Freeman

ANYTHING PEACEFUL

How to Make a Dictator

The latest bizarre rationale for bombing yet another country.

SEPTEMBER 10, 2013 by MICHAEL NOLAN

I usually look forward to getting my copy of The Economist in the mail each week. For one thing, it draws me away from looking at various screens—at least for a few minutes each day. For another, it has a really good Science & Technology section, and some funny subhead and caption writers. 

The best thing, though, is that it causes less damage when hurled against the wall than if I pulled that with my iPad. That thought occurred to me when I read the official Economist rationale for the United States to bomb the tabbouleh out of Bashar al-Assad.

Frankly, I can’t make much sense of it. But man, oh man, do they like unrestrained executive power.

“The hope is that Congress will for once put principle before partisanship and support the president,” it says. Rousing stuff—I mean, principle is one of my favorite things to put before partisanship! 

It’s the “principle” that’s the problem here, though. For one thing, it’s not clear that whoever wrote this thing has any beyond the following:

  • A President should be free to make war whenever he damn well pleases.
  • America has to impose its will. Just as a general thing.
  • Once you make a threat, you have to carry through on it. (Someone's gotta pay for the Prez's political mistakes.)
  • America’s founders did some inspirational stuff and the Prez needs to bomb whenever anyone disrespects it. 

What could possibly go wrong?

What’s more, the writer here thinks all of us need a good pick-me-up after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and that blowing up a few parts of Syria is just the thing. 

It’s curious how impatient the writer is with President Obama’s insistence on going to Congress for a rubber stamp. In fact, the entire article can be read as a love letter to executive authority. Check this out: “Whether Syria was a vital American interest before this attack was debatable, but not after Mr Assad’s direct challenge to Mr Obama’s authority,” it says.

Or this: “The executive needs to be agile and quick when dealing with the world. The president sometimes needs to take hard and unpopular decisions. Mr Obama insists that his choice to consult the legislature does not curtail that freedom.”

Heaven forbid the President’s authority or freedom face any restrictions. 

It gets even more mind-boggling. Later on in the same issue, a writer notes that Obama, by opposing the Iraq war (and not being totally on board, way back then, with Dick Cheney’s version of the War on Terror), won a Nobel Prize “without trying.” It’s a funny line. It makes me wonder, though, if a magazine can somehow have an aneurysm from time to time. 

It’s not that I want all the writers in a magazine to agree with one another—that’s not journalism, that’s a party newsletter. But the same publication put the headline “Liberty’s Lost Decade” on the cover a couple weeks ago. Inside, they catalogued the endless abuses of the U.S. government since it, you know, lied its way to Baghdad.

So they should be well acquainted with the effects of unlimited power, especially during wartime. Why, then, turn around and advocate for war because otherwise the allegedly most powerful office in the world might face limits to its power? Makes me think the editorial meetings go something like this

The main argument I hear elsewhere in support of bombing Syria boils down to Bashar al-Assad being too much of a bastard not to be bombed. The videos of the victims of his sarin attacks are gruesome. It’s inhumane not to want to strike, right? 

But this line of thinking is so absurd it’s difficult to know where to begin. When they started raining down on Baghdad, the bombs were a bunch of duds, failing to deliver either shock or awe. Now, if they rain down on Damascus, they’re delivering … what, encouragement? A “hang in there, champ” to everyone stuck in the middle of the civil war? Admittedly, I don’t keep up on military kit, but I thought when they called them “smart bombs,” it meant they went to the right place, not that their hearts were already there. The Economist’s editorial writer at least has the decency to spare us this line. 

Instead, we get some good old-fashioned Cold War realpolitik, talking about Obama going to Congress to “dip Republican hands in the blood,” and then saying this: “The international arena is inherently anarchic. Only laws and treaties that are enforced impose any order. By being the world’s policeman, America can shape the rules according to its own interests and tastes.”

That’s no more appealing, but far more honest. It’s a shame it has to come muddled with talk of “America’s values,” let alone the line, “Mr. Obama is not about to invade,” right in the middle of talk about the need to strike quickly now so another dictator knows how much of a bastard he can be before he loses a palace or two. Apparently, the air strike is meant to be purely symbolic (tell that to the folks killed as collateral damage; not everyone the air strikes kill is going to be a bad guy). But somehow it’s also meant to make, say, Kim Jong-Un let his hair down and start clearing out his gulags. 

I confess, I’m just taking shots in the dark at this point, because the more I reread this thing, the less sense it makes. They mention the damage done to America’s brand by Dubya’s imperial overreach. Then they prescribe what could charitably be described as "Imperial Extension." Because we have a “good” excuse, and we're the world’s policeman. Because of the international interests of our rulers. Because the Constitution. And Western values. And America, and stuff. 

Your guess is as good as mine. 

There might have been a time when a country might, periodically, not have been at war. Even this country has taken the occasional breather. If that’s ever to become possible again, choosing not to make war certainly must be one of the prerequisites. But apparently not only is that option not on the table, but the nation also needs a commander-in-chief who’ll at least shoot off a few tomahawks whenever something unpleasant enough is happening somewhere. Pausing to speak to other members of the ruling class—let alone the people in whose names the bombing would allegedly be done—just gets in the way of that. Apparently, the world needs an American president who will brook no opposition to war-making. 

That doesn’t sound like a way to bring down a dictator. It sounds like swapping one in Syria for a series of them closer to home. 

ABOUT

MICHAEL NOLAN

Michael Nolan is the managing editor of The Freeman

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