U.S. government officials, both politicians and career bureaucrats, always imply that a tradeoff exists between security and liberty and that we cannot have both. This view, however, depends on buying into key erroneous assumptions made by those same officials.
The Bush administration's high-octane "war on terror" has undertaken an active and highly publicized agenda domestically and overseas to rid the world of "evildoers." Unfortunately, after the September 11 attacks, the American public would have been freer and safer, both at home and when traveling and doing business abroad, if the administration's security bureaucracies had taken a long vacation. In short, the administration's activism-whether it be for ulterior motives, as in the invasion of Iraq, or to win public relations points with voters-ensures that Americans will see both their security and liberty eroded.
The administration's strategy in the war on terror has been that the "best defense is a good offense." Both domestically and overseas, this strategy involves casting a wide net in the quest for enemies. Abroad, instead of focusing finite government resources and attention on neutralizing al Qaeda, the perpetrator of the September 11 attacks, the administration used 9/11 as an excuse to threaten the nations of a make-believe "axis of evil," invade one of them, and topple its leader, who had nothing to do with those attacks. In addition to the deaths of almost 2,000 U.S. forces and many more innocent Iraqis, the resulting quagmire in Iraq has acted both as a motivator and training ground for the swelling number of anti-U.S. militants worldwide, which hardly increases the security of Americans anywhere.
Had the administration really wanted to lessen anti-U.S. attacks, it should have realized that the only way to stop terrorism is to remove its underlying cause-U.S. foreign policy toward Arab and Islamic nations. Most Americans are unaware-or choose to ignore-their government's profligate meddling in the affairs of those countries after World War II.
Poll after poll in Islamic countries indicate that their people admire U.S. freedoms-both political and economic-wealth, technology, and even culture, but hate U.S. foreign policy toward Islamic nations. In particular, by their own statements and writings, militants, such as Osama bin Laden, hate the United States for its military presence on Islamic lands and for its support of corrupt Arab governments and Israel.
After 9/11, to avoid stirring up even more hatred in the Islamic world, the administration should have pursued al Qaeda more aggressively and quietly and avoided occupying Islamic soil (Afghanistan and Iraq)-a lightning rod to the militants. For the long-term, the Bush administration should have realized that the end of the Cold War would have allowed the United States to follow a "more humble" and less interventionist foreign policy, as President Bush had promised during his first campaign in 2000.
At home, the administration has also acted offensively, supporting the draconian Patriot Act-and now its renewal-that has increased police powers across the board, rather than being confined to terrorism cases. Also, a military command was created that has just developed war plans to use within the borders of the United States. The plans apparently include secret scenarios being kept from the American public that would likely further militarize law enforcement and would seem to involve the imposition of martial law.
It is questionable whether these measures will actually either stop or increase the government's ability to respond to a terrorist attack. What is less questionable is whether these constrictions of liberty-the foundation of our nation-would have been needed or enacted if the United States wasn't rampaging around the world tilting at imagined security threats and stirring the hornets' nest in the process.
Yet instead of toning down U.S. foreign policy and shrinking the bull's eye painted on back of the American public, the administration has tried to assuage the public's fears of losing their liberties by creating the toothless President's Board on Safeguarding Americans' Civil Liberties, a panel with few resources, no enforcement clout, and little presidential enthusiasm or backing. Even such window dressing to cover the needless loss of liberties would be unnecessary if the United States got rid of its outdated interventionist foreign policy, which is a relic of the Cold War.
Ivan Eland is the Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and author of the book, Putting "Defense" Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World.
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