»  National Review Online

September 12th, 2001

  The Surrender Option


If you are a reader of right-wing opinion websites, you will by now have heard the voice of the Paleos, loud and strong.

This is a judgment on us for our interventionist foreign policy …
It is time to examine the US relationship with Israel. The lives of every Israeli is not worth one drop of American blood …
Who has reason to hate this country? Only a few hundred million people — Arabs, Muslims, Serbs, and numerous others whose countries have been hit by U.S. bombers …
Nobody is bombing Helsinki or Rome. Nobody is bombing Ottawa or Sydney …
On the day after Pearl Harbor, ex-President Herbert Hoover sat down and wrote to friends: "You and I know that this continuous putting pins in rattlesnakes finally got this country bitten."

That last one is from Pat Buchanan, who will be on TV a lot these next few weeks, and whose royalty statements (the bit of paper your publisher sends you twice a year to let you know how much money your books have earned you) will be bringing great cheer to the Buchanan household for a while to come.

Now, I don't mind Paleos. I understand the appeal of their vision: a busy commercial republic, minding her own business, with no troops stationed beyond her shores, the champion of liberty in every land, but never its guarantor. Heck, I used to belong to a Paleo email list. I know all the arguments. (Pur-leeze don't send me reminders.) The strongest one, so far as I am concerned, is the one that says you can't maintain liberty as the Founders understood it when you are practicing Empire. You'll be hearing this a lot, too, over the next few weeks. In calling for their government to better protect them against these horrors, many people won't much mind if, in order to do so, the government closes down some of our liberties. Yes, yes, I know the arguments.

I dropped off that Paleo list, after much thought, because I just didn't share that vision. I say again, I see its appeal, and I have a lot of sympathy for it: I just don't share it. For one thing, it would be sort of dishonest, at a personal level, for me to do so. If not for the U.S.A. having been willing to send troops abroad to fight, I should not now be here writing this. If alive at all, I should be out working in the fields under some Gauleiter für Ostmittelengland. To a lot of us raised in the rest of the world, having America as a remote, self-absorbed champion of theoretical liberty is all very well; but we kind of like the guarantor stuff, too. Sure, the United States is under no obligation to pander to our preference, however gratifying she may find it: but there are some strong practical reasons to favor American interventionism, too. Would the world have been a better, or a worse, place this past few decades, if America had stood aloof from the World Wars? Would America herself have been safer, more secure, more prosperous? It seems pretty plain to me — though certainly arguable (but again, please don't post me the arguments, I've heard them all) — that the answers are: "worse," and "no."

There were other things, less substantive things, that turned me off the Paleos. For example, though most of them are thoughtful and rational people, there is quite a high proportion of lunatics among them. (There is a certain proportion on any email list, of course; I am just saying the Paleos have more than average for an intellectual discussion list.) And even setting aside the lunatics, there was a sort of crabby, ill-mannered, claustrophobic atmosphere about the whole thing that started to grate on me after a while. No, I'm not a Paleo. Republic or Empire? Empire, please.

I understand, of course, that Americans at large, even those who have never even heard of the Republic vs. Empire debate, are schizophrenic about the matter. Huge numbers of Americans couldn't care less about the world beyond their shores. They want nothing to do with it. They go to Florida for their vacations, or at the very furthest Hawaii. Passport? Who needs it? I am talking about un-intellectual Americans — decent, good-hearted, Christian family-loving folk, who just can't see why the affairs of Albania or Zimbabwe are any damn business of theirs, much less why they should send off their beloved children to be killed in such places.

Yet there are other Americans who understand, what I believe is true, that the Republic option is, at bottom, an empty fantasy. Public opinion supported the Vietnam war almost to the end of it; it was the elites and the intellectuals who turned against it, not ordinary Americans. People understand, I think, that however much Americans might wish to leave the world alone, the world will not leave America alone. Great wealth and great success generate great envy and great hatred. And America's high ideals, if clutched jealously to America's chest, while those abroad who believe them are hunted down and slaughtered without help, will wither and die. Idealism, like terrorism, has — can have — no borders. We know that our way of life is far superior to Islamic Fundamentalism, Chinese Communism, "Big Man" Kleptocracy and Bureaucratic Welfarism. Knowing that, the urge to assist — assist by some practical means — those in other places who believe the same thing, will sooner or later prove irresistible to a bold, fearless, liberty-loving nation. (And if those adjectives no longer apply to this country, I have made a major life error.) American idealism cannot be contained.

To fall back on my own origins again, I come from a nation that actually did practice Empire, very successfully, but eventually decided it was too much trouble and cost, and gave up on it. Certain things followed, one by one. For example, we lost the ability to defend ourselves. From WWI onwards, we were essentially a U.S. protectorate, and still are today. For another, my country sank gradually into a mentality of fatalism and defeat in which no vigorous action against our enemies became possible. To see what I mean, look at Britain's response to Irish terrorism, about which I have written many times in this space. Here I was banging away on NRO last June, for example:

The fault for that tragedy [i.e. a fascist takeover of Ireland] will lie squarely with politicians in London, Dublin and Washington, who for thirty years have refused to do what the leaders of civilized nations must do when faced with terrorism in their own jurisdictions: hunt it down and exterminate it, without pause or pity or quarter or apology.

Why have those politicians refused to do that thing? Why are IRA terrorists, who have done the foulest and most beastly things — the kinds of things, though not on the kind of scale, we saw on Tuesday — walking around free in the streets of Belfast and Dublin, having been let out of jail in return for a few vague and empty promises from those who give them their orders? The fundamental reason is not hard to find. Britain, having forgotten its responsibilities as an upholder of civilization, no longer cared to confront civilization's enemies in the way they must be confronted. They put their trust instead in "peace processes," in legalisms and trials, in panels of international do-gooders blathering on about "human rights," in the State Department. They did not put their trust in the thin-lipped, hard-faced, soft-talking men and women who do civilization's dirty work for it. To bring in Kipling again (I am sorry; but at times like these, Kipling is indispensable), they made mock of the uniforms that guard us while we sleep.

The option that the last few British governments have taken — the Surrender Option — is available to America, too. It may even be taken. I was dismayed to hear the President speak about his instructions to find "those responsible" and "bring them to justice." Mr. President, these are not traffic violations; these are acts of war. Justice must go by the board for a while, as it did when we fire-bombed German and Japanese cities, incinerating helpless babies and old folk who wished us no harm. Where was the justice in that? Oh, and by the way: "those responsible" are already dead. They killed themselves attacking your country, and were proud and happy to do so. Some Americans — I speak as the father of two Americans — will have to get killed attacking their countries. (Oh, yes, they have countries.) Some of those Americans, likewise, will be proud and happy to do so, on behalf of the nation they love. Dirty business, running an Empire. Dirty business, defending civilization against barbarism. Barbaric business, sometimes — there's a paradox to ponder … But don't think you're the first to ponder it. It was a Roman who said oderint dum metuant, and a Roman who rebuked him for saying it. Dirty business, dirty business. But then, there is always the Surrender Option.