Ordinary Americans have more reason to fear the U.S. government than do our foreign enemies.
In April 2014, 200 U.S. government agents with armored cars descended on a Nevada rancher who had not paid his cattle-grazing fees, shot his herd bull and tazed his wife. The U.S. Senate’s majority leader called the rancher and his supporters “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, President Obama’s economic counter to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of pieces of Ukraine consisted of banning a baker’s dozen of his cronies from doing business in the United States. Russia’s stock market rose. Mr. Obama also arranged for international monitors to visit the area. Mr. Putin’s thugs took them hostage. On the other side of the globe, the U.S. Navy worked out rules for chance encounters with Chinese ships in international waters. However, the Chinese warned that they would not observe mutual respect in the vast areas that they claim. The Palestinian Authority set about uniting with the Hamas terrorist group and declaring itself a state, U.S. objections and longtime U.S. government financing notwithstanding.
In short, unfriendly governments show contempt for America, as allies from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic fend for themselves, and polls show that a majority of Americans now consider the U.S. government a threat to our liberties. Only 22 percent look upon it as our protector, and 37 percent fear it outright.
This systemic failure of statesmanship is rooted in our ruling class’s habit of making foreign commitments it has no intention of keeping, and of taking military actions without reasonable plans for achieving peace. The result, a permanent war footing, is unsustainable internationally because making threats unseriously signals to serious people that they can act against us safely. It is unsustainable domestically because it spawns a domestic security apparatus so big, pervasive and lethal as to pose an irresistible temptation for partisan abuse. Failure to win peace with foreigners is leading to strife among ourselves.
Lincoln had pointed to “peace among ourselves and with all nations” as statesmanship’s natural objective. Earning it requires the jealous reckoning of ends and means. However, Woodrow Wilson and the bipartisan Progressive movement adopted the unnatural objective of remaking foreign nations while superintending global order. That objective’s logical conclusion — President George W. Bush’s statement that America cannot be free unless and until the whole world is free — locks America into a never-ending war footing. Because the Progressive objective is to manage peoples rather than to eliminate enemies, our statesmen don’t even think of waging wars with plans for ending them. Nor can the managers be at peace with those they are trying to manage. The end being ephemeral, no rational means are possible.
When Muslim jihadists began attacking Americans a generation ago, our progressive ruling class did not ask, “What is the obstacle to peace?” In the absence of a good answer to that question, no military operations make sense. Supposing that the problem lay in a few “rogues” labeled “al Qaeda,” persons extraneous to the Muslim world’s cultural and power structures, made the problem manageable by falsifying it. Our ruling class missed that an entire civilization was being mobilized against us and that this is a big, multidimensional problem. Given that problem, what might be required to restore our peace? This question is the touchstone of seriousness.
Instead of addressing such questions, our ruling class empowered an apparatus of “homeland security” that supposes any American may be a terrorist, but which rejects focusing it on Muslims as “Islamophobic.” Thus, our ruling class made the designation “dangerous extremist” a matter of subjective likes and dislikes. It is impossible for officials who make up standards implicitly and unaccountably to do so apolitically. Barring explicit political decisions from the front door ensures that implicit ones come flooding in through the windows. When the line between peace and war is erased, when the definition of enemies is anybody’s guess, the sociopolitical opponents of the ruling class end up getting fingered as the “enemies of the people.”
No surprise then that America’s burgeoning domestic paramilitary forces are focusing on the ruling class’s domestic political opponents as another set of persons whose backward ways must be guarded against and reformed. Who in America embodies extremism? Who is pegged as responsible for the litany of racism, sexism, religious obscurantism and gun violence — the very social ills that U.S. forces confront in foreign lands? The conservative side of American life. Twenty-six percent of self-identified Democrats tell pollsters that Tea Party people pose the greatest danger of terrorism.
Today, computer searches find that the term “extremist” correlates in the major newspapers with “conservative” or “right wing” at 12 times the rate it does with “liberal” or “left wing.” It does not yet correlate at all with the latter’s euphemism, “progressive.” Why shouldn’t officials all across the U.S. government — from the Internal Revenue Service to the Environmental Protection Agency, even to the Bureau of Land Management, act on what they hear from the best people, read in the best media — especially if it fits with their own sentiments?
Protracted international war’s transmutation into domestic strife is one of history’s most insistent and least-heeded lessons. Using war-swollen government power to hurt sociopolitical opponents draws all into a spiral destructive of all. Our bipartisan ruling class’s decision to institute a nominally indiscriminate “homeland security” regime is proving to be an error that gave civil strife’s deadly spiral its first deadly turns among us.
Causing that spiral to turn in the direction of peace is a task worthy of prayer.
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and author of the forthcoming “To Make Peace Among Ourselves And With All Nations” (Hoover Institution Press).