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The first radio news story, on the school shooting in Colorado,
featured the now-notorious soundbite from President Clinton about how
“we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express
their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.” The
very next story was the daily update on the determination of NATO, led
by the political leaders of the United States and most significantly by the
lip-biter-in-chief, to continue to punish the Serbs with weapons, not
words.

Teach your children well.

Much of the discussion around the ongoing war — back-and-forth on
the efficacy of air wars, the capabilities and vulnerabilities of
different weapons and weapons systems, strategic and tactical
calculations that might go into a decision to commit ground troops,
ponderous debate about whether NATO’s strategy is succeeding or failing
and how much it will all cost from the Social-Security-driven budget
“surplus” — is well-informed and even fascinating in a grim sort of
way. But as Republicans debate how much more of the taxpayers’ money
they want to throw at a military commanded by somebody none of them
trust to tell the truth except by accident, it might be helpful to move
to more fundamental questions.

What role do we really want this country to play in a world without a
communist threat? In many ways that comes down to what kind of country
we would like the United States to be.

A free republic or an empire?

Those of us who prefer a free republic with a limited government are
sometimes referred to as isolationists, people who want the United
States to retreat inward, away from contact with the sometimes scary and
always foreign outside world. I find it difficult to recognize myself in
that term.

I favor free trade and unrestricted immigration. I think the United
States should be utterly open to the rest of the world. If I were
dictator for a day and could snap my fingers, I would probably eliminate
the passport and customs departments along with immigration and all
those special-interest-responsive trade agencies. I suspect that we’re
in the twilight of the era of the nation-state as the dominant political
institution in the world, and the prospect excites me more than it
frightens me.

I’ve always been fascinated by the world at large and by obscure
corners of it, eager to learn more and utterly convinced that there’s
value in that kind of learning. I’m pleased that my job puts me in touch
with people from other parts of the world on a regular basis. I’m a
Trustee of the Orange County World Affairs Council and try not to miss
many meetings.

If that sounds like your stereotypical isolationist, make the most of
it.

But as much as I enjoy interaction with people from other parts of
the world, as much as I believe such action to be beneficial (if only
because it’s interesting, a chance to learn something new), I am
staunchly opposed to having our government play a large political or
military role in other countries. If it were up to me, the U.S.
government would drop out of the entire alphabet soup of international
diplomatic, military, cultural and purportedly humanitarian agencies by
day after tomorrow at the latest.

My preference for what some would view as withdrawal from the world
into an American turtle shell flows not from any lack of interest in or
indifference to what goes on in other parts of the world. Quite the
contrary. It flows from a desire to live in a free republic rather than
an empire, a situation I believe would give me and other citizens who
share my fascination a much better opportunity to explore, enjoy and
learn about the rest of the world as a fascinated and sympathetic
observer, student and sometime participant.

An imperial power feels the need to garrison troops in various unruly
parts of the world to prevent the “barbarians” — often enough real
barbarians but also often enough people whose customs, history and
assumptions about life our leaders haven’t taken the trouble to try to
understand because they have no desire to do so — from getting out of
hand and threatening imperial stability. A free republic would
concentrate on protecting the legitimate rights and freedoms of its
citizens and enjoying the prosperity and cultural richness that always
flow from freedom. It would lead the world by example — always ready to
welcome visitors who want to study our ways and steal ideas that might
work for them, but modest about lecturing, hectoring or bullying others
– rather than by lobbing cruise missiles on those it finds wrong or
bothersome.

A free republic can be viewed as an effort to translate into
institutional form the ethic President Clinton aped in his response to
Littleton — that whenever possible it is best to resolve our
differences with words and mutually beneficial transactions rather than
weapons. You don’t have to be a pacifist to acknowledge that the more
often differences can be resolved (or at least addressed) by voluntary
methods that respect the rights and dignity of all concerned rather than
by coercive methods involving fists or weapons, the better chance
something resembling a civilized order will emerge and thrive.

A government that wants to run other countries — whatever the stated
motivation, whether political power, economic exploitation or
humanitarian concern — will have trouble remaining a free republic.

For starters, it will have to exact increasingly onerous taxes
(ultimately at the point of a gun) to finance its overseas operations.
It will have to think about conscripting young men (and women, of
course, these days) and training them to be more efficient and ruthless
killers and destroyers. It will sometimes have to propagandize its
people by demonizing its enemies of the moment, which will create
divisions and hatreds within the country. It will create hostility among
those with whom it self-righteously meddles — which might not be bad
from the perspective of the imperial masters, since it will assure a
steady supply of real enemies with real grievances and real plans to
disrupt life in the imperial center to supplement the synthetic enemies
created by government propaganda operations. It will sometimes have to
suppress dissent ruthlessly.

I have no desire for the United States to be that kind of a country,
and despite the impulse to rally around any president and to mutter
about how various villains around the world could really use a good
butt-kicking, I don’t think many ordinary Americans do. The desire to
run the world is confined to a tiny swathe of the population that thinks
of itself as an intellectual and political elite. That elite group
controls most of the levers of power in the government and in the
mainstream media, but I can’t believe it represents the thinking of most
Americans.

For those who believe one of the key choices we’re in the process of
making in the post-cold-war world is between becoming more like a free
republic or more like an empire, the Kosovo war is something of a
defining moment. It’s hard to believe that anybody who sincerely favors
even reducing the size and scope of government by a smidgen or two, let
alone significant movement in the direction of a constitutional limited
government, could find a way to countenance such a dubious adventure.

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