This piece is excerpted from Robert Scheer’s latest book, The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America .
War doesn’t pay, nor does imperial ambition. This proposition should be evident to anyone who has paid attention to the fivefold increase in the price of oil since George W. Bush took office. The principle of nonintervention is neither liberal nor conservative in orientation, and at the inception of the Republic it was accepted as a commonsense.
The dominant assumption of our nation’s founders was to avoid “foreign entanglements,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s words of warning. Indeed, the policy of nonintervention was considered by the founders as a basic demarcation between the politics of the Old and New Worlds. Explaining in his farewell address why he, as our first President, followed “our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances, with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington cautioned his countrymen to “moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
What has happened to the American people that these modest yet profound sentiments seem so foreign to the tongues of our politicians and the ears of their constituents? Who among our top leaders, Democrat or Republican, dares warn against the “impostures of pretended patriotism”?
As Washington warned, it is extremely difficult to unmask “pretended patriotism” when the nation is frightened by enemies real and imagined. But Washington could not have anticipated the sort of mass media society in which government propaganda becomes compelling and inconvenient truths are concealed behind the veil of national security. He certainly did not anticipate the modern militarized state, in which a permanent war footing has been the norm since the onset of the cold war.
For these reasons, Washington’s concerns needed the updating provided by our other great general turned President, Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike’s farewell address provides a perfect bookend to Washington’s, for it marks a modern President’s recognition that the fears of our first President had been realized. The Empire had come to replace the Republic. The “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned against was merely the logical extension of a stark policy of American intervention into the affairs of nations on every continent and the imperial reach of forward military bases throughout the world. What alarmed Eisenhower most was that the system that had grown up to counter communism (something he saw as a real threat) was self-perpetuating and disconnected from the defensive tasks at hand. Eisenhower predicted exactly what has come to pass. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it the rationale for the cold war, the military-industrial complex soon found another enemy: terrorism.