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November 03, 2006

(Non-campaign) Bumper Stickers
Posted by Michael Signer

I'm down in Charlottesville for a few days coordinating the get-out-the-vote programs for a few Shenandoah Valley counties for James Webb (and there my partisan comments end, thank you to our 501(c)(3) status), so I unfortunately can't blog very much this morning.  But, in the few seconds I do have between creating some last-minute flyers and handling a billion phone calls, I thought I'd point everyone's attention to an interesting post by Bruce Jentleson over at TPMCafe.  Jentleson is writing about whether progressives need a "bumper sticker" type of message on national security, and concentrates on the "liberty under law" idea generated by the Princeton Project on National Security.

We hear a lot about the need for a single concept and phrase like containment both to win the “big ideas” debate and work politically as a bumper sticker. This has been part of the discussion of the Princeton Project on National Security (PPNS) over on The Book Club, both with some critics saying the PPNS Report has too many issues and priorities and not one overarching one, and Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry making the case for “Liberty Under Law” as their core organizing concept and integrating strategy.

While we do need core ideas and strategies that are not just laundry lists of position papers, they need to strike the tricky balance of being simple but not simplistic. Clear and integrating enough to be the forest, and not just the trees of this and that issue, but also not denying the complexity that is reality. I have some differences with Liberty Under Law as a core macro-idea and strategy, for later discussion. Here my point is more addressed to the PPNS critics who lapse into rose-colored history about how much and how well containment really worked as the Cold War’s single organizing concept.

I myself kind of like Liberty under Law because it gets at the critical importance of constitutionalism, but I still think the underlying concept of whatever bumper sticker phrase we use should highlight the importance of America's strength and moral leadership.  I'd be partial to something along the lines of "A leader the world wants to follow" -- or, maybe more simply, "The World's Leader" -- or, really, really simply:  "Leadership." 

But then maybe I've got really short bumper stickers on the brain... OK, back to the campaign!


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"Liberty under Law" suffers from the problem that it has no clear and evident connection with national security, properly speaking. As applied to the world outside America, it seems to describe some sort of global vision which connects up with the safety of Americans in only a speculative and causally complex manner. And as applied to our own affairs, it broadly refers to all aspects of our national politics and policy. It doesn't aim right at the heart of what national security policy should be all about.

Here's my bumper sticker:

America: Strong, Peaceful, Free

Americans have always wanted a very strong national defense, one that is sufficient to deter and punish aggression against us, and defeat any adversary who attacks us.

And the reason Americans want to be strong is precisely so that aggression doesn't occur, and we can remain at peace. They don't want their children dying violent deaths abroad; they don't want to live under conditions of permanent wartime, with all the restrictions on liberty that historically entails. They don't want to spend a fortune on foreign projects unrelated or only weakly rleated to the security of the United States. They want to breathe the free and relaxed air of peace and prosperity. Right now, they desperately crave a return to peacetime America.

Preventing aggression requires two components of perpetual vigilance. One is making sure our defenses are so strong that people will have no hope of success in attacking us. The other is to stay out the fights of others when our own safety is not clearly in jeopardy. An American fights to win when somebody else starts the fight; but Americans don't go looking for fights against opponents who haven't started one against them.

This preference for peace and a live and let live attitude toward other peoples is an integral part of a broader American conception of freedom. Americans want freedom from fear: including the fear of attacks from overseas and the fear of their own government and its many snoops, spooks and oppressive agencies. They want to be free of unnecessary foreign burdens and commitments which bring them no clear benefits. They want to be free to trade, and to travel, and to speak freely and to enjoy themselves as they see fit. They want the freedom to govern themselves, rather than being governed by the wealthy and the privileged and by their self-appointed betters. And they want freedom from increasingly mounting economic cares and strains that make life in America so much more stressful and worrisome and insecure than it once was.

The whole point of our national defense policy is to establish and preserve a free and secure space for Americans. That's why it's called national security. Being "a leader the world wants to follow" has nothing at all to do with the purpose of the American republic, as set forth in our constitution. Those purposes, we should recall, are to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." These were commitments that the American peeople made to themselves - to Americans. There is nothing at all in our constitutional text that suggests Americas constituted themselves as a democratic republic in order to achieve global primacy or suzerainty, and to gather around themselves "followers".

The global leadership ambition, however, does appeal from time to time to aspiring members of the US leadership class. The fantasy of being one of the leaders of a country that is itself the leader of the world arouses their instinctive vanity and megalomania.

I myself kind of like Liberty under Law because it gets at the critical importance of constitutionalism...

No, no, no, no. "Liberty under law" is unacceptable because it assumes this exceptional nation is subject to the law.

Would exemplarism have allowed the United States to lead an effort to topple Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq? The answer is an emphatic yes – though on a different set of prerequisites. Exemplarism never would have imposed a "global test" for military action, because that would undermine exemplarism itself; in order to lead, the United States must maintain the ability to defend its relative power position unilaterally.

-- Micheal Signer, City on a Hill


1. Cal, your sarcasm shines. I like it.

2. Dan, as usual, you've nailed it. Your words should be required reading for everyone who calls her/himself an American.

3. Liberty, in the main, should be subordinate to nothing. The US Constitutuion was written principally to secure our liberties and not to subject us to expensive, fantastic theories of world leadership. Look where our world leadership has gotten us--deeply in economic and moral debt and reviled the world over, with most Americans frightened of terrorist enemies concocted to increase domestic repression and enhance corporate profits.

4. Michael, refashioning the failed world-conquest neocon "new American century" coat into so-called progressive "exemplarism" doesn't improve the fit. Wake up and smell the coffee. It's a failed concept no matter what you call it. As for me, just call me a Dan Kervick American, not particularly caring if non-Americans bow to the East or the West so long as I am free, the maintenance of such freedom being the franchise of our (currently failing) government.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Put that on your bumper sticker.

I saw one the other day I really like:

"Think. It's patriotic."

Legalize Freedom - a personal favorite of mine, although Im only a few months late on the opinion.

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