Why Our 'National Interests' Shouldn't Be Protected

by Harry Browne

February 27, 2005       

A favorite phrase of the politicians is our "national interest." We hear that some foreign policy adventure is in our national interest that protecting some foreign country is vital to our "national interest" that our "national interest" requires keeping the supply lines for oil out of the wrong hands.

I miswrote (a word meaning I put my foot in my mouth while typing at my computer) when, speaking of foreign policy, I said in my Journal for February 22:

If liberty-loving people ever again gain control of the U.S. government, we must bind down future Presidents with new chains for the Constitution depriving the politicians of the power to commit the mayhem that has been perpetrated by 13 of the last 16 Presidents.

Several people wrote to ask who the three Presidents were that hadn't committed mayhem.

My thought had been that Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover were the only Presidents since Wilson who hadn't stuck America's nose in other country's affairs. Certainly every President since World War II has either instigated or condoned gross violations of the sovereignty of other countries. And Franklin Roosevelt well, his name is enough said.

The 1920s American foreign policy is an area I've yet to investigate. But in contemplating the inquiries about the three "good" Presidents, I thought I'd better take at least a cursory look at what the American military was doing in the 1920s.

The Sad History

The Department of the Navy has a Naval Historical Center and its website includes a page entitled "Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad, 1798 1993." Therein you will find 234 events in which the U.S. military has gone "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" (as John Quincy Adams put it).

Just for the record, here are what the U.S. Navy says were the ways in which our government intervened abroad during the administrations of the three presidential exceptions I had in mind:

1916-24 Dominican Republic May 1916 to September 1924. American naval forces maintained order during a period of chronic and threatened insurrection.

1920-22 Russia (Siberia) February 16, 1920, to November 19, 1922. A Marine guard was sent to protect the United States radio station and property on Russian Island, Bay of Vladivostok.

1921 Panama Costa Rica. American naval squadrons demonstrated in April on both sides of the Isthmus to prevent war between the two countries over a boundary dispute.

1922 Turkey September and October. A landing force was sent ashore with consent of both Greek and Turkish authorities, to protect American lives and property when the Turkish Nationalists entered Smyrna.

1922-23 China. Between April 1922 and November 1923 marines were landed five times to protect Americans during periods of unrest.

1924 Honduras February 28 to March 31, September 10 to 15. U.S. forces protected American lives and interests during election hostilities.

1924 China September. Marines were landed to protect Americans and other foreigners in Shanghai during Chinese factional hostilities.

1925 China January 15 to August 29. Fighting of Chinese factions accompanied by riots and demonstrations in Shanghai brought the landing of American forces to protect lives and property in the International Settlement.

1925 Honduras April 19 to 21. U.S. forces protected foreigners at La Ceiba during a political upheaval.

1925 Panama October 12 to 23. Strikes and rent riots led to the landing of about 600 American troops to keep order and protect American interests.

1926 China August and September. The Nationalist attack on Han brought the landing of American naval forces to protect American citizens. A small guard was maintained at the consulate general even after September 16, when the rest of the forces were withdrawn. Likewise, when National forces captured Kiukiang, naval forces were landed for the protection of foreigners November 4 to 6.

1926-33 Nicaragua May 7 to June 5, 1926; August 27, 1926, to January 1933. The coup d'etat of General Chamorro aroused revolutionary activities leading to the landing of American marines to protect the interests of United States citizens and interest. United States forces came and went intermittently until January 3, 1933. Their work included activity against the outlaw leader Sandino in 1928.

1927 China February. Fighting at Shanghai caused American naval forces and marines to be increased. In March a naval guard was stationed at the American consulate at Nanking after Nationalist forces captured the city. American and British destroyers later used shell fire to protect Americans and other foreigners. Subsequently additional forces of marines and naval forces were stationed in the vicinity of Shanghai and Tientsin.

1932 China. American forces were landed to protect American interests during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.

Obviously, I should have referred to "the mayhem that has been perpetrated by 16 of the last 16 Presidents."

Who's Responsible?

In the above summary, you'll note several examples wherein the American military was sent abroad to protect "American lives and interests." That is a very poor use of the military, but it is one very good way to light a fuse that will lead to war.

Americans who decide to live and/or work abroad should do so at their own risk. The same is true for American companies that decide to establish branches abroad. They all make their own decisions, and it isn't right to make 200+ million Americans vulnerable to death and destruction as a result of the decisions made by a handful of Americans or American companies.

American companies located abroad can hire private mercenaries to protect their interests. There is no reason to put the rest of America at risk because of their decisions.

Protecting the Oil Supply

This is especially true with regard to oil. Protecting America's sources of oil in the Middle East should not be the responsibility of the U.S. government. There are two very bad consequences that can come from the government's protection of the oil supply.

First, any foreign intervention by our government can lead to war or terrorist attacks on America and undoubtedly has already.

I have trouble reading the minds of American officials (especially the dead ones), but it seems clear that American interventions in overthrowing the democratic government of Iran in 1953 (installing the tyrannical Shah) and in prosecuting the Gulf War of 1991 comprise at least two examples of war, destruction, and killing that resulted from the desire to keep the oil flowing to America.

Should America do the same to keep the supply lines open for French wines, Asian rice, Central American fruit, Japanese cars, Thai computers, Canadian entertainers? Where does it end?

It seems obvious to me that the companies who manufacture or buy their products in foreign countries should provide and pay for the protection necessary to keep their goods flowing to America.

Knowing the Price

And that brings us to the second consequence of using the American military to protect "American interests" abroad.

This causes part of the cost of a product to be buried in the Defense budget, rather than being added to the product's selling price.

For example, we have no idea what the true cost of foreign oil is. Lately on the open market, the price has been bumping around $50 a barrel. But that doesn't allow for the huge amounts of money that the U.S. government has spent in order to keep the oil flowing from the Middle East to America.

Some people maintain that the entire $200 billion or so spent on killing people in Iraq was solely for the purpose of grabbing Iraq's oil reserves. I don't know whether that's really true, but there's no question that such practices as cozying up to the oppressive government in Saudi Arabia can be explained only by the desire to keep the oil flowing to America.

If we paid the true price of oil when buying gasoline or using electricity, entrepreneurs would know whether it's economical to plow money into alternative sources like solar energy or hydrogen automobiles.

New products come onto the market to a welcoming reception when old products become too expensive to use. But so long as part of the cost of oil is buried in the Defense budget, there's no incentive to develop alternative sources of oil (such as in the Arctic circle) or to develop alternative products.

In other words, our government is subsidizing one form and one source of energy at the expense of all other forms and sources.

The result may be that some day American meddling abroad will cause the entire Middle Eastern oil supply to be shut off all at once causing havoc in the American economy because we're unprepared to use any alternatives.

This is just one more way government intervention can create dire problems in the U.S. economy.

And it is one more reason that we must get the government out of all areas not authorized in the Constitution confining the military to defending American soil and nothing else.

There is only one "national interest" that makes sense. And that is to protect the American homeland form invasion or attack. If our government ever abandoned its policy of national offense and concentrated on national defense, we could defend America for a small fraction of what is spent on the military today.