Mark Steyn's Odd Call for Small-Government Imperialism

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Pining for a more aggressive, interventionist America, he deludes himself into thinking a small government conservative could run it

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In the November issue of Commentary, Mark Steyn assesses America at this moment in time and offers "The Case for Pessimism," wherein he argues that the United States is likely to lose its status as the most powerful nation in the world, done in by the welfare state, profligate spending, and a president who doesn't understand geopolitics. "In 2008, the U.S. electorate... voted for normaliut [normality, as defined in the Israeli context]. Americans voted to repudiate the previous years, dominated by terror attacks and Code Orange alerts and anthrax scares, and thankless semicolonial soldiering in corners of the map no one cared about. They were under the sway of a desperate hope that wars can simply come to an end when one side decides it's all a bit of a bore," he writes. "But as Israel understands by now, sometimes who you are is more important than anything you do. And sometimes who you are is an offense to those indifferent to anything you might or might not do. America will discover, as Israel did, that a one-way urge for normaliut will lead to a more dangerous world."

Steyn goes on to predict that "America will discover, as Britain has in twilight, that, long after imperial grandeur has faded, imperial resentments linger. We will not be left alone to fade into second-rate status. We will be taunted and humiliated and haunted and chased on the way down." The result will be "something terrifying...This will be the greatest step backwards for the civilization that built the modern world and spread its blessings across the map. There will be no new world order... The only way to prevent it is to act, and act quickly."

Okay, let's think fast.

What if the U.S. builds the biggest, most powerful, most technologically advanced military in the world -- in fact, let's spend more on the military than all of our credible rivals combined. After that, we can open military bases in 50 or 60 countries, so that we've got every region of the world covered; make sure we own more than half the world's aircraft carriers; and identify 150 countries of strategic importance where we can deploy American troops. What's that you say? We've already done all that? It's almost as if we haven't chosen to cede an extremely interventionist version of global leadership, for better or worse.

Steyn is a man of contradictions. He insists that America's debt and deficit are existential threats to our future... even as he urges us to maintain a permanent semi-imperial military presence all over the world at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars per year... and insists, as he cheers on every excess in the War on Terrorism, that he is a Tea Party affiliated champion of limited government. He's a guy who can insist, quite eloquently and with appropriate righteousness, that the 1st Amendment is sacrosanct, even when cartoonists operating under its protection offend Muslim extremists; but who cannot be bothered to defend the 4th Amendment or lament the expansion of executive power or the innocents wrongly detained at Gitmo.

In Steyn world, there is never any worry that powers accrued in the War on Terrorism will be turned against non-terrorists. He wants small government imperialism, implemented by Jack Bauer-like men: tough enough to know that the constitution isn't a suicide pact, but so deferential to it that they'd never depart from a strict interpretation of the Founders' vision. In this way, they'll be able to fund interventions the world over, balance budgets, and never raise taxes.

It's a fantastical vision.

As absurd is Steyn's implicit assertion that Obama is ending America's global ambitions. If only it were so. True to form, Steyn quotes a couple lines from a speech to characterize Obama's foreign policy views, totally ignoring the many actions he's taken since becoming Commander in Chief: surging troops into Afghanistan, trying to negotiate a troop extension in Iraq, planning to send more forces elsewhere in the Persian Gulf after America pulls out, waging an undeclared drone war in an unknown number of countries, killing hundreds of "suspected militants" in Pakistan alone, sending commandos into a sovereign, nuclear armed nation to kill Osama bin Laden, dispatching DEA paramilitary forces in Latin America, helping to topple Moammar Gaddafi in a war waged without Congressional approval. I hate Obama's foreign policy. Others defend his militarism and America's reach. Steyn just conjures a pretend Obama to rail against in the course of arguing for fiscal discipline and a re-commitment to remaking the globe, even as we're doing the latter, and failing to do the former partly as a result.

"Even in my deepest and most pessimistic vision, I can see a different future for the United States," Steyn writes near the end of his essay. "The United States is the only country in the world where a mass movement took to the streets in 2009 to say we could do just fine if you, the government, stayed the hell out of our pockets and the hell out of our lives. That fact, that populist refusal to be Europeanized, represents the best hope for this country. Those now-caricatured, much-maligned Tea Partiers moved the meter of public discourse significantly back in the direction of sanity."

He goes on to invoke a libertarian icon:

In 1975, Milton Friedman said this: "I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office."

Just so. Every time Barack Obama stands at his teleprompter and is forced to pretend that he's interested in deficit reduction, we have taken a step toward that Milton Friedman reality. You have to create the conditions, as the Tea Party and the town hall meetings did, whereby the wrong people are forced to do the right things.

It's a wonder that Steyn believes, as Milton Friedman most certainly would not, that encouraging the president to act as a global hegemon is consistent with creating conditions that would force him to govern as a small government conservative. War is the health of the state, as it was when the Alien and Sedition Acts were justified on the basis of the possibility of war with France, when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, when Woodrow Wilson pushed through the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, when Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned Japanese Americans, when young men were drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and when President Bush passed the Patriot Act and argued that he could declare Americans enemy combatants. Is there a war-fighting, small government-loving imperial hegemon Steyn can point us to?   

Image credit: Reuters 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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