now, we’re constantly referred to as a superpower or a hyperpower. And we’re certainly the most military powerful force the world has ever seen, both absolutely and relative to other countries. However, we’re really not a superpower economically, because there are many competitors that are closer to us in economic power than in military power.

So this 10 percent, the 40 versus the 30, is what I call overextension. And we have all these commitments

So it’s not just the 7 percent of GDP that’s spent on defense and other security-related expenses. It’s the overextension and the commitments that we could have.

We’ve got troops in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. Our President really complained that Clinton was over-stretching the force, but the current president is really over-stretching the force, and these are just two small countries that are taking troops from South Korea, and they’ll probably take troops from Europe to go into these areas, because, frankly, it doesn’t look good in either theater for our forces at this point.

So we have to be careful, I think. Even Great Power conservatives should be a little careful because overextension, as I say, has brought down many empires. And we’re very overextended at the time, and I think we could even, at some point, lose our great power status. If you would have said to a Brit in 1913, when the British empire was pretty much at its height, that in 30-some years the British empire would be flat on its back and Britain would be barely a middling power, they would have laughed in your face. But that’s exactly what happened.

And we see throughout history that the cycles of empires are shortening up. In other words, the life of empires is shortening up, and the British empire lasted 100-plus years. Our empire has lasted 50 years. Who knows? But we’re certainly in an overextended position right now.

The other problem that I have that I think that conservatives should be a little careful of is the unintended consequences of war. War is very unpredictable, as we’ve seen in Iraq.

And for instance, in the Cold War it seemed like a great idea in Afghanistan in the 1980s—the Carter administration started and Reagan administration picked it up with glee—supporting the Mujahadeen against the Soviet Union. We wanted to give the Soviet Union another Vietnam. Sounded like a great idea at the time. Afghanistan was never really all that strategic.

But what seemed like a great idea back then helped create one of the few severe threats to the homeland of the United States in the country’s history. So we have to be careful of these things, and war often unleashes a chain of events that’s very unpredictable.

Why Liberals Should Be Against Empire

Now, if all you liberals are sitting in the audience saying, well, yeah, that’s right, I’m now going to start in on you for a while. [Laughter] Liberals get enamored with humanitarian interventions and we have quotes around the “humanitarian,” or at least I do, because many of these interventions are not very genuine.

I’m limited on time here, so I’ll just give a couple of examples. And I’m going to use Clinton as an example, but there have been Republican presidents who’ve done the same thing.

Clinton is the modern champion of the number of interventions, major interventions. He intervened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, and Somalia. And I would say that three of the four were not really humanitarian. Somalia was probably the only humanitarian intervention in the last 100 years, and I’m about to get to that in a minute.

But what we see is that politicians don’t wake up one morning and say, gee, I feel like kicking ass today. Maybe they do, but they don’t say that publicly, right? [Laughter] So they have to come up with something else, right?

So Bill Clinton in 1995 came up with the idea that he was going to restore the democratically elected president Aristide in Haiti, and he was going to help the Haitians out. Of course, the U.S. military has been helping the Haitians out for about a century now, and the place seems to just get worse.

Actually the U.S. military has helped destroy—well, I shouldn’t pick on the military. It’s been the political administrations that drive the military to do these things. But the interventions helped destroy many of Haiti’s institutions.

But in this particular case, the rhetoric was belied by the fact that there were streams of boat people coming over to Florida because of this instability. And of course the Florida congressional delegations were very unhappy with that. And of course, as we know, Florida’s a key electoral state.

So we can only infer motives in this case, but it seemed like there were other things going on there besides just humanitarian missions. After all, if you wanted to be humanitarian, I would have just taken in the refugees. Much simpler.

So that’s one example of where humanitarian interventions are not usually genuine. There may be a humanitarian strand in there, but it’s very questionable as to whether these things are actually being done for humanitarian reasons.

The other interesting thing is that in the truly mammoth genocides that we’ve seen, the U.S. and the Western world have not really been very effective in doing anything at all. Rwanda, 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed. In Cambodia, in the 1970s, a million people were killed.

And we see that at the time of the Rwanda episode, we were intervening in Bosnia, which, in comparative terms, was minor compared to what was going on in Rwanda.

But Bosnia was in Europe, and we perceived Europe as being much more strategic than Africa. So Madeline Albright said, well, we’re going to have to pick one or the other. And so we picked Bosnia instead of Rwanda.

If we’re intervening for humanitarian purposes, and that’s the real motive, then we probably should intervene in the most severe cases, one would think, if that’s the logic. So the fact that we haven’t done that, the United States hasn’t done that, is very suspicious.

Now, let’s take the Somalia case because I think that was a genuine humanitarian intervention. The original mission was to safeguard the relief supplies and provide military escorts for the relief supplies that were going into Somalia, because Somalia had a famine.

The problem was that once we get into these situations, oftentimes the military gets dragged into one side of the civil war or the other, and that’s what happened in this case. And we started chasing around warlords, what we call mission creep—the mission expands once we get in there. And of course that led to 18 U.S. soldiers being killed, and of course, the U.S. abruptly withdrew and left the place much the way it was, if not worse.

Now, the same thing happened in Lebanon. We went in there for peacekeeping, but we started fighting on one side of the civil war, supplying, patrolling with the minority Christian government, and of course, the Islamic forces didn’t like it, so they blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut.

So the other problem that we have with humanitarian missions is that the American people really don’t support military missions overseas unless this has some demonstrable benefit to our security. And the politicians know this.

Now, let’s take the case of Kosovo. President Clinton learned a lesson from Somalia—and his lesson was instead of not doing these things, he decided that he was going to do them, but not put troops on the ground.

Well, if you think that’s kind of half-baked, it kind of was. And in Kosovo, the primary mission—and Wes Clark who was the general at the time admitted this—the primary goal in Kosovo was to reduce U.S. casualties.

Now, you say, well, that’s a laudable goal. We don’t want our soldiers getting killed. But the problem with that is we end up killing a lot more of the people that we’re trying to help, because Clinton wouldn’t let the bombers go below 15,000 feet. Well, when you bomb from a higher altitude, you kill more people, innocents. And so what you’re doing is you’re implicitly trading off the lives of U.S. servicemen for the lives of the population.

Now, nobody likes to be confronted with that tradeoff, but that is essentially what the tradeoff is. And the reason that we need to reduce U.S. casualties is not—of course, we care about the soldiers’ lives, but also the politicians know that if we take too many casualties, if there’s problems, if the war lasts longer, there’s not going to be support for it at home.

And so the politicians try to have it both ways. They want to do these military interventions, but they don’t want to go in and take the casualties necessary to win.

I would argue that that’s what’s happening in Iraq. If we really wanted to take Fallujah and Ramadi and some of these towns, we could do so without killing a lot of people. But we would have to up the U.S. casualties, and of course, this war is now more unpopular, faster than Vietnam was.

So these are some of the problems that you have with these so-called humanitarian operations. And so in the book I explore alternatives to military action in such cases, preventative action in the developing world that could raise incomes, and maybe the use of regional peacekeepers, these sorts of things, regional organizations.

There are many alternatives. But we seem to reach for the military first in these situations, and in reality, we should make more of an effort to try to prevent these through other means, economic development, that sort of thing.

The other problem is when we try to take democracy and free markets to countries at the point of a gun, it rarely works. And neoconservative Max Boot, who is really for doing this, admitted that we hadn’t had a very good track record in the developing world. The neoconservatives always point to Japan and Germany, but I don’t want to go into the details here, but that’s a much different situation than we have in developing countries.

So what we have, and Iraq is an excellent example of it, the rationale, or at least the rationale after there were no WMD and there was no link to Al Qaeda, was we’re going to democratize Iraq, and the domino theory of democracy is going to democratize the Middle East.

Well, the problem with that is that when you bring democracy and free markets at the point of a gun from top down, it’s very difficult to restructure an entire society.

The Bush administration has been criticized for mismanaging the occupation of Iraq, and that’s certainly true. They have been guilty of that. But the real problem is that they thought they could do it in the first place.

And they had studies that showed that this is going to be very difficult. And frankly, the first Bush and Scowcroft wrote a book in the late 1990s saying, well, we didn’t invade Baghdad because—and then they proceeded to list all the problems that we’re now having there.

So restructuring societies is very difficult, and imposing our values on those societies, as great as our values are—the problem is that many of the countries, the people don’t know that democracies and free markets are really nice and really bring a lot of benefits. And what happens is they associate the democracy and the free market with foreign invasion and occupation.

I guess it’s sort of like a neighbor coming over to your house, barging in, and saying, “You know, I never liked the color of this room. I just hired a bunch of decorators to come over and remodel your dining room.” Even if they’re bringing in fancy furniture and you really like what they’re doing, you’re going, “No. This is my house and I didn’t ask for this.”

It’s a foreign invasion, and people don’t like that. And they associate democracy—and I think it’s going to be associated—with foreign invasion and occupation.

Most experts who study these things say that you have to develop a culture for this before you get the system in place. I mean, our laws are just a reflection of our social culture, our political tolerance, and that sort of thing. And we don’t have that culture yet in Iraq.

And I’m not saying that the Iraqis can’t eventually develop it, but I think they need to develop it on their own and we need to use the Eastern European model, whereby the people saw the U.S. as a beacon of liberty, knew our values, and adopted them on their own.

We may have to realize that we have this crusading mentality. We may have to realize that some people are going to take awhile, and that we don’t get instant gratification by using force to spread our way of life.

And we’re not the first empire to do this. The Romans and the British also had these ideologies. They didn’t just say we’re going to go in and conquer and plunder. They said, we’re bringing our form of governance, which they thought was superior, to those people.

And they may have had some superior forms of governance for the time, but this was not appreciated by the conquered peoples.

Now, I want to move into why everyone should be concerned with this. And I think this is the greatest drawback of empire that we can have, and it’s probably the least discussed in the press.

Why All Americans Should Be Against Empire

Empire leads to the erosion of the republic. The Roman republic was brought down by empire, and the Athenian democracy was undermined by overseas military adventures.

Now, what really happens? War always erodes civil liberties, every war we’ve ever had, because it lead to an us-versus-them mentality. If you’re not for the war, you’re unpatriotic, etc. And we’ve seen this in the war on terror with the USA PATRIOT Act and other erosions of civil liberties.

And of course this has happened in other wars as well. During Vietnam we had the FBI and the Army spying on domestic protest groups. So we really have to be careful that we don’t end up ruining the republic with too many overseas military adventures.

Now, how has the republic been eroded, you ask? Well, if the founders came back today, they would see a much different system than the one that they conceived. In the old days, they figured that Congress and the states would be the most powerful in the system, the most powerful entities.

But now, ever since World War II, we’ve developed an imperial presidency. The president’s power has grown immensely. Part of this was in the Cold War when we thought that we needed instant decision-making in the case of a nuclear war, but it actually goes beyond that.

So we have this imperial presidency. Now Congress no longer declares war. This had gone out of fashion. Starting with the Korean War, we no longer declared war.

And the founders would just be appalled with that because one of the major tenets of the Constitution was that the Congress, the people’s branch, declared war.

And the reason they did that was because they saw in European states at the time, who were all ruled by kings, that the kings would launch these wars of personal aggrandizement. And who would end up paying the price? The people, through high taxes and through loss of their lives. And they thought that if we go to war, the king or, in our case, the Chief Executive or the President, should not be able to take the country to war by himself, or herself, and therefore we needed to have Congress declare war.

Well, now we have presidents—and the first President Bush stated before the Persian Gulf War that he didn’t really need to ask Congress for a vote of authorization, but he would do so as a courtesy.

Well, the founders would just be appalled with that because they wanted to rein in the executive. And it’s very clear in the Constitutional debates that the president was supposed to execute the war once it was started, but that the Congress would declare war. In fact the president only had the power to initiate war in self-defense, and even if the country were attacked, the Congress, at the earliest possible date when they could meet, would need to ratify that. And so in any offensive war, which means war overseas not in defense of the country, that certainly had to be declared by Congress well in advance.

So these erosions of the balance of power between the branches and the checks and balances system have been great. Since the empire has been created, the imperial presidency is very powerful now.

One other thing. Another reason that everyone should be concerned is that empire is not necessarily security. The government is supposed to be protecting the citizens, yet the behavior of the government often is as a result of interest groups or the interest group of the government itself. And so government may not necessarily in all cases have the security of the people as its primary goal.

Well, all empires have experienced blowback. And the problem now is that the blowback is much more severe because we have people who are willing to commit suicide, and they can use modern communication and transportation to do so. And of course modern weapons, whether they be airliners or conventional explosives which were stolen from the bunker in Iraq, or biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons.

It’s very clear—and this has been very muddled up in the press—the primary reason that bin Laden attacks the United States is because of its foreign policy. And he has consistently in his writings listed about four different things—and this applies to Chechnya, Palestine, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf: in the Islamic faith, if a non-Islamic army invades your country, every Muslim is obligated to do what they can to repel the invader. And even moderate Muslims believe this.

Of course bin Laden is at the extreme, and he is very exorcised by the fact that the United States has a military presence in the Persian Gulf and also supports autocratic governments in the Middle East.

The question is, do we really need to do that anymore? And certainly I believe that we ought to go after Al Qaeda very, very aggressively, but we can do that through law enforcement. We can do it through intelligence. And if we have to, we can sometimes use military action, but probably in a more quiet way so we don’t stir up the hornet’s nest.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done in Iraq. The President says, “Well, we’re fighting terrorists in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here.”

Well, I used to go to the Pentagon all the time and speak with military people. And I had some of them tell me, yes, this is the way we’ve got to do it, the best defense is a good offense.

So I said to them, well, yes, but terrorism is a little different. That’s fine with a conventional enemy. You want to hold the enemy as far away as you can from the homeland. But in the case of terrorism, the terrorists can get behind enemy lines, so to speak, and come right into the core of the system and attack the United States.

So what do you do? Well, you go after the terrorists that attack you, but you don’t stir up other groups by attacking them. And most of the groups on the U.S. terrorism list don’t really focus their attacks on the United States. And most of them are local or regional groups.

So when the President says we have a war on terror, I don’t believe in that. I believe in a war on Al Qaeda. And going into Iraq was exactly what bin Laden wanted Bush to do, because guerillas and terrorists are the weaker party, and when they hit the other side, they want the stronger party to overreact, so that the terrorists and guerillas could get more funding and more volunteers.

And of course we see volunteers streaming to Afghanistan against the Soviets. We see them streaming to Chechnya to fight the Russians. We see them now streaming into Palestine to fight the Israelis. And of course, we see them streaming into Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the United States.

So I say that what we really need to do is, in the long term after looking at this, what we need to do is we need to lower our target profile, meaning that when we decide whether to intervene militarily overseas, we need to consider, are these people really attacking us, and is this going to stir up more than it’s going to help? So we need to address that fact.

Now, during the Cold War, you could make some argument for intervention because of the Soviet enemy. Now, that’s, of course, controversial, and that’s probably a topic for another lecture, whether we really needed to go into Vietnam and go into backwaters like Afghanistan to battle the Soviets. But I suppose you can make a better argument for intervention during the Cold War.

Now the Cold War is over, and the advantages of all this intervention have gone down since we have no super power enemy. And in my view, the costs have gone up because you stir up groups that can attack your homeland.

So terrorism has gone form being a nuisance to being a strategic problem. And when John Kerry says he’d like to get it back to a nuisance, I don’t make fun of that because it was a nuisance at one point and it would be better if it would go back to that. We’ll probably never get rid of terrorism, but we could certainly reduce it.

And the problem is we have a huge country. It’s the largest open society in the world. We have 7,500 miles of borders. We have over 100 nuclear power plants. We have thousands of shopping malls and sports stadiums. We’re very target-rich.

And I think anyone who has worked in the intelligence community will tell you that—and they’ll tell you very publicly—that they can’t be perfect. And also all the Homeland Security expenses that can only do so much as well with all these targets.

So I think we need to address the question of whether we couldn’t lower our target profile by reducing our military interventions, by reducing our military bases, etc., overseas.

This doesn’t mean isolationism. People say, well, you’re an isolationist. And I say no, I’m not, because I believe in free trade, free cultural exchanges, etc. I just don’t believe that we need to have such a militaristic policy.

It’s very interesting. In this day and age, even the liberals are militaristic because whenever you have a humanitarian crisis, immediately you have people like Madeline Albright saying, well, gee, we’ve got this marvelous military, let’s put it to use.

Chalmers Johnson has written in his book on empire—he’s a liberal—he said liberals have become very militaristic. And they really have, along with the conservatives.

So I think we need to look at other options before we rush into these things because certainly there are other alternatives.

We also need to ask ourselves when we intervene, who is this benefiting? Because we always get this, “well, this is in our vital interests” or “we’re getting U.S. influence.”

Well, I’m a very specific person, and when we have a military intervention, I want to know specifically what’s this going to do for us. Is this a national glory mission, or what’s the story? It’s costing us money, and it may not be improving our security, especially the Iraq endeavor. So we need to be a little less knee-jerk in our approach to things.

And fundamentally, as I mentioned earlier, most empires of old didn’t even pay for themselves. The classical economists of the 1700s told the British government, basically, this empire doesn’t pay for itself because if you just had free trade with countries, you paid the price for oil, in the modern sense, or paid the price for whatever commodity, you come out ahead. Because the price of oil, the price of gasoline, as high as it is in your tank, they’re not telling you the full price, because you have to pay for all those military forces over there that are defending the oil.

So the true price of these things is not conveyed to the public. The classical economists said to get all this preferential trade treatment and to stabilize these trading areas, you have to spend a lot of money on military power, and you have to spend a lot of money pacifying peoples who really don’t want to be governed. And I think that would apply to the current Iraqi situation.

So I believe basically that our foreign policy is out of date and dangerous. We’ve gone on, the policy has gone forward after the Cold War, but the Cold War enemy is gone.

And if you thought that the empire was set up to battle the Soviet Union, the one thing that goes against that is that after the Soviet Union went away, the empire expanded into all these other places, in addition to the fact that you have American policy-makers saying that the threat from the Soviet Union was overstated.

So I think we need to consider all these things. If I’m criticizing the current policy, I need to come up with something better. So I would say we need to use the military as a last resort. We need to protect high-value areas of the world as a last resort, and gear up in East Asia.

But we can be the second line of defense. In every theater that is important to the U.S. government at this time, we have rich allies who are threatened by poorer countries. For instance, in Europe—if you want to call Russia a threat, which it’s probably not right now, but that’s what everyone’s looking to the future—if Russia would come back.

You have the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany. Each has a gross domestic product that’s bigger than Russia’s. In the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has a gross domestic product that’s bigger than either Iran or Saddam’s Iraq. And if you put the other Gulf oil states in there, it goes up even further. Their total economic power is much higher than either Iran or Saddam’s Iraq.

In South Korea we have a situation where the South Koreans have an economy that’s 30 times that of the North, and yet we’re defending all these countries.

So if we say that the empires of old didn’t pay, ours is even worse because we don’t get to go in and loot the countries. We don’t get to get slaves. We don’t get gold and silver. And we don’t even get preferential trade treatment. Not that we want slaves in this day and age, of course, but I’m just saying we don’t get anything from our empire, and in fact, our allies won’t even open their markets for us.

So what do we get? Well, we have our leaders getting to be in the center of the summit photo. We get national glory. But the taxpayers are really paying a lot for this. And of course, we would use these resources for other things.

So what we could do is go more towards what I call a balanced or a last-resort strategy, which is you use your allies to do most of the heavy lifting, and they should because the European Union has a combined economy that’s bigger than the United States, all the countries in the European Union. They could do more to defend themselves and be the first line of defense.

If they’re about to be taken over or a hegemonic power arises, such as a resurgent Russia, certainly the United States would probably have to get involved, but the European Union has a lot of economic power there, and there’s no resurgent Russia in sight at this point.

And in the other area, China, of course, we have Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea who could perhaps create a regional alliance that would act as the first line of defense against China, with the same provision that if China becomes another imperial Japan, the United States would probably have to go along.

We have to watch China. No one knows for sure if China’s going to become a threat or not. And if China becomes a democracy, it still could become a threat. And if China stays an autocracy, it may not become a threat. So we don’t really know what China’s going to do.

Now, you’ll notice that I left off the Persian Gulf, because I don’t really think we need to defend oil, and I think many economists would agree with me. Unfortunately, the national security community does not consult economists because that would take away a rationale for having those forces that we’re defending there.

But I don’t want to dwell on that. In fact, in the question and answer session we might we able to get into that. But I think that we need to start questioning these overseas alliances because these are alliances where we defend rich allies. They do not defend us.

So my general philosophy of life was best expressed by General Zinni, who opposed the war. He said the United States should make few enemies, but those that it does make it should treat harshly. And I think that we need to avoid making enemies, and so, hopefully, we won’t have too many people to treat harshly. Certainly Al Qaeda’s one group that we can’t overlook.

But my foreign policy goes back to the founders, and this is the traditional U.S. foreign policy. The last 50 years have actually been an aberration, because for the first 175 of our country’s history, we had this policy of military restraint. For most of the republic, we had a very small military, and a lot of those resources went into the building the colossus of the U.S. economy that we now have.

And I think the founders realized one fundamental thing that our current leaders didn’t understand. And that is that we have a very unique security position here. In terms of conventional attacks by conventional armies, we have two great moats, or two great oceans as moats.

We have weak and friendly neighbors. And since the founders, we have thousands of nuclear warheads. No one’s going to attack us or invade us—well, invading is pretty difficult.

We had trouble getting across the small body of water in between France and Britain during World War II, let alone across the Pacific. But even conventional attacks, we would incinerate any country that did that.

So what do we need to worry about? Well, we need to worry about terrorism. And certainly, I’m all for fighting terrorists that attack us. But I think if we stayed out of unnecessary military adventures, we would make fewer enemies. And I think we have the luxury of going back to the founders’ policy of using military restraint.

And people say, well, how can you advocate that in an interdependent world? Well, the world is more interdependent in communication and transportation. But in certain aspects of security, it’s not more interdependent. It’s less interdependent. In fact, cross-border aggression has been declining for decades.

And there are a couple reasons for that. The first one is that the nuclear weapons, which I just mentioned.

And the second is nationalism. Great powers are more hesitant—at least smart great powers—to go into countries because they know no matter how powerful you are militarily, it’s hard to govern people that don’t want to be governed. And I think we’re seeing that to a great extent in Iraq.

So the cross-border aggressions are really the wars that we have to worry about in terms of security, not internal civil wars. And of course, these have been declining.

And we have this unique security position, a uniquely favorable security position, that we’ve always had. And it’s still valid in the modern era, and perhaps more so with nuclear weapons.

Of course, the terrorism is a problem, but terrorists can’t be deterred or are harder to deter. But if we don’t stir the hornet’s nest unnecessarily by going on excursions like Iraq, which I equate to—well, an analogy would be if the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis declare war on you, and you go attack Romania—because that’s exactly what we’ve done.

We attacked a minor threat, and we’ve left the major threat, which is Al Qaeda. We transferred Special Forces and intelligence from Afghanistan to Iraq. There’s no question about the fact that we have a powerful U.S. military, but there are certain assets that are scarce. And those are some of the scarce assets.

The other problem is these excursions take policymakers’ attention, and they bog you down so that you’re ineffective. And of course the big thing is that bin Laden has gained a couple of new recruits. Zarqawi in Iraq, and the Algerian groups, who were local, are now folding in with Al Qaeda. So he’s picking up these local groups.

So I think I’ll stop there. And I think the United States should be a shining example to the world, and I think we best do that by only intervening militarily where we absolutely need to. And we can be a beacon of liberty, and perhaps then we can spread democracy to the world. It may go slower, but I think we’ll have a lot less problems in doing it, and people will accept it in the long run much better. Thank you. [Applause]

David J. Theroux

Thank you, Ivan. As you can see, he covered a lot of material, and there’s a lot more that we can talk about. So just pause for one second while they change the videotape. Those of you who have questions, Alice has the microphone. And if you would hold the microphone horizontal, it’ll make it a little easier to be picked up.

Does anybody have a question? Yes?

Audience Member

There was a program on PBS. on the Iraq War and about the beginnings of the Bush administration wishing to invade Iraq. And apparently Wolfowitz was pushing for that very early on. And I’m wondering if you have any idea why he particularly wanted to invade Iraq, because they didn’t talk about the reasons why.

Ivan Eland

Well, Paul Wolfowitz, for people who are unfamiliar, is the Deputy Secretary of Defense. And he’s really the architect of the Iraq strategy. And he is part of a group of what we call neoconservatives. And they’re essentially big-government conservatives. They’re not like more fiscally conservative groups. They’re for both big government domestically and overseas.

And I think one of the main things they want to do is to keep the U.S. as the number one country, the primacy doctrine. And also I think they want to help Israel. They think they’re helping Israel.

I’m not sure they are helping Israel because if this all ends up in a civil war, they may not have helped Israel at all. But many of them, I think, are very pro-Israeli and they thought they were helping Israel by doing this.

I’m not saying that was the only motivation for the invasion, but it certainly wasn’t one of the three that they listed. The weapons of mass destruction—now, everyone thought, or many people thought that Iraq had both biological and chemical stockpiles of weapons. No one thought they had a nuclear weapon, but he was going towards that. That was the consensus. And I went from that basis before the war. I was against the war.

But one thing that I thought was the most interesting in the lead-up to the war is that Bob Graham, who’s the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had the CIA declassify part of this report. And it reached a conclusion that even if Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, he’d be unlikely to use them or give them to terrorists unless he was backed into a corner.

And I thought, the President’s own CIA is saying this, and yet it was a story that made the press for two days and then everyone forgot about it. So we have these official rationales.

The second one was this link between Al Qaeda and Saddam, which of course has never been proven, and the intelligence community was always skeptical about that as well. But the neoconservatives kept pushing this. And, of course, the third one is to democratize Iraq—well, bring democracy and free markets.

But if you go by the actions of the U.S. on the ground, in terms of the weapons of mass destruction—when they got to Iraq they didn’t safeguard any of the facilities with weapons of mass destruction. So that would probably tell you that that wasn’t the primary purpose of it.

In addition, if we’re taking democracy and free markets to Iraq—we’ve cancelled local elections, we’ve censored the press, and we’ve given no-bid contracts. So there’s no free market there. So up to this point, the United States hasn’t really done a very good job in doing that.

And I think also the State Department did a study just before the war that said if Iraq had an election, it would most probably elect an Islamic government that the United States wouldn’t like. So, I mean, the stated reasons never seemed to match up.

In addition, the real threats—if this was an imminent threat, the problem was even if Saddam in a worst case had nuclear weapons—I always say the weapons of mass destruction issue to me really never made any sense at all, because even if Saddam in the worst case had nuclear weapons, he would have a few nuclear weapons.

Well, North Korea’s already got a few nuclear weapons, and Kim Jong-il is certainly more erratic and quirky, one might even say weird—[Laughter]—than Saddam Hussein was. Yet we can negotiate with him, but we couldn’t negotiate with Saddam.

In addition, both Iran and North Korea were much further along in long-range missiles that could hit the U.S. and nuclear programs. In fact, as I say, North Korea already had nuclear warheads.

But even if Saddam had gotten these few nuclear warheads, I mean, the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads and it deterred radical Maoist China when they got them in the ’60s, deterred the Soviet Union. We didn’t adopt a preventative strategy against the Soviet Union or against China. And we let Pakistan become a nuclear power. And Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the whole world because they have a fundamentalist population, and if they would overthrow Musharraf, they would have nuclear weapons. So the threat things didn’t really make any sense.

Audience Member

What role did oil play in the motive to go to war with Iraq?

Ivan Eland

Well, I think oil is always in the background. The two pillars of our Middle Eastern policy are oil and Israel. And I think Paul Wolfowitz even admitted on a couple of occasions that Iraq was different because of oil. In justifying the invasion, he said, “Well, if we go into Iraq, we can get out of Saudi Arabia.”

Which tells you something: that the U.S. government knows that when we’re in Saudi Arabia that that helped cause 9/11, and I think they wanted to get out of Saudi Arabia so they had to have bases near the oil in the Persian Gulf, and Iraq was a substitute for Saudi.

But we can only speculate as to why they went. But it didn’t seem to me that the reasons that were given added up. Almost all of them, just one after the other, has fallen through.

Audience Member

There are so many threads of what’s going on in modern-day society that would support all of what you said this evening. And of course it would be best if we could revert back to what General Washington said in his farewell address: Be friends with all countries and trade with them, but be impartial.

One thing that I’ve read about the Iraq situation is that the United States government has imposed an income tax and social security numbers on the prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And this is kind of a rhetorical question if you don’t know, but if they have in fact done that, to supposedly spread democracy, who’s collecting money?

Ivan Eland

I don’t know anything about that. I don’t think they’re probably making any money to tax. [Laughter] We have another—right here.

Audience Member

I would like to get back to the concept of the imperial presidency. And I think that it did start around World War II. And I’m wondering if events happen in the modern scene so rapidly that it’s very, very difficult to wait for Congress to debate certain threats that occur here or there throughout the world. My example is Truman and Korea.

I was with the first Marine division that landed at Inchon in Korea. And by the time that we got there, most of Korea had already been conquered by the North Koreans. And although China entered the war as well and trapped our division around the Chosin Reservoir, those soldiers were first-class fighting people, and they did a lot of damage, particularly to the 8th Army.

And so on one hand Truman did a great thing. He acted. And if we had waited for Congress to act, we probably never would have gone into Korea. And I’m wondering if you would comment on the rapidity of events that happen in today’s world that require very fast action. And maybe the imperial presidency, although I’m against it, is a natural outcome of that.

Ivan Eland

Well, I think first of all we’re talking about Korea and not an attack on the United States. And shortly before the Korean War there were documents that the JCS—the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and the Pentagon, they had planning guides, etc., which had basically written South Korea off as coming under Soviet influence, since it’s so close to the Communist areas. And then when the North Korea attacked, everyone went, oh, my God, we’ve got to do something about this.

you’ll remember that we said that it was outside our defense perimeter. We made the same mistake in Iraq. If we really wanted Iraq to stay out of Kuwait, we wouldn’t have told Saddam, well, we don’t get involved in inter-Arab territory disputes. I mean, we made the same mistake in Korea in 1950 as we did in 1991 in the Gulf War.

So we’d have to decide if these things are strategic and take preventative measures, or we have to say that they’re not and don’t do anything.

And I think the founders really knew that if the country was under attack—and I think the Constitutional debates reflected this—or imminent attack was about to happen, the President did have the authority to do what was needed.

And in fact Thomas Jefferson did that very thing with the Barbary Pirates. They were attacking our ships, and Congress wasn’t in session, so he sent the fleet. But after Congress got back into session, they gave him a resolution saying that he could employ this U.S. naval power against not only the country that was attacking us, but all the Barbary states if they had to.

Now, with the advent of nuclear weapons, you have 30 minutes for a missile to fly from the Soviet Union, or Russia, to the United States. The problem is we don’t really have any defenses against missiles, so it’s very hard to activate the defenses. These things that Bush is putting in the ground to show that he has missile defense, they simply don’t work, not yet. I mean, maybe they never will.

So nuclear weapons technology does affect things, but certainly if the United States is under attack, I think, or imminent threat of attack, the President, under the Constitution, in the original meaning, has ample authority to go ahead and do something. But if you’re launching an offensive war overseas, that requires, at least according to the founders, a declaration of war.

Now, we’ve moved away from that. Even in the Korean case, Truman went up to the Congress and said, “Do you think I should ask for a declaration of war?” And the Congress told him no. Or at least, not the Congress but the Congressional Committee chairman. So there was plenty of time even then for the Congress to ratify.

And certainly if emergency matters need to be taken, the President has the authority to do that. But the President doesn’t have the authority to attack other countries without a declaration of war. And I think the founders would really bridle at any suggestion that that was the case.

Certainly the nuclear weapons, I think, had a role in leading to the imperial presidency. But the question is, could we have avoided that? And I think we probably could. Even with nuclear weapons, we need to respect the founders’ intent.

And frankly, nuclear weapons, as bad as they are, they’ve cut down the number of cross-border wars. So the problem is: if they are used, you’ve got a big problem then. But actually nuclear weapons have restrained wars simply because they’re so terrible, so technology is a two-edged sword in these things.

But I still think the founders’ conception of if the President needs to take emergency actions to defend the country, not to defend another country, then that’s fine. But the problem is that it can be abused if you’re talking about defending this and that overseas.

I just want to make one more point, and that is what you’re talking about is a preemptive attack. Say you see our intelligence picks up that there is a foreign power or even a terrorist about ready to attack us. Certainly the President has a right to preemptive action to defend the country. There’s no doubt about that. But the problem is, Bush’s doctrine is not really a preemptive doctrine. It’s a preventative doctrine.

He invaded Iraq to prevent a future threat down the road. And no one in the international community, I don’t think, would criticize a country for taking preemptive action. If you think you’re going to be attacked because you pick up the fact that the enemy is taking ammunition to the front, or whatever they’re doing, it’s foolish to sit around and let them do that.

But the problem with the preventative war doctrine, which is really what the doctrine is, not preemptive war, is that it can be abused. And that’s why the international community is so unnerved by Bush’s action in Iraq, because he termed it a preemptive action, but there was no evidence that there was an imminent threat. Saddam didn’t even have nuclear weapons and nobody really thought he did. And if he did, he didn’t have the missiles to get them to the United States.

So I think we need to be careful when we distinguish these things, and preventative war is much different than preemptive war. OK. Let’s go over here.

Audience Member

I think we’re all pretty clear on what President Bush’s continued policy in Iraq would be. What would John Kerry be able to do differently? If we pull out, it seems like we’ll create a void where maybe an insurgent government would come in. What options would John Kerry really have to make a difference in that area?

Ivan Eland

Well, I think it’s an illusion that there probably will be a different policy. But, I mean, my book is not aimed at criticizing the Bush administration. The book’s title is not The Emperor Has No Clothes. It’s The Empire Has No Clothes. And frankly there’s more continuity between presidents than there is difference.

And there may be some hope that Kerry would do less of this, because of his Vietnam experience, but, of course, we saw that that didn’t seem to impair Bill Clinton from doing these types of things.

So Kerry has the problem that he’s a Democrat, and Democrats are perceived as wimpy, and so therefore he has the Clinton problem of appearing to be a wimp, although less from a personal standpoint since he went to Vietnam and Clinton didn’t. Because of Clinton’s draft-dodging record, he let the military do anything they wanted.

And so Kerry I think would be less constrained in a personal sense, but the Democrats often do these things because they want to appear tough. Like Kerry didn’t oppose the war, because he doesn’t think he could win.

And there are differences between the two candidates, but hardly any difference on Iraq policy. Kerry thinks he’s going to get more multilateral help, and they’re less annoyed with him because he wasn’t president, and he didn’t tromp all over their egos.

But the problem is that the war is very unpopular in those countries, and they don’t want their people at risk in Iraq, and they don’t want to pay the money that the U.S. is pouring into a bottomless pit. And so the same set of factors is going to occur if Kerry takes office towards the end of January, as it is now.

And the security bureaucracies also—the inertia, the status quo, the mindset in Washington is we have to tough this out, and that sort of thing. So I don’t think it’s going to get any better.

The problem with Vietnam was it was sort of like an investor that bought a bad stock, and the investor can’t bring him or herself to unload the stock and invest in something else. You ride it to the bottom because you just can’t—I can’t believe that I made a big mistake. And Vietnam, we stayed in because of U.S. credibility, and if we had gotten out we would have lost credibility, but not as much as we lost in the end.

So now, my solution for Iraq is a partition or some decentralized government, because I think that’s the only thing that’s going to save the country. The factions will probably break the country apart.

In every case where an authoritarian regime, a multi-ethnic authoritarian regime has been—well, you had the authoritarian cap popped off it, it’s broken up.

Now, sometimes it’s peaceful, like Czechoslovakia and most of the Soviet Union, but sometimes it’s not, like Yugoslavia. In this case I think it’s probably going to be more like Yugoslavia, but it’s hard to say. Certainly we’ve got a lot of groups with guns running around, and none of them trust each other, and all of them want control of the central government because they were all oppressed by the central government before, except for the Sunnis who did the oppressing, and now they’re afraid of the payback. [Laughter]

So what you need to do is create a decentralized central government that has very little power, and have the areas govern themselves, or completely partition the country. And that’s not an ideal situation. There are drawbacks to that, but I think we’re in such a hole that that’s probably going to be the only way out of it.

But I don’t think Kerry will take that. I think he’ll probably continue with exactly what Bush is doing.

We have a history in the United States of where we criticize the other guy’s foreign policy in the campaign, and then we adopt it. From Truman to Eisenhower.

Remember Bush was going to run a more humble foreign policy? [Laughter] And he criticized Clinton for all these interventions, and what did he do? He does the same thing, only he takes it to another level.

Certainly Bush’s policy is, I think, even more dangerous than Clinton’s. Clinton would intervene in places that were of little or no importance to U.S. security. But the problem with this invasion is that it has increased the threat to the homeland by stirring up the Islamic world.

And so I don’t know what Kerry will do, and I’m not sure that he’s of the mindset to do anything different. I mean, it does give him a fresh start. If he were elected he could say—if he were smart—he would look at the documents for a couple days, and go, boy, this is worse than they were telling us, we’re getting out of here.

Because I think he’s going to be in trouble if he is going to be another LBJ/Nixon situation where we change administrations, but it’s the same problem. Let’s go right here.

Audience Member

Hi, Ivan. I’d like to ask your thoughts about what I see as an imminent problem in the future, rather than Iraq, which I think will fade off the radar screens after the election no matter who wins, and that is the issue of the 4,000-pound gorilla in that region.

A true, old 4,000-year-old historical empire, Persia. Iran, a country creating—“stans”—Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.—is a threat potentially to not only this country and our “empire” but also to the world. And here we have a regime, which within probably six months, the intelligence estimates, will have thermonuclear weapons. We’re looking at a proto-Nazi, essentially a fascist regime.

Niall Ferguson argues that there are only three, as you know, empires in the world today. We have the Western empire—us. We have the Eastern empire—the Chinese, which is not really an expansionist empire, historically. And we have the “tweedle-dees” of the European Union, who are not really effective. So the only people, the only empire that can address this issue defaults to the United States. What, if anything, should we do about that?

Ivan Eland

Well, I think everyone was always so alarmed about Iraq, but Iran is a small country GDP-wise, and frankly, population-wise. It’s bigger than Iraq, certainly, and it’s a much tougher nut to crack for an invasion because the area’s bigger than Iraq and the terrain is more mountainous. And if you think the Iraqis are fighting, the Iranians have a deep-seated disdain for the U.S. So I’m not sure what we’re going to do about it.

I got a briefing from the Pentagon that listed 12 nuclear programs, and these are not British, or French, or friendly nuclear programs, if you want to call them friendly. But these are threat nuclear programs. We had 12 nuclear programs. We had 13 countries with biological weapons, 16 with chemical weapons, and 26 with ballistic missiles. So if we’re going to run this type of preventative policy, it’s simply unsustainable. We can’t even do it in one country.

So I think we’re probably going to have to live with more countries getting nuclear weapons. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. They’re Islamic and they could base a fundamentalist revolution, especially if Musharraf gets too tied to the U.S. That has inflamed the fundamentalists there.

So we’re probably going to have to face the fact that some countries that we really don’t like have nuclear weapons. We faced that before: the Soviet Union, and as I say, radical Maoist China.

So I agree with your characterization that the Iranian government is not very good, but when we raise the term fascist, we always go back to Hitler. Hitler had a lot more economic power and was a much bigger threat than Iran or Iraq.

But every threat we had—we had Milosevic was Hitler; we had Saddam was Hitler. Everybody was compared to Hitler. But these are very small countries economically, and their militaries aren’t very big.

And if they do get nuclear weapons, I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it because they’ve gotten smart since the Osirak incident in 1981 where the Israelis took out the Iraqi reactor. They buried the facilities. They hid them. They put them in urban areas so we have to kill a lot of civilians if we want to bomb them.

And a lot of times we can’t really find them. In Operation Desert Fox in 1998, Clinton said we were going to take out their weapons of mass destruction. Well, then the Pentagon got kind of alarmed by that because they were going to be held to that, so they leaked to the press, well, we can’t really do that.

So then Clinton said, well, we’re going to undermine their ability to make weapons of mass destruction. And then the Pentagon said, well—more leaks from the Pentagon. And the Pentagon came out and said—then they had quotes from officers that said—we don’t really know where these things are. And, so, of course, there weren’t any apparently, so maybe that’s why. [Laughter] But no, I mean, they had no idea where they were at the time so they could hit them with strikes.

So it’s a tough problem. The fact that we have thousands of warheads and can incinerate the country with just a few of them deters a lot of countries from doing things that they wouldn’t normally do. They have a home address. The people that you really have to watch out for are the people that don’t have a home address that you can incinerate, and those are the terrorists.

I think we only have time for one more question. This woman in back there.

Audience Member

You mentioned that in our Middle East policy, oil and Israel are two of the factors. And I wonder if you could talk about the reasons behind the United States’ stance on Israel.

Ivan Eland

Well, I feel that Israel is primarily a domestic issue here at home. It’s not a strategic issue. I don’t even believe we need to defend oil because of the economics of oil. But if you accept the fact that we need to defend oil, then being a friend of Israel is not a good idea, because the Arabs have the oil. It’s very elementary.

This is not the only example of pressure groups driving U.S. policy. Bill Clinton was lukewarm about NATO expansion till he figured out that 5 percent to 10 percent of the voters in key Northeast, Midwestern states that the Democrats needed to win in 1994 and 1996 were ethnic Poles, ethnic Hungarians, and ethnic Czechs, so they drove the policy.

And he said, oh, well, why not? Let’s expand NATO because these people want it. The same is true with the pressure groups on Israel in this country.

But you could halfway make an argument that Israel was a strategic ally and outpost during the Cold War. But you could have other allies in that region. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be Israel. Now, Israel is the most westernized of the countries, and it’s the most democratic. But is it a strategic necessity?

The other thing is people imply that Israel will fall if the United States doesn’t provide massive amounts of aid. But that’s not historically true.

In fact, we only started aiding Israel massively in 1968. Well, Israel’s biggest military victories happened before then, and I would argue that the 1973 war—the Israelis won it barely militarily, and they lost it politically, and they lost the war in the early ’80s in Lebanon. So if we’re helping them, they’re not doing any better militarily.

They have an excellent military, and they can defend themselves, plus they have probably 200 nuclear weapons. So the same that applies to us applies to them. If you have a nuclear arsenal, and nobody else has one in that region, your security—plus their largest enemy, Egypt, went away. Egypt was the most dangerous state to Israel simply because Egypt’s population is much greater than the other Arab countries. And Jordan is at peace, Egypt is at peace, and Syria didn’t modernize its military after its Soviet benefactor went away. So Israel is really—there are no existential threats to Israel.

You have this intifada, which is certainly—you don’t want your citizens to be blown up on busses and everything. But Israel’s not going away tomorrow. And even if we cut all the aid off to Israel, Israel would survive, and probably prosper, because their economy is dependent on this aid. And it’s a crutch. And if they took that away, the Israeli economy would probably do a lot better.

So I don’t think it’s a strategic necessity to support Israel with $3 billion in aid every year. And frankly, it does contribute to the terrorism problem that we face. It’s not the only reason, because frankly, bin Laden has added this as he went along in his writings. His main gripe is with our Soviet presence in the Holy Lands of the Persian Gulf. But Israel is a factor in blowback terrorism as well.

So I think that’s all the time we have. So I’d like to thank everybody for coming. [Applause]

David J. Theroux

I want to thank Ivan for his work. Again, those of you who don’t have a copy of his book, there are copies upstairs and he’d be delighted to autograph copies for you.

This debate is not going away, it’s simply intensifying, and we’re delighted to have Ivan involved and have you here to make tonight so successful. So thank you and we look forward to seeing you at our next event. Goodnight. [Applause]


  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless