Joe Sobran’s Timeless Lesson on America’s Role in the World
I met Joe Sobran in early 1997 at a conference near Chicago on the American intervention in the Balkans. It was not his area of primary interest, but he understood all of the key issues because he understood U.S. foreign policy and its domestic roots. His diagnosis, which applied then, in Bill Clinton’s second term, applies even more today, with his wife in charge of the Department of State and his moral equivalents in charge of everything else.
Sobran’s diagnosis of the domestic malaise started with the notion that “the regime we live under” derives its legitimacy from a blatant distortion of the United States Constitution. On the basis of a compact among the sovereign states, the federal government was to be a service confined to the specific enumerated powers the people delegated to it, pursuant to their general welfare and common defense. Over the past century and a half, however, the federal government has usurped all kinds of powers neither the people nor the states had delegated to it. It has become a “consolidated” or centralized government. This, to Sobran, was an act of tyranny, but very few of our contemporaries would understand what he was talking about:
The idea of restricting government to “enumerated” powers—a written and finite list—is … alien to today’s American. The only remedies he can think of for big government are term limits and a balanced budget amendment. The lucid and shared philosophy of the Founding Fathers, imperfect as it was, has also become unintelligible to today’s American, who knows only a set of slogans labeled “liberal,” “conservative,” and “moderate.” Of course there are wide areas of consensus; if you are outside those areas, you are an “extremist.”
America’s self-awarded and firmly bipartisan global mission of “world leadership,” according to Sobran, was a logical consequence of the domestic metamorphosis: we must lead the “international community” in keeping peace, deterring “terrorism,” and securing “human rights.” Along with these lofty goals, we must defend our “vital interests” around the world. Those “vital interests”—presumably issues on which your life or death depend—are at stake everywhere in the world. All along, since Americans do not like words like “conquest” and “empire,” we speak of “leadership,” “defense,” and “promoting democracy”:
Everything we do, everywhere, is “defense.” Even the Department of War has been rechristened the Department of Defense. American military action is now defensive by definition. No matter how many troops we place abroad, no matter how far from home, no matter how many people we kill in their own homelands with advanced weaponry they cannot hope to match or resist, we are merely “defending” ourselves. Why can’t those foreigners understand this?
The unsurprising consequence, Sobran warned years before the intervention in Serbia (1999), or the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), is that “America” is widely hated, a fact that most Americans find surprising. Military interventions abroad are invariably presented in Washington as being in our “national interest”; but those who beg to differ after weighing costs and benefits, are accused of selfish isolationism for failing to understand our global responsibilities and the importance of preserving our credibility. This is light years away from “the common defense of the United States,” which was no different to Article V of the NATO Charter of yore. Back in 1997 Sobran was despondent but not surprised that the U.S. government was expanding NATO to include countries bordering on Russia, but not Russia itself, while pretending that this policy was not anti-Russian: “Certainly not. No more than it would be anti-American for the Russians to form a military alliance with Canada and Mexico, and to place troops on our borders … Its communist ideology is dead; its problems are local and internal; it has no natural reason to be our enemy anymore.”
Joe Sobran’s considered verdict was simple: American foreign policy is not conducted in the national interest, and it is an insult to the intelligence of its people. Sophisticated people try to shape it, and some of their machinations and rationalizations—as Henry Kissinger’s example shows—are extremely clever; but it is as futile to seek integrated rationality in American foreign policy as to seek it in our government’s domestic policy: both are chaotic. If they have a common denominator, it is the habit of accumulating power, of starting and continuing on risky and expensive courses whose final consequences no man can foresee:
Whether your literary taste runs to Hayek or Hamlet, the lesson is the same: the future cannot be controlled. Michael Oakeshott has shown the inherent futility of “rationalism in politics.” Rationalism of the kind Oakeshott described may be discredited in domestic politics—socialism is a dead ideology—but it survives in the current attempt to build a “New World Order” through international conferences, treaties, paper currencies, trade agreements, and the like, along with sporadic military intervention of the kind the United States has engaged in from Haiti to Somalia to Bosnia to Iraq.
Over thirteen years later these words ring as true, and as wise, as they were in Highwood in March 1997. Sobran named the news media, with their support the ruling elite, as a key culprit in the game. Far from a critical “adversary press,” most Americans rely for information on a courtier press that wants to be part of the action and shape public policy—“an ambition that corrupts the avowed purpose of keeping us informed.” And yet, for all its faults, the press, including television, tells us more than it intends to, because anyone who watches carefully will lose any awe, or even trust, he once felt for our rulers. They relentlessly expose themselves as venal, small-minded power-seekers to whom it is sheer madness to entrust our fate. No amount of favorable press coverage can conceal that. Our Presidents, our justices, our congressmen are made of the same stuff:
Do you trust the aggregate of these people to send our sons abroad to fight in worthy causes? We cannot even trust them to keep their hands out of the till. As for acting on any noble or honorable public philosophy, the idea is ludicrous. There is no point in debating principles with such people, any more than with a Mafia don. But our current rulers are the natural residue of a long history. A country that has chosen such “great” leaders as Lincoln, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt has pretty well decided that its future Jeffersons will have to find occupations outside politics: a centralized welfare state operating a global empire has closed off Jeffersonian options. How many Johnsons, Nixons, and Clintons do we have to endure before we realize that they are not anomalies? Who is fitter than Bill Clinton to lead this kind of country at the pinnacle of “world leadership”?
The question is even more apt under our current chief executive, of course. Such are the “leaders of the free world.” We have produced a system that guarantees that the Clintons, GWB’s, BHS’s and men like them will rise to the top. It is bad enough that they exercise enormous leverage over a third of a billion people within our borders, Sobran thought; it is horrifying that they should exert similar impact on the rest of mankind. We should feel disgust for them, but they are by no means the worst feature of American society today. American culture itself is now so completely degraded, he thought, so self-evidently foul that we can only be embarrassed and shamed by its global influence, and pray that it be placed under some sort of international quarantine.
Our rulers and cultural leaders share one remarkable trait: they are seriously alienated from Christian culture. They consider it a positive virtue and duty to uproot popular Christian traditions … Conservatives rail against the courts for their support of such evils as pornography and abortion, but it is not just the content of jurisprudence that matters. It is that the federal judiciary has been part of the broader assault on federalism … Far from checking federal usurpations of power, the Supreme Court has played a vital role in the whole campaign of usurpation. In the name of separating church and state (according to a fraudulent interpretation of the First Amendment), it has de-Christianized America at the state and local levels. Its message to every town in the country is that it may not rule itself according to its most sacred traditions. In acting thus, the Court is not merely “legislating,” as its accusers say; even more important, it is centralizing power in the name of the Constitution that was supposed to protect us against “consolidated” government.
The result is the Washington-based empire, globally and locally speaking, that has demolished all other centers of power that once constituted the federal system. Because traditional popular culture is, or was, deeply Christian, the country could only be de-Christianized by edict from a single center of power, preferably by unelected officials. This role was quietly assigned to the judicial branch, which had nothing to fear from the voters.
American influence abroad, Sobran realized, could not be established without waging war on local cultures and traditions. Commercial movies and music have insulted sexual morality, and foreign “aid,” including subsidies to population-control groups like Planned Parenthood, have promoted contraception and abortion, in defiance of local religious codes and deep-rooted mores. The response to resistance is force, and as George Washington said, government is not reason or persuasion, it is force. The bigger it grows, Sobran said, the more it is forcing or forbidding people to do things against their will—whether they are taxpayers, worshippers, businessmen, or cigarette smokers. And the more it does such things, the more it pits itself against those it rules:
Eventually it reaches a point of essential alienation, where it can no longer pretend to represent the governed. The American government is now the most powerful human organization that has ever existed. It has made a stupid habit of exercising power arbitrarily, uninhibited by moral or constitutional principle. It is not a conspiracy masterminded by some cunning genius at the center; it is a system of power which large numbers of greedy and ambitious people have learned to use. It has ceased to be a problem for Americans only; it has become a problem for a large part of the human race.
Back in early 1997 I found Joe Sobran’s points valid and intellectually provoking, but I still believed that America was more vibrant and more capable of reasserting her essential self than he gloomily predicted. Almost fourteen years later I am as gloomy as he was back then. We have met but twice since that time, socially and inconsequentially. Joe Sobran has written countless articles and columns since, but what he told me, and others, on that misty evening in Illinois is what sticks in my memory the most. It is worthy of remembering as a wise man’s warning of America’s pending ruin that continues to haunt us all:
The Founders of this country would not recognize the present government as their creation. We need not idealize them in order to recognize that the regime we live under now has severed any real connection with the original Republic, with its principles, its political culture, its love of peace and good relations abroad free of “entangling alliances.” At home and abroad, this government has wildly outrun any possible rationale for its power. It is something every American should be both afraid of and ashamed of. A patriotic American today ought to be “anti-American.”
Amen. May Joe Sobran’s soul rest in peace.