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Going Abroad in Search of Monsters: The Libertarian Case for Military Engagement

Thursday, September 8, 2011
By Dan

In 1821, John Quincy Adams famously said, about the United States:

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.

At the time, the Spanish empire was crumbling and the United States had just purchased its newest territory, Florida.  Adams was arguing that America should not be involved in the wars for independence, and should instead remain a passive example of hope and democracy.  In the almost 200 years that have passed since Adams’s speech to Congress, a lot has changed.

It is true that stomping around the world, looking for monsters can draw unwanted attention, and can even create new monsters.  One could argue that al Qaeda would not have attacked the United States, had we not kept a base in Saudi Arabia.  Osama bin Laden’s 1996 and 1998 fatwas certainly support that view.  But leaving Saudi Arabia alone in the 1990′s would have meant empowering Saddam Hussein, the only leader ever to order the use of nerve gas.

Just as leaving England would have meant allowing Adolf Hitler to grow in power, or leaving Germany would have strengthened the Soviets and leaving Japan would have meant ceding the Pacific to China; allowing despots and dictators to grow to regional powers allows the monster to feed, to fester and to search abroad to satisfy its power lust.  Our strength does not feed tyrants–our weakness does. “None of the four wars in [the twentieth century] came about because we were too strong. It’s weakness that invites adventurous adversaries to make mistaken judgments.”

An environment that allows despots and tyrants free reign over their people or a region may have be tolerable when oceans served as moats, and men flew only in poetry.  Today’s monsters may still live abroad, but their reach has grown.

In 1821, the force required to raze a city would have been carried by ships–plural.

Only two years before Adams made his remarks, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic did so in 18 days.  Today, you can fly from LA to Singapore in 18 hours.  Correspondence that once was done by letters delivered on horseback, by train, by sail or steamboat, over the course of weeks or months, can now be done via satellite video conference in an instant.

Trips that would take a lifetime to plan and a fortune to finance can now be booked casually as a week-long holiday.  There is no place on Earth that cannot be reached from any other within 24 hours.  But the same technology that lets us relax in another hemisphere can also be used to kill thousands without warning on a clear, Tuesday morning.

In 1821, the force required to raze a city would have been carried by ships–plural.  It’s hard even for the federal government to miss an armada, and they don’t even have to grope coeds in the airport.  In 1821, Governments waged wars. Guerilla warfare was in its fledgling stages, and major conflicts were fought between standing armies.

Today, religious fanatics slaughter civilians indiscriminately.  One fanatic can kill hundreds. 19 fanatics can kill thousands.  The power to destroy a city can be carried in a suitcase, or in a plastic bag, wrapped in newspaper.  There are weapons that can wipe out entire cities in a blinding flash, infect millions with horrible disease or set an economy back for decades.   All that is needed is for one guard to miss a clue as the Ryder truck drives past; one TSA agent to be distracted; one metal detector to click when it should beep.

The monster may still walk abroad, but it can slip through our defenses without warning, act quickly, and leave nothing but tattered steel and broken bodies.  Do we trust our lives and our safety to our untrained citizens to see something and say something?  Do we rely on the TSA to succeed 100% of the time? Or do we ask SEAL Team 6, Army Rangers and the 10th Mountain Division to hunt the bastards down where they live?  I know who I trust more to get the job done.

To keep our lives and our liberty, rough men must slip into its cave at night and slit its beastly throat.

The first, and most important function of government is to protect its citizens from harm.  It is the primary purpose of the social contract–we join together to hold off the Hun.  In today’s world, protecting ourselves here, means slaying the monster abroad.  It cannot be allowed to grow, to breed, or to fester.  To keep our lives and our liberty, rough men must slip into its cave at night and slit its beastly throat.

Isolationism, whether out of economic conservatism or a laissez faire diplomacy, is institutional negligence.  If our government is to meet its primary responsibility, it must go abroad in search of monsters to slay.  To do otherwise is to invite the monster here–and it has no reservations about slaying us.

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