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Bruce Fein: Former Reagan official says Americans must choose between a Republic or an Empire
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from our studio in Washington, DC. The United States spends upwards of $1 trillion on its military, has somewhere between 700 and 1,000 bases in 135 countries. And what’s it all for? To defend freedom and democracy around the world? Or is it empire? To answer that question, I’m joined by Bruce Fein. He’s the founder of the American Freedom Agenda that works to restore constitutional checks and balances. He served in the Justice Department under President Reagan. He’s the author of the book Constitutional Peril. He works with Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty. You do a lot of things. And he’s working on a book about the American Empire. Thanks for joining us.
BRUCE FEIN, AMERICAN FREEDOM AGENDA: Thank you for inviting me, Paul.
JAY: So let’s start with the basic underlying assumption. Reagan, who I believe you worked for,—
FEIN: Yes, I did.
JAY: —called America the beacon on the hill. And under Reagan we saw a big expansion in military expenditure. Of course, we saw the same thing prior to him under Truman and under Kennedy, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a Republican or Democrat. What is all this for? Freedom or empire?
FEIN: I think if you examine the trajectory of the United States from its inception, it began as a republic which didn’t feel compelled, after winning its independence, to attack the monarchy in France, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, recognizing, as our constitutional preamble put it, that the mission of the United States [is] to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. And that was a little bit what George Washington [inaudible] in his very famous farewell address, “no entangling alliances.” And we have become an empire over the centuries.
JAY: But hang on. I’ve got to interrupt you, because there certainly was a sort of empire within the borders of America. The attacks on the Indian people here, the indigenous peoples of the America, fights with Mexico, expansion. I mean, there were some of these tendencies are going on.
FEIN: Well, of course, in the sense that you had occupied land that you weren’t—you know, that’s colonists were about. They weren’t born here; they weren’t native Americans. So to that extent I suppose everybody’s an empire, because people don’t stay put where they were. But I’m talking about once they had a legal framework in the Constitution. For at least the first 50 years, I think, the idea was captured in John Quincy Adams’ July 4 address of 1821, “We do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” because he recognized that it would destroy our own republic. And that’s why even as our Latin American neighbors were winning independence from Spain, we weren’t intervening and saying, “Oh, this is a tyranny there. We’ve got to get rid of you,” and we weren’t intervening in the Greek War of Independence in 1821. The idea was we would try to influence things just by example, but that was the end of it. We didn’t have this compulsion to believe that we should be ordering the entire world so they should be carbon copies of the United States of America. If they are that way by example, all well and good. It’s not like we’re against freedom, but we understand that the process of exerting power abroad just for the sake of trying to do good is going to destroy your institutions at home, because all the power goes to the executive branch. James Madison said that we will become a tyranny only if we have a foreign danger that’s exaggerated. He was the president of the United States at the war of 1812. But where are we today? You described at the outset, Paul, all of these military bases, 135 countries. Why are we doing this? And this is because when you have a superpower capacity like we have, there’s nobody else in the entire world that threatens our sovereignty. This abomination of 9/11, it didn’t threaten our sovereignty. Nobody can threaten our sovereignty. We’re too powerful. The Soviet Union has disintegrated. Our military budget is greater than the next 25 military budgets in the world. We get nervous about Russia and South Ossetia; Russia’s budget is one-twelfth (8 percent) of the United States’. You know, its longevity is, like, 57 years. But [inaudible] military bases are there largely not to defend ourselves from attack, because you can do that at home in the United States of America. You can take those troops there, and they can be bolstering border security. You can have spy satellites. You gather intelligence. You can have submarines. You don’t have to have military bases in order to be safe. It’s there to just protect our power because we get psychic thrill of dominating people and thinking we shouldn’t have to tolerate risk anywhere. And this psychic thrill is not unique to the United States. All previous empires, when they’ve tried to justify themselves, say, “Hey, it makes everybody, you know, euphoric,” because they understand they’re number one. It’s like being for the winner of the Super Bowl or something like that.
JAY: But a lot of the rationale for this has been said to, quote, “defend the American way of life,” and there is some truth to that in the sense of if you look at the level of standard of living, the amount of wealth that’s in the United States compared to the rest of the world, to some extent does not this foreign military projection also defend American commercial interests?
FEIN: No. You do not need that, Paul. That’s nonsense. People will do anything for money. You don’t have to encourage people to trade. You know, you’re trading with China centuries and centuries ago. All the embargoes that were done, you know, it was the Soviet wheat embargo that we imposed after Afghanistan invasion. They just bought more wheat from Argentina and Spain. Our embargo on Cuba, what does it do? Nothing. You will always have people who will smuggle it in if it can’t be done legally. We spent $1 trillion on the drugs, and it still comes in the United States. People will trade for you. Iran will trade with us. Hugo Chávez will trade with us. Anyone will trade if you give them money. And if they won’t do it directly, somebody else will do it indirectly. You may recall that after the 1973 Yom Kippur War there was an oil embargo against the United States and Netherlands, ’cause we supported Israel. Did it mean we didn’t get oil? No. They just sold to somebody who then resold it to the United States. We do not need the military in order to be wealthy and prosperous. And, indeed, I’ve done an examination in the course of writing the book to see whether the British Empire prospered because they had this enormous, you know, tentacles out militarily and then said, well, the only reason why [they] have international trade is because they have this military. The answer was, no, there was not a correlation between empire and wealth. It doesn’t need to happen that way. You just have free trade agreements.
JAY: Well, what certainly does have a direct connection, empire and wealth, if you are an arms manufacturer.
FEIN: Oh, of course. I’m not saying—I don’t say, Paul, that empire can’t give certain industries what—.
JAY: No. What I’m get—and so my question is: to what extent are policy objectives being set by the kind of economic interests that are at play both in Congress, in the Senate, from the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower talked about?
FEIN: No, that’s certainly at work. That is certainly at work there, but it isn’t dominant by itself, it wouldn’t prevail, because it isn’t just the military-industrial complex that gets this advantage or feels this need to have 135 bases abroad. It’s widespread. Who stands up to the United States to say we should not have 135 bases? Because this is, I think, an accurate assessment of these primal urges. I just feel better to know that I can say I’m number one with the United States and we need to go anyplace and kind of squelch any pre-embryonic threats to the United States. I understand that the military-industrial complex feels it more intently [sic], because they get not only the psychic thrill, they get the money too, and that obviously drives them. But it isn’t just driven by them, because no policy could endure for as long as this one has, at least since World War II, unless it had real ground-root support some place. And it is the ground-root support, I think, of the American psychology.
JAY: And what’s the role of the media in this?
FEIN: Well, the media, I think, largely is an echo of that, of the power structure, if you will. I do not think that the media has called attention to the fact that—. You know, why are we in these places? You know, in The Washington Post today, they have their lead editorial, “Oh, we are really living in a super-dangerous world,” and suggesting we need to go forward with prosecutions on those who are participating in torture, we’ve got to continue doing this. Listen, this isn’t anything like the Cuban missile crisis. I mean, it’s right like Osama bin Ladens and the Cuban missile crisis. So the media has not performed its role in asking over and over again, “What is the genuine threat out there? Why can’t we protect ourselves by having our troops and our satellites here in the United States and we can still have submarines?” And it doesn’t mean we can’t have a CIA. Gathering intelligence is different than shooting drones and killing people. It’s different than having military bases where there are feet on the ground. [inaudible]
JAY: Well, President Bush’s argument—and to some extent President Obama seems to be taking it up—that it’s better to fight them over there than fight them over here, and that’s the rationale for the—.
FEIN: That is an absurd argument, because if you’re not fighting, you may never have to fight them here. You have a defense here it doesn’t like, and you live thousands of miles away. It’s not human nature when you’re 5,000 miles away to pick up and say, “I hate someone and I’ll try to kill them.” Now, there may be another 9/11 attack, but there are Timothy McVeighs in the United States as well. We don’t declare war on Timothy McVeighs. We try to catch them and we prosecute them in the criminal justice system, but we don’t have a war mentality and psychology. Just remember this, Paul, the distinguishing feature of war: it makes killing legal; it makes it legal to go slaughter people. And it means you don’t have any judicial checks, you just pick out your target and you shoot, and if you get it wrong, that’s collateral damage. That is why the war psychology and the war mentality is entirely different from just suggesting, “Oh, well, they’re dangerous and we need to confront it.” Yeah, but we can confront it in the civil criminal justice system, where it isn’t legal to kill. It’s legal to have prosecutions and kill after you have due process, if you want to use the death penalty. That’s why this is entirely different. I want to go back again, this idea, if we aren’t abroad, they will be declaring war on us here. I think that’s nonsense. I do not think Iraq would have invaded the United States if we were not in Iraq. And at present, I think if we withdrew every single troop from Afghanistan, there may be somebody who would try, like a Timothy McVeigh in the United States, to do some suicide bomb. And I’m not saying we should be indifferent to that, but that small risk doesn’t justify an entire war psychology. You know, we’re going to have 80,000 troops over there shooting drone missiles and killing people ’cause there might be one murder. [inaudible] makes no sense.
JAY: Well, the argument that’s being given now under the current conditions is Pakistan’s unraveling. Pakistan is a nuclear power, so somebody’s got to do something about the Islamists in the tribal territories.
FEIN: Well, that is silly. Number one, we have created the problem in Pakistan in large measure, because we began by using the Paks to destroy the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was that. We really created Taliban and Osama bin Laden, because we armed them with Stinger missiles and otherwise. Charlie Wilson’s war, well, Charlie Wilson’s war was the antechamber to the war against the United States. And, well, what makes us think that we know how to prop up the Pakistan regime? You know, we were there with Musharraf, and Musharraf fell. You know, we were back—Zardari’s sort of half gone. We don’t know. And we aren’t legitimate in Pakistan. You associate with United States in Pakistan, it’s like associating us with the Shah against the mullahs. You know, they are like other people and they resent outside forces telling them what to do. And I’m not going to say that it isn’t some kind of risk. Given the fragility of the Pakistan regime—and they do have nuclear weapons—that, yeah, it’s conceivable that something could fall into their hands. It’s conceivable that Iran may have a nuclear weapon too. Are we going to invade Iran because they could develop a nuclear weapon? North Korea has a nuclear weapon as well, Paul, already. We aren’t invading North Korea. And with regard to the real danger that’s more feasible is bacteriological or chemical weapons, poisoning the water supply, they already know how to do that, and we aren’t declaring war everywhere in the world where you could, you know, developing a bacteriological poison to stick into the United States water supply. And I’m not trying to suggest that we live in a Pollyanna-ish world and everything’s going to be fine abroad. There are evil forces out there, and we need to take measures and try to protect ourselves in the United States. But part of being a republic is you’ve got to accept some risk. If you accept no risk, you’d have war everywhere, all time and all place, and we stick everybody in jail because we’re all capable of evil. You’ve got to accept some risk—not stupidly, but some. And some of that risk is, yeah, maybe we’re not everywhere in the world. Maybe somebody at some time and some place will attack us [inaudible] not going to threaten our sovereignty, and people will die, and we don’t like that. But remember, we accept a situation in the United States where every year 15,000 to 20,000 people are murdered. We don’t say, “Habeas corpus we declare on murders”; we then have all these special programs that’ll enable the police to go into anybody’s house, anytime, anyplace, if they think there’s going to be a murder. That’s a huge casualty figure, 15,000 to 20,000, Paul. That means since 9/11 we’ve had 160,000 murders. Could you imagine in the United States if there are 160,000 casualties from terrorism? We’d have a military regime. We’d have a military regime. So it’s just [inaudible] back and being sensible about assessing what is the genuine level of risk and to respond appropriately so that we keep our republic intact, because when we try to eliminate all risk, then we end up losing the Republic, all the power goes to the executive branch, and the whole reason for being a separate country vanishes.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Bruce. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.