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One step forward, two steps back

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 26, 2004

Dr. Ivan Eland Dr. Ivan Eland is a senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. In this exclusive interview with Enter Stage Right Dr. Eland responds to the report of the 9/11 Commission.

ESR: The 9/11 Commission recommended the creation of a counter-terrorism center to coordinate foreign and domestic intelligence on terrorism but you're opposed to that idea. Why?

IE: Because the CIA already has one. The main problem in 9/11 was large government security bureaucracies not coordinating with each other. So why do we need yet another intelligence center. We already have 15 intelligence agencies. The U.S. government's security apparatus was set up to counter the security bureaucracies of other nation-states, which are equally or more slothful than our own. Unfortunately, al-Qaida is an agile non-bureaucratic organization (terrorists don't fill out forms before they attack). The government needs to fight it by becoming more streamlined, not by adding even more bureaucracy. More bureaucracy will lead to more of the coordination problems experience prior to and on 9/11.

ESR: Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced on Thursday on Fox News that an intelligence czar wasn't necessary. Are you heartened by that news or do you think Americans will eventually see the creation of the post?

IE: I agree with Ridge that a new intelligence czar is not needed. For the same reason as stated above. The Director of Central Intelligence is already supposed to be in charge of the fragmented and bloated 15-agency intelligence community. But he has no control over the intelligence budgets and personnel working on intelligence in other government agencies. He should be given that authority. Creating a layer of bureaucracy above the DCI is unnecessary and only adds more needless bureaucracy.

ESR: You were also critical because the 9/11 Commission did not address the root causes of the September 11, 2001 attacks, what you identify as America's foreign policy in the Middle East. What's your version of the causes?

IE: Most Americans don't realize how much the United States has meddled in the Islamic world since WWII. People there are made about it. Contrary to what many in the elite foreign policy circles in Washington would have us believe, poll after poll in the Islamic world indicate that people like American culture, technology and political and economic freedoms, but hate U.S. government policy toward the Islamic world. Bin Laden's chief gripe with the U.S. government is that it props up corrupt governments in the Islamic world (e.g., Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

Conservatives, who emphasize going back to first principles, should remember that General George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the other founders were against profligate military interventions overseas and meddling in other countries' business (what conservatives correctly seemed to be saying during the Clinton administration). The founders realized that war leads to a loss of liberties and big government at home. Certainly, bin Laden and al-Qaida need to be put out of action, but over the long-term the United States should realize that repeated military action in the Islamic world merely shakes the hornets' nest unnecessarily. After al-Qaida is eradicated, the United States should quietly realize that, after the Cold War, the advantages to profligate military interventions overseas are outweighed by the new danger of catastrophic blowback.

ESR: Many experts have argued that America's foreign policy is merely the hook that Islamists hang their coat on, that the real cause of friction is the Islamist dream of a world under the control of a caliphate. How would you respond?

IE: I haven't heard many experts argue this. A few neoconservative experts have. Even if this were the goal of the Islamists, they don't have the resources to be the worldwide threat that the Soviet Union was. They are very poor (compared to the U.S.) and from poor countries. Destroying skyscrapers in a hit-and-run attack is one thing, taking over the globe, or even the Islamic world, would be impossible for them. Bin Laden came home from Afghanistan after fighting one set of "infidels" in a Moslem land and saw another "infidel" (the United States) with a military presence in the land of the Moslem holy sites (Saudi Arabia). Islamic radicals get particularly perturbed when they perceive that an infidel is trying to take over a Moslem land. So the American propping up of the corrupt Saudi monarchy is what originally set bin Laden off. If neoconservative doubt what bin Laden says makes him mad, then they should read the opinion polls in the Islamic world. U.S. meddling is the root of the general hostility, which spawns anti-U.S. terrorism.

ESR: Do you think it's realistic, given the nature of the globalized economy and the need for oil, that the U.S. can disengage politically from the Middle East?

IE: Conservatives who are market oriented should see through the convenient myth that we need to defend cheap oil. Half of the Pentagon's budget is justified on this premise, but economists, both left and right, are skeptical of it. Milton Friedman, before the first Gulf War, said don't go to war for oil. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have little else to sell. They need to sell the oil more than the west needs to buy it. Most of this irrational fear of dependence on foreign oil is left over from the 1970s, when the U.S. government failed to let market mechanisms work and the price of oil to rise--the result: traumatic gas lines. Eighty percent of U.S. semiconductors come from East Asia and no one talks about defending them. Only about 20 percent of U.S. oil comes from the Persian Gulf. Even this doesn't matter because there is a worldwide market for this fungible good. The German economy from 1998 to 2000 endured a 211 percent rise in the price of oil and still prospered. The stagflation in the 1970s had less to do with rising oil prices and more to do with money supply mismanagement. Free marketeers should be ashamed of themselves for falling for these socialist security arguments.

ESR: What for you was the biggest surprise in the commission's report?

IE: I was pleasantly surprised that they nixed a domestic spy agency in favor of reform in the FBI. Conservatives who are concerned about preserving the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution should also be pleased.

ESR: You've been one of the administration's biggest critics since the war against terrorism began, did the commission's report address any of your concerns?

IE: No, because it didn't deal with the war on terrorism. It dealt with al-Qaida's attack on 9/11. There shouldn't be a war on terrorism or Iraq. There should be a war on al-Qaida. The Bush administration didn't have the backbone to put enough special forces into Afghanistan to get bin Laden and instead relied on the unreliable Northern Alliance (on two separate occasions bin Laden got away because of this decision). al-Qaida is the one who attacked us, not Iraq or Hezbollah or Hamas or any other terror groups. The 9/11 commission implied that the war on terror was taken too widely. We are merely increasing terrorism (see the State Dept.'s latest figures) by going after these targets. If the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the Nazis declare war on you, you fight the Japanese and Germans. You don't attack Russia. Then you have three enemies.

ESR: What would you have liked the commission to address that it didn't?

IE: The underlying reason that al-Qaida attacked America. U.S. foreign policy. Improvements in homeland security can only go so far in protecting such a vast open democracy. Lessening our target profile is much more important than government officials and bureaucrats in Washington moving around boxes on an organizational chart.

ESR: In an essay last week entitled "Oops, They Invaded the Wrong Country?" you argued that it was clear Iran had closer ties to al-Qaida then Iraq ever did, particularly considering that as many as 10 of the September 11 hijackers were given safe passage by the Iranians during the year before the attacks. If that's the case, would you support an invasion of Iran?

IE: No, it's doubtful that the Iranian government knew about 9/11. I was merely pointing out that Iran was a bigger threat than Iraq (in sponsorship of terrorism and progress toward getting a nuclear weapon and long-range missile that could deliver it to the United States). But even Iran is not that big a threat to the U.S. because its few nukes (the worst case years from now) could be deterred with the thousands of nuclear warheads in America's most potent nuclear arsenal in the world.

ESR: You have a new book coming out in October called The Empire Has No Clothes, in which you argue that the American government has become an imperial force. Can you tell us about the book?

IE: My book shows that U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II era has been much the same under Democrat and Republican administrations and during the Cold War and after it. Contrary to the founders' policy of military restraint and no entangling alliances, the United States spread its empire around the world with hundreds of military bases and many alliances and military interventions. This has created an informal empire (as opposed to the formal British and Roman empires) abroad and an imperial presidency at home. It has led to big government at home (not just security spending, but domestic spending as well) and an erosion of America's unique liberties. Even "national greatness" conservatives should be leery of empire because it may erode U.S. economic power and lead to the demise of the United States as a great power. At the height of the British empire just before WWI, who would have predicted that overextension and war would turn it into rubble in just over 30 years.

My new book has an entire chapter devoted to why conservatives should be against a U.S. empire.

ESR: Thanks very much for your time.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario and the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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  • The failure that is the war against terrorism by Steven Martinovich (September 22, 2003)
    Think the war against terrorism is going well? In an interview with Steven Martinovich, Dr. Ivan Eland of the Center on Peace & Liberty argues that the Bush administration is dropping the ball
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