During the first weekend in June, I had the privilege of attending the Future of Freedom Foundation’s “Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties” conference in Reston, Virginia. In the twenty years that I have been attending political events of all kinds-conferences, demonstrations, seminars, festivals-this was uncontestably the best program I have ever witnessed. Two dozen speakers from across the ideological spectrum were featured, including Republican Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul, each of them offering important insights into the most pressing political questions of our time, the ever expanding imperial program abroad and the ever expanding police state at home.
James Bovard opened the first day of the conference with a discussion of the monstrous attacks on civil liberties that have occurred since 9-11. Such attacks have been so numerous that one barely knows where to begin when attempting a summary of them. Included among them are the authority of the TSA to impose “attitude fines” of up to $1500 on those who are non-cooperative with agents, illegal surveillance conducted inside the US by the Pentagon, illegal wiretappings, FBI agents scavenging through phone books looking for persons with Islamic names, and illegal call tracking efforts invading the privacy of million of Americans. Particulary vile are the so-called “National Security Letters” issued by the FBI to roughly 30,000 Americans annually. These are essentially warrantless searches and inquiries where a subpoenaed person is prohibited from telling anyone, including their lawyer, that they have received such a notification, representing a complete gutting of the Fourth and Sixth Amendments. Equally abomidable has been the legalization of torture, the elimination of habeus corpus and recent efforts to bring the National Guard under the direct authority of the President in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act, thereby creating the infrastructure for full-blown martial law.
Historian Ralph Raico presented an eloquent case for a non-interventionist foreign policy, drawing heavily on the writings and speeches of early American Presidents to support his position. Raico provided an overview of how this early foreign policy was gradually replaced with an interventionist one at the prompting of elites interested in empire-building, and how such a foreign policy has led to the enormous growth of executive power domestically. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Americans killed in military adventures, millions of foreigners have died at the hands of the US government’s war marchine, including the targeting of civilian cities in Germany and Japan during WW2 and the 1.5 million Koreans killed in Curtis LeMay’s bombing campaigns. Raico noted that if the Vietnam War Memorial also included the names of all the Vietnamese killed in that war, the monument would have to be 75 times its present size. A major problem, said Raico, is that foreign policy tends to be guided by “special interest groups” with narrow agendas of their own, irrespective of the interests of the nation as a whole.
Robert Higgs began by saying that the state is “the most destructive institution human beings have ever devised” and that nothing promotes the growth of the state like war. All states are essentially oligarchies, regardless of their ideological foundations and particular institutional frameworks, and other groups in society attach themselves to the state in search of favoritism, or “booty”. Democracy disguises the exploitation of the people at large by the political class and deludes people with the idea that they are the government. The political class uses war to expand its own power and rally the people in its support. Higgs also provided a good review of how foreign policy adventurism has led to domestic statism. He noted that 9-11 has generated an industry of private homeland security consulting firms looking to feed at the state’s trough. Prior to 9-11, there were nine such firms. Today, there are 33,890.
Lew Rockwell discussed how both the Left and Right promote the growth of statism, despite their ideological differences, with the Left rooted in the philosophy of Marx and the Right deriving its ideas from Hobbes. Rockwell classified postwar militarist conservatism as a throwback to the feudal era, with today’s “conservative” intellectuals fancying themselves as the modern day equivalent of the old land barons, clerical elites, warrior castes and royal families. Rockwell contrasted this with the radical tradition of classical liberalism and its growth into modern libertarianism. Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.Com discussed the anti-interventionist legacy of pre-World War Two conservatism, or the “Old Right”, and the abandonment of this principle by postwar conservatives. Raimondo also focused extensively on the role of the Israeli lobby in the making of US Middle East policy, while noting that the majority of American Jews hold relatively antiwar opinions. According to Raimondo, there are three primary domestic forces guiding American war policy: the Israeli Lobby, the military-industrial complex with its wide assortment of war profiteers and the “ultranationalist” wing of the GOP.
The first day of the conference was closed by two speeches, one by retired USAF Lt. Colonel and former Pentagon and NSA staffer Karen Kwiatkowski and the other by veteran left-wing journalist Robert Scheer, with both speeches being broadcast on C-SPAN. What was perhaps most amazing about these two presentations was that both speakers issued a subtle call for abolition of the federal government. Kwiatkowski traced the growth of statism and militarism in America all the way back to the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation. Scheer provided an amusing anecdote of his earliest encounters with libertarians during his days as a student at the City College of New York in the 1950s, recalling what a strange group he thought they were and how in retrospect they may have been correct. Scheer noted how he had interviewed every American President since Nixon along with heads of foreign states like Fidel Castro and how such experience had made him aware of the dangers of statism. A lifelong liberal, Scheer also observed how federal anti-poverty programs are “miniscule” compared to the military-industrial complex and the corporate state and how he would be happy to abolish the federal government and “take our chances with the states and the private sector.” Kwiatkowski suggested that a loose confederation like the Articles might be the best model of government for the twenty-first century, observing that contemporary technology makes decentralization less difficult. She also expressed optimism about the younger generation. While they may be undereducated in many important aspects, she said, they also possess a healthy disrespect for authority and disenchantment with the status quo. Scheer discussed Eisenhower’s warnings about the growth of the military-industrial complex and the horrid nature of US foreign policy during the subsequent decades, ranging from entering the Vietnam War under false pretenses to providing support for the odious regime of Pol Pot. The Bush administration, according to Scheer, “has taken our society to a new low” and the root of the proble
is that “our institutions are filled with talented, intelligent people who make their living lying to us.”
The next day during lunch I asked Karen Kwiatkowski when she thought Bush would attack Iran. She predicted such an attack would come by the end of the summer. My friend Jack Ross, a former journalist with the American Free Press, asked if whether or not the military would simply refuse to comply with such a directive, citing the example of Admiral Fallon. Kwiatkowski expressed skepticism of this, noting the careerism prevalent among the brass.
The second day of the conference was opened by Richard Ebeling of the Foundation for Economic Education who gave a passionate defense of the classical liberal aversion to war and militarism. He was followed by Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute who observed that even victorious wars have a negative impact on empires due to their continual drain on domestic resources. Eland also discussed the correlation between war and the growth of statism in America and made a comparison to the ancient Roman Republic and its degeneration from rule by the Assembly to rule by the Imperial Senate to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar to the cult of the Emperors, a process brought on and enhanced by Rome’s military conquests. Thomas DiLorenzo attacked the legacy of Abraham Lincoln’s role as a defacto military dictator during the Civil War and the role of the defeat of the principles of nullification and secession in the subsequent growth of the Leviathan state. He noted how Hitler praised Lincoln’s eradication of the principle of divided sovereignty and how Lincoln-worship has become a standard for present-day neoconservative tyrants.
Daniel Ellsberg of “Pentagon Papers” fame discussed his battles with the Nixon administration and how Nixon had hoped for a “Korean solution” to the Vietnam question whereby the Thieu regime would retain control of the cities of South Vietnam with continued American presence and the countryside ceded to the Vietcong. Likewise, the Bush adminstration is using the “Korean model” of long-term US occupation as a “vision” for Iraq’s future. Ellsberg predicted war with Iran within the next eighteen months and the probability that this will lead to a major constitutional crisis, with the Constitution likely going the way of the way of the Weimar Republic. Ellsberg insisted that public officials should have the moral rectitude to go to jail rather than violate their oath to uphold the Constitution. I later spoke with Ellsberg in the hotel lobby, mentioning the first time I heard him speak at a demonstration against the US war on El Salvador at the Pentagon in 1988. He jokingly replied, “Are you that old?”.
A particularly interesting speaker was Richard Vague, CEO of Barclay’s Bank and a conservative Republican. He mentioned how oil prices have risen from $28 a barrel to $60 since the invasion of Iraq. Displaying an impressive knowledge of terrorism, Vague commented on how terrorism tends to be marginalized in stable, prosperous countries but festers under conditions of occupation and oppression. Insurgent groups often meet needs that are otherwise unmet, citing as examples Hezbollah‘s hospitals and social services and the Taliban’s opening of schools where there were none. The solution to terrorism is comprehensive, meaningful, social, economic and political reform. As an illustration, Vague offered the example of the success of Peru in defusing the Shining Path insurgency through the use of popular, substantive economic and land reform efforts similar in principle to the Homestead Act from early American history. He also noted that Iran had twice before moved towards democratic reforms before such efforts were thwarted by the Russians and the British in 1905 and by the Americans in 1953. Vague suggested that it is impossible for an empire to behave altruistically.
Perhaps the most poignant speaker of the conference was Joseph Margulies, a lawyer who has worked extensively on detainee issues. He noted that Guantanamo is just a piece of the larger detention policy. Margulies described documented cases of persons known to be innocent who have been detained without trial and tortured extensively by US agents or foreign collaborators in foreign prisons. Many of these detainees are pedestrian non-combatants, some of them supplied through bounty programs where someone gets paid to turn someone over without any substantive or objective rules of evidence concerning the person’s involvement with terrorism. Only five percent of the prisoners at Guantanamo were captured by the US. The youngest prisoner to be detained was ten years old, the oldest believed to be 105. Severely mentally or physically disabled persons have also been included among the detainees. Approximately 125 persons are believed to have died from torture or summary killing while in US custody. During the question and answer session following Margulies’ presentation, an older man who described himself as a former aide to Ronald Reagan during his term as California’s governor characterized the Bush administration’s detention and torture practices as “mortifying”. A woman who said she grew up during WW2 hearing about the horrors of the Nazi tortures remarked that “we’ve become Nazis ourselves.”
The third day was opened with an uncompromisingly antiwar and anti-statist speech by Sheldon Richman who cited Clausewitz‘s dictum of war being the continuation of politics by other means. He also argued that the worst tragedy of the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the killings and maimings of innocent civilians in those countries, observing that US troops at least have a choice of whether or not to join the military in the first place. As for the question of terrorism, Richman suggested that perhaps authentic terrorist threats should be handled by the private sector, noting the superior efficiency of the private sector in most matters, possibly even national defense. Joseph Stromberg followed with a discussion of the role of war in expanding the executive branch of the federal government, insisting that the “US Presidency is the biggest mistake” of the original constitutional system designed by the Founders. He discussed the “unitary executive” theory advanced by contemporary proponents of a defacto presidential dictatorship. As for possible alternatives, Stromberg suggested that the Attorney-General not be appointed by the President, that leading positions in the executive bureaucracy be chosen by elections rather than by appointment as they are in some states, and that there be wider use of impeachment of Presidents, not just for legal crimes but for incompetence and mismanagement. Someone in the audience also suggested acts of resistance to the federal government by states and localities, giving the example of the more than 300 cities that have issued resolutions denouncing both the Iraq war and the Patriot Act.
Libertarian writer Anthony Gregory gave the most stridently anti-statist talk of any of the speakers and discussed how the foreign policy establishment is divided between nationalists and internationalists with both sides committed to interventionism. Journalist Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Reagan, argued that the main danger to liberty is not necessarily martial law as much as an ongoing and steady erosion of freedom significantly enhanced by a militarist foreign policy. Joanne Mariner, a lawyer from Human Rights Watch, described torture techniques used in CIA prisons outside the US and therefore outside the supervision of US courts. She also discussed cases of innocent persons who were detained and tortured as well those who have simply “disappeared” in a manner similar to those who “disappeared” during the reign of military dictatorships in Latin American countries during the twentieth century.
Laurence Vance spoke on the question of what the churches should be saying on the matter of war and foreign policy. A devout Christian who described himself as being of the “conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist” theological tradition and the Independent Baptist denomination, Vance provided a comprehensive denunciation of US foreign policy, militarism, warmongering and imperialism that made left-wing icons like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn seem like lightweights in comparison. He was equally criticial of conservative Christian support for pro-war policies and suggested a number of explanations for this, including 9-11, the viciousness of Saddam Hussein, perception of the war as a crusade against Islam, reflexive patriotism, an attachment to the Republican Party Vance described as “spiritual adultery”, an attachment to the state he characterized as a “God n’ Country Complex”, and a misplaced respect for military institutions. He argued that Christians should not support the troops no matter what they do, but recognize that it is the responsibility of the Christian to refuse participation in immoral acts of aggression and killing, citing the biblical admonition to “obey God rather than men”. Vance noted that US aggression in Vietnam and Iraq has killed as many as two million Vietnamese and a half-million Iraqi civilians, and that Christians who support such mass murders are committing the sin of state-worship or “statolatry”.
Of course, the highlight of the conference was Ron Paul’s appearance on Sunday. Dr. Paul began by describing the interrelatedness of foreign policy and monetary policy, noting that war is typically funded by inflation as taxes are harder for the politicians to sell. He also mentioned how war funding is increasing America’s indebtedness to the Chinese. Expressing an optimistic view of the younger generation, he remarked that “politicians don’t amount to much, but ideas do” and said that because empires usually end with economic collapse, we need to be in place to pick up the pieces when the system falls apart. The first step is to educate people so that public attitudes will begin to change. Dr. Paul also addressed other issues, emphasizing the need to get the state out of health care, something he knows about as a physician. On education, he said that public schools were okay when education was a local matter, but federal interference has drastically reduced the quality of the public schools. He also spoke of the need to withdraw from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to eliminate Executive Orders, to abolish the Federal Reserve and denounced the Military Commissions Act and the provisions for martial law in the latest defense budget. Dr. Paul expressed surprise at the popularity of his campaign and mentioned that while his campaign lacks the big bucks of the other candidates, he can do more with less because the Paul campaign lacks the bloated, overpriced staff of the mainstream candidates.
Dr. Paul was followed by Judge Andrew Napolitano, who spoke about the curtailment of civil liberties that typically accompanies war, giving numerous examples from US history. He called the Patriot Act “the most abomidable, unconstitutional, hateful from the point of view of freedom legislation since the Alien and Sedition Act” from the Presidency of John Adams. Most members of Congress never even read, much less debated, the Patriot Act. The Fourth Amendment and the right to privacy have been completely eliminated by the Patriot Act and the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2004. Federal bail requirements have become so stringent that the burden of proof is now on the defendant to demonstrate the lack of flight risk. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 allows for the continued incarceration of persons even after acquittal. Judge Napolitano noted that while the Supreme Court has overturned some of the most egregious abuses of civil liberties since 9-11, this may well change with the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the appointment of pro-Bush administration jurists to the Court.
The final day included an impressive discussion of foreign policy by Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute. Carpenter began with an overview of US interventions since the end of the Cold War, counting ten major interventions in eighteen years. He also provided a detailed history of America’s sorry relationship with Iran, including overthrowing a democratic government there in 1953 and replacing it with the rule of the sinister Shah who governed through the use of the CIA-trained SAVAAK, a particularly hideous secret police force. Carpenter also mentioned how a frequently unrecognized source of hostility to the United States in other countries is the war on drugs, which includes the spraying of the crops of Third World farmers with deadly chemicals. These efforts, such as Plan Colombia, are used to attack legal as well as illegal crops with horrendous consequences for the health of residents of farming communities where this takes place. Carpenter was followed by former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who described how modern technology has made government abuses of civil liberties much easier. According to Barr, technology has expanded tremendously since the COINTELPRO abuses of the 1960s. The attacks on civil liberties since 9-11 have been so extreme that Barr was motivated to re-think his earlier positions on the drug war, which opened to the door to the present-day expansion of the police state. Bart Frazier of the Future of Freedom Foundation spoke of the harmful effects of an interventionist foreign policy on the Constitution. Jacob Hornberger, also of FFF, called for a restoration of the Republic.
In many ways, the attendees at the conference were just as interesting as the speakers. Included in the crowd of about 200 guests were liberals, conservatives, libertarians, independents, Greens, anarchists and anarcho-capitalists. One woman mentioned that she had first come to the US as a child during the 1950s as a refugee from Hungarian Communism. A man from North Carolina described himself as a conservative Republican who had in the past supported Senators Sam Ervin and Jesse Helms. A woman from Georgia described herself as a pro-life, Christian, conservative Republican who was supporting Ron Paul. I also met Dr. John Walsh, a member of the Green Party who writes for the leftist website Counterpunch.Org. Sitting next to me during Ron Paul’s speech was LRC contributer Jim Glaser, a Vietnam vet who works with the Veterans of Foreign Wars. One man who expressed left-wing sympathies asked me how I thought the radical anti-state ideas of liber
tarians might be implemented and wondered if this might lead to greater abuses by large corporations and neglect of the poor. I replied that as a classical anarchist I was convinced of Lord Acton’s dictum that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and while I considered the state to be the most dangerous institution, concentrations of power are to be guarded against anywhere, even in non-state institutions. As for the poor, I recalled how Robert Scheer had mentioned the minimal size of anti-poverty programs compared to the military-industrial complex and suggested we begin by dismantling the empire and worry about food stamps after the corporate state has been abolished. As to how to approach all of this strategically, I answered perhaps secession by smaller political units from larger ones and a general push towards decentralization in all institutions might the best way to go.
I could not help but notice how much more genuinely radical this crowd seemed when compared with leftist antiwar activities I’ve been involved with in the past. There was none of the leftist “money for welfare, not for war” foolishness. There were none of the harangues by Communists or outlandish black racists, calls for solidarity with Third World terrorist groups or tacky, hand-drawn protest signs depicting Bush with a Hitler mustache common to left-wing antiwar rallies. There were no Che Guevera posters, no efforts to use the conference to promote “animal liberation”, “transgendered rights” or other fringe causes. No lamenting that official quotas of this or that group holding membership in the pantheon of the oppressed had not been fulfilled. Only serious people with serious ideas. Refreshing to say the least.